Unlimited Vertical – a good thing?

James Morland •

Understanding Heli-Skiing Prices

Most heliski operations sell you a fixed amount of skiing for a fixed price and usually the amount is measured in vertical feet but sometimes it is also measured in helicopter flying or as a certain number of runs. Other times still you may pay a premium but have unlimited vertical included. Even for experienced heli-skiers, figuring out the pros and cons of each system and what they mean to you in terms of maximising value for money can be confusing at the best of times.

Ultimately, what works best depends on a whole host of different variables: what level of skier are you? What level are the others skiers in your group and in other groups? What is the weather like? How far are the nearest runs from the lodge? How much did your trip cost? How far do you need to fly to find good snow? Understanding how these and other variables interact with whether you are paying for vertical feet, flying time, runs or unlimited vertical is the key.

Here’s our guide to what it all means and a few potential pros and cons of each system.

Helicopter in Canada
Flying time or vertical metres: what's the best? • Photo: Randy Lincks
Skiers in Greenland
How many runs can I ski per day? • Photo: Cedric Bernardini

Fixed amount of vertical metres / heli-ski more, pay more

This is the most commonly used system in heli-skiing – particularly in Canada. When you reach your included vertical (usually 30,500 metres/100,000 feet per week) you will be given the option to heli-ski more but it will cost you extra. As a rough rule of thumb, 100,000 vertical feet will give you around 30-35 runs and extra skiing usually works out at about CA $100 / run. Importantly though, the extra skiing is entirely optional. With a willing and able operation combined with good snow, good weather and good skiers you can easily burn through your ‘included vertical’ in 3-4 days. If you ski a similar amount in the following days you’ll be looking at a pretty chunky bill - around a third more than what you paid to start with. That’s the top end though. More often it would be 25-50% of that but it depend heavily on the factors mentioned above. Some heliski operations with larger groups and multiple groups sharing the helicopter may never give you the opportunity to ski that much regardless of conditions.

Deep in BC, Canada
With a willing and able operation combined with good snow, good weather and good skiers you can easily double the vertical included and end up adding 30% to the trip cost. • Photo: Grant Gunderson

This system works quite well if you want to ski a lot but don't want to take the risk of paying to do so upfront and not being able to if conditions aren’t great. There is also a strong incentive for the operation to give you the opportunity to ski as much as you want to because ultimately they are making more money if you do.

The potential downside however is that there is a temptation for the operation to be too pushy with the extra skiing and this can make the programme feel rushed and tip the 'quality/quantity' balance in the wrong direction. Some get this right better than others. Keep in mind that the bigger more commercial operations have significant pressure from above to keep the cash registers turning over and often that is at the expense of your ski experience. It’s also quite hard not to think about how much every turn is costing you!

Unlimited Vertical

Here you pay a premium upfront (be worried if you don’t) and in theory you ski as much as you like without ever even having to think about paying more. The 'not having to think about it' bit is actually pretty nice on its own. The reality however is that you, as the client, are not really the one in control of the pace of the day. Ultimately that is the guides, pilots and whoever's paying the bills. Every second that the helicopter is in the air costs money so if you think about it there is quite a strong incentive for the operation to slow the programme down often without you even realising...and that's not really what you signed up for. Just one extra run per group per day over the course of a season adds up to a chunk of cash...

If you look carefully, what you find is that operations offering unlimited vertical on their standard packages ski significantly less on average than those who offer a ‘ski more/ pay more model'. There are of course exceptions one notable one being with certain private packages where you really are paying a premium to have exclusive use of the helicopter and unlimited skiing. In these cases the operation has almost certainly budgeted enough for you to ski until your legs drop off. and you have a lot more input into the pace of the day.

Big Vertical
A private helicopter and unlimited vertical can be the ultimate. • Photo: Randy Lincks

Fixed amount of flying time / fly (ski) more, pay more

All things considered we like this system as overall it usually works out fairly for both the client and the operation. Similar to the ‘vertical metres model' you pay upfront for a set amount of flying time and if you fly more, you pay more. The key here is the distance to the closest runs and how far you have to fly between runs throughout the day. If two minutes’ flight time from the base takes you to lots of awesome long runs then an hour of flight time can go a long way. On the other hand, if the closest runs are 10 minutes’ flight away and subsequent runs further apart, then an hour of flight time won’t go so far.

The really nice thing here is that you can have some input into how you use that flying time. For example, if you find a really good zone with a high density of great lines you can camp out there and just enjoy doing a lot of skiing for very little flight time. Also from the operation’s perspective, they are always happy to take you to some of the hidden gems even if they might involve a bit more flying - certainly happier than if you are paying by the vertical metre...

Where this doesn’t work out so well is if you are forced to fly further than normal to find good snow or weather…

Skiing all day long
If you find a really good zone with a high density of great lines you can camp out there and do a lot of skiing for very little flying time. • Photo: Dave Silver
Helicopter Landing in Iceland
In Iceland the flying time included on a four-day trip can easily give you as much skiing as you have included on a 7-day trip elsewhere... • Photo: Mathis Dumas

Set number of runs / ski extra runs, pay per run

The main advantage of this is that it is simple and easy to understand. The key really is figuring out how long the runs are and taking into account the time of year. For example, early on in the season the days are shorter and perhaps you cannot ski to the valley bottom due to lack of snow or on some of the galciers becasue the crevasses aren't filled in.

And if you're still awake

What all these different ways of applying dollars to skiing or snowboarding mean is that it is often very difficult to compare prices between one operation and the next because you are seldom comparing like with like. For example, our trips to Iceland appear expensive on the face of it but when you take a closer look it becomes apparent that the flying time included on a four-day trip can easily give you as much skiing as is included on a 7-day trip in Canada…

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