Like it Steep?

James Morland •

Looking to ski something a little (or a lot ) steeper on your next heliski trip?

The first thing to get to grips with is what your definition of ‘steep’ is. Otherwise, there’s a good chance of finding yourself somewhere and wanting to hit the eject button. We often find that it’s not so much someone wants to ski the mega-steep and engaging stuff but more that they want to go up a gear or two from the stereotypical image Canadian heliskiing - big groups doing lots of tightly packed turns down low-gradient slopes. There’s of course nothing wrong with that if it’s what you like, but for stronger skiers it can quickly become a frustrating experience!

No matter where you are or who you are skiing with, there will always be an element of luck involved and several variables will need to come together for you to be able to ski or ride steeper terrain. Some of these we can control (like the group you come with and the location you choose) and some we have little or no control over (like the weather and snow stability). By choosing the right place and going with the right group at the right time of year you can set yourself up with the best odds of ramping up the pitch.


Albania - steep lines in the Dinaric Alps. Image: Marcus Rohrbacher

The Group

A guide will always ski to the lowest common denominator so fill a helicopter (preferably a small one) with friends of similar ability and you immediately eliminate the variable of being held back by others or having to ‘hang out’ with people you’d rather not!

If like many, you do not have your own pre-formed group (often this means being 4 skiers), then the best you can do is choose an operation that attracts stronger skiers and let us help you find a like-minded group to slot in with.

The Location & Operation

Location is key. Choosing somewhere with a more maritime snowpack is going to give you a much better chance of being able to ski steeper terrain because periods of high avalanche danger are less frequent. Conversely, continental snowpacks like in the Canadian Rockies often have persistent weak layers which can lead to challenging avalanche conditions and low-angle skiing. So, if your idea of fun skiing is the steeper runs in the Alps and you find yourself in the Purcell Mountains in the dead of winter, you’re likely to be bored and frustrated very quickly.

The individual guide within an operation is also an important component. There will always be those who have a greater degree of experience, skill and appetite for more aggressive skiing. With 25 years of experience on the front line of the heliski industry, we are in a unique position to be able to set you up with the guides who will help you achieve your personal objectives.

Remoteness and/or Access to Outside Help

A heliski operation’s tolerance for risk decreases as a function of its distance from outside resources and its familiarity with the terrain. So if you choose somewhere completely off the grid that has never been skied before, you may get that pioneering feeling but the chances are that you will be skiing more conservative terrain.

Some operations simply draw a line in the sand and do not ski runs over a certain steepness regardless of where they are.


Steep skiing in the Argentiere Basin, Chamonix. One skier's definition of steep often varies from another. Image: Cedric Bernadini

Private / vs Shared Helicopter

Opting for a private helicopter will always give you a greater degree of freedom to ski how you want, where you want. Everything is tuned into what YOU want to do. The downside is that with operational costs split amongst fewer people, the price is higher.

Timing

Generally speaking, the spring months give you a higher chance of skiing steeper terrain – So March/April in the northern hemisphere and August/September in the southern hemisphere. Having had plenty of time to settle and go through phases of warming and cooling, the snowpack is often more stable by this time meaning that you can often venture onto steeper runs with a higher degree of confidence. Plus, the guides have had the luxury of having skied week in, week out over the course of many weeks, building up knowledge of the past weather and observing a greater amount of terrain.

Our Top Picks For Steeper Heliskiing (in no particular order)


Albania

With a maritime snowpack and topography that resembles a cross between the Dolomites and Alaska. Albania has some genuinely aggressive terrain plus a team of guides who will ‘jump on’ any opportunity to ramp it up when conditions permit. If you are based in Europe, it is also one of the most accessible locations to heliski steeper terrain. Read more about heliskiing in Albania.

Alaska

Coastal Alaska has always had the image of being the world’s steep, powder skiing mecca. While its maritime snowpack, huge snowfalls and steep terrain all contribute to this reputation, you still need a good dose of luck for the stars to align. At the top of the tree for being able to tailor the skiing to the group – regardless of ability – is undoubtedly Third Edge Heliskiing. If conditions are ‘on’ and you have a strong group, you’ll have smiling, willing guides. With several diverse ranges – all with their own micro-climates – this is also one of the best options for reducing the weather risk. For a slightly more ‘price sensitive’ way of achieving some of the same, we also really like Triple Point Expeditions.


Alaska - North America's steep skiing mecca. Image: Jeff Hoke / Third Edge

Phantom Heliskiing & White Mantel

Within easy reach of Vancouver and stretching up towards Bella Coola, this stretch of BC’s Coast Mountains are in the same league as Alaska. Big, steep and plastered with snow. Our friend Ross Berg from Altus Mountain Guides and Phantom Heliskiing has the knowledge, skill (and stomach) to take small groups of strong skiers onto some genuinely steep terrain. The added benefit here is that it can often be organised on a more ‘pay as you play’ basis thus removing some of the weather risk. This season Ross will also be pioneering an exciting new heliski tenure around Bute Inlet. For small groups of good skiers whose emphasis is firmly on the quality of the skiing over the fancy extras, this could be for you. Get in touch if you are interested in joining.


Bute Inlet, BC. New (and steep) lines waiting to be named. Image: White Mantle

Bella Coola

Located in the heart of the Coast Mountains and amongst some of British Columbia’s highest peaks, the terrain accessible from Bella Coola is a steep skier’s mecca and the reason that film crews have been making this a regular stop for many years. Day in, day out, regular groups are not getting onto the ‘movie lines’ but what you can expect is that average runs are a bit steeper here than most operations in Canada. This makes it an excellent choice for anyone looking for the next level (or two) from the average Canadian heliski operation.


Bella Coola is home to some of BC's most awesome alpine terrain. Image: Todd Lawson

Last Frontier Heliskiing / Ripley Creek

Located in northern BC right bang on the border with Alaska, Last Frontier Heliskiing’s Ripley Creek tends to attract stronger skiers who are more interested in paying for the skiing over a five-star lodge. With everything from steep pitches in old growth forest to endless glaciers, the terrain here is hugely varied and while you are not going to ski anything super-steep, if you have a strong group and the avalanche hazard is low, there are a multitude of options to keep it (very) interesting. Plus, with some excellent tree skiing options for poor weather days, this is a far more reliable option than further north in Alaska.


A typical spring run with good stability at Last Frontier Heliskiing in northern British Columbia. Image: Andre Ike

Iceland

Iceland is possibly one of the safest places you can heliski. Most days there is minimal avalanche risk and with minimal glacier runs there is practically zero chance of ending up in a crevasse. In May, this is also one of the most reliable places to ski exceptional quality corn snow….and if you are a connoisseur of good skiing, there are few things in life that can compare to skiing steep, creamy corn snow…Throw in an ocean view and a golden sunset and it doesn’t get much better.


Spring skiing in Iceland. Come with a strong group and set yourself up for some steep skiing right to the ocean. Image: James Morland


We are always happy to assist you in getting to the right place with the right guide at the right time so that you can maximise the chances of skiing terrain that is right for you.

Looking to step it up?

Get in Touch

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