In the final installment of his journal from his three-week epic last winter, Olly covers what to expect when you arrive on your much-anticipated heliskiing or heliboarding trip and shares his top tips for success.
Almost every heliskiing destination takes a bit of effort to get to and connecting flights, transfers and jet lag mean you are unlikely to at your best on day 1. There is a saying in heliskiing – “slow is fast”, meaning if you want to go fast, don’t rush. Start your trip by giving yourself time and rest.
Arrival will be followed by signing waivers, attending safety briefings and transceiver training and ski fitting/snowboard fitting. Day 1 can be a slightly slower start if these didn’t all get done the previous evening, but don’t stress – you’ll have more than enough opportunity to give your legs a workout.
Key to success is listening carefully, being organised and getting your gear ready – so that your first day isn’t spent cold, on the wrong skis, struggling with a dark lens in flat light, getting sunburnt or being admonished by your guide for not following instructions.
Take plenty of layers with you and start with them on. You can always stash them in your pack but there are no toasty mountain restaurants in heliskiing, and you won’t be in the helicopter for long, so dress for a full day outside.
Don’t rush, but also, don’t be late! Everyone is raring to go and nobody likes a faffer, so lay out your gear the night before, give yourself time to get ready and get to the ski room early in case you do forget something.
Don’t risk injury by going too hard too soon. Ending any ski holiday early is hard to swallow but being unable to ski on a dream trip is unthinkable. If your legs are burning on a run, stop in a safe spot to catch your breath. You’ll enjoy your turns all the way down and be less likely to fall, waste time, energy and risk injury.
Self-coach as you ski – many strong skiers who ski mainly in European resorts have limited powder experience but can improve very quickly on a heli trip if they think about technique. As you descend, think about varying your turns, adjusting edge pressure, applying weight to both skis and moving your weight back and forth to see how your skis respond.
You don’t have to lay your track down perfectly parallel to the last one – it’s nice to give yourself a bit of space to choose your own turns – but don’t stray too far from the guide’s track (they pick their lines to keep everyone safe from avalanches, rocks and drops), and leave space untracked for those behind you.
Don’t obsess over weather forecasts – in fact, don’t even worry about them. They are often wrong in the mountains. The weather will be what it will be and guides are very good at finding the best skiing available, whatever the weather throws at you.
Another heliskiing cliché is “drinking it blue”. By all means, have a drink or two at the bar, but keep in mind that you are here to ski and some of the best days can be had in the trees when snow is dumping, so even if a forecast isn’t looking promising, our advice is to ensure you wake up fresh, just in case.
If the speed of your group wasn’t right for you, speak to your guide about it and ask them nicely (but a little firmly if needs be) what they can do to address this. Groups can and should be rebalanced to ensure that everyone is skiing at a pace that is neither too fast nor too slow for them.
Down days when helicopters can’t fly are one of the inherent risks of heliskiing and you should go expecting some down time, though “down days” can be a misnomer - on many occasions, it is possible to get out for part of the day and I was surprised how small a gap in the cloud was needed to fly – rather like skiing itself, if you can see the trees, you can see where you are going and it’s ON. If you can't fly, good operators have plenty of imagination when it comes to stopping you from getting bored.
A few final points of etiquette and faux pas to consider when heliskiing or heliboarding
- Do as your guides say – mountains and helicopters are potentially dangerous and their job is to keep everyone safe. It gets awkward when they have to tell clients off.
- Don’t hog the first position behind the guide - take it in turns to ski first (and last).
- Maintain gaps between skiers as instructed – if you are faster, slow down or even stop if needs be. Slower skiers won’t appreciate being rushed, but if you are a slower skier constantly getting caught, let faster skiers pass or ski ahead and take your own time.
- Don’t pee at the pickup/drop-off points – it makes the place look untidy and nobody wants yellow snow flying around when the helicopter lands, so find a discreet, safe spot (without going far off-course) and if in doubt, check where with the guide.
- Leave your ego at home. You may think you’re a great skier, but you are likely to be in exalted (but modest) company – I met Olympians, freeride royalty and fêted mountaineers this winter, none of whom told me who they were.
Every day will be different – some will be better than others and the best day might be the first or the last, so don’t hold too much back waiting for a grand finale. Make the best of whatever each day brings and you'll have a trip to remember.