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 measured in helicopter flying time and other times in 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.

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 the skiing is measured in vertical feet, flying time, runs or is unlimited 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 $175 / 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 a week's worth of ‘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 | Last Frontier Heliskiing

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. It can also be tempting to make runs longer than they need to be by pushing down to a lower pickup through marginal snow conditions when it would have been preferable (for you) to have been picked up higher. Over the course of a few days this can really add up. Some heliski operations get this balancing act right better than others. Keep in mind that the bigger more commercial operations have significant pressure from above to keep the cash registers turning 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 and definitely worth something 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 management. 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...That said, if you have a guide who loves skiing and has been granted enough autonomy by management, you will rarely be hard done by!

If you look carefully, what you find is that operations offering unlimited vertical on their standard packages ski 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 also 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 three 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. Maybe this has been compensated for by more flying time being included...or maybe it has not...

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 (or simply the best snow is) even if it involves more flying.

Where this can sometimes work out more expensive is when 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 glaciers because the crevasses aren't filled in.

Guarantees and refunds

Vertical guarantees act as a kind of insurance policy in case unfavourable weather prevents you reaching your powder goals. The guarantee is usually 80-100% of the included (or expected for an unlimited programme) amount. The amount of the refund will be calculated based on the difference between actual vertical and the guarantee, multiplied by the refund rate (the same or slightly lower than the extra skiing rate).

In reality, you have to be very unlucky to be owed much of a refund – the guarantees are set at a level that is unlikely not to be exceeded and refund rates are only generous enough to generate a small proportion of the overall trip cost. If you're happy to give it another shot, an enhanced credit for a future trip rather than a cash refund is sometimes an alternative option.

N.B. The calculation of refunds is done based on what you could have skied or snowboarded rather than what you actually did. That means that if you sit out a run or take a day or afternoon off (whether as a result of injury, work, or not enjoying the conditions), the runs done by others in the same programme will be the basis of your calculation.

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 or elsewhere.

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