Heli-Skiing In The Alps: What You Need To Know
April 28, 2016
When you think about heli-skiing, Canada and Alaska are often the first places that come to mind. And fair enough – their reputation for the extreme is well-earned.
But here’s the thing: there are some serious heli-skiing opportunities nestled away in the Alps!
Whilst the ski lifts start to close in many resorts in April (mainly for economical reasons rather than quality or quantity of snow), heli-ski operators still continue to run so don’t give up the idea of skiing in April… and particularly in Monterosa.
What’s so great about heli-skiing?
Are you thinking about trying out some heli-skiing yourself? Then there’s a few things you should know, so you can make the most informed decision possible.
But first, let’s assume you’re undecided or haven’t even considered it before. So what makes heli-skiing one of the best experiences you can have on skis? Here are my top four reasons why you should give it a go…
1. You can get away from the crowds
Exploring beyond the tracked-out runs of any ski resort that hasn’t just had a big dump of new snow is a real treat. No elbowing your way through lines, no racing to make the first tracks. You make the first tracks!
Sometimes, resorts are more slop than slope, especially in spring as temperatures rise and slush appears. The higher elevation achieved by heli-skiing often results in superior snow.
As Larry Olmstead, a ski enthusiast and Guinness World Record holder for Most Trails Skied in 8 Hours writes, you can look forward to:
“No lift lines, or lifts for that matter – forget cold chair-lift rides, with the helicopter you can go from the ground to the top in a couple of minutes, while experiencing the kind of views people pay hundreds of dollars for on sightseeing flights.”
2. Experience long runs
Heli-ski routes in Europe are typically longer than anywhere else in the world, with many popular descents in excess of 2,000m vertical.
Since the prohibitive cost of heli-skiing is charged by the number of helicopter ‘drops’, long runs means you get more bang for your buck. Plus the novelty of skiing for an hour or three without having to hop on a lift is a great experience. It also means that you don’t have to rush, taking the time to relax and soak in the incredible mountain vistas around you instead.
With longer-than-usual runs, it pays to remember that fitness is key. Heli-skiing takes a lot of effort and even some good skiers may not be in ideal shape to ski for over two hours, potentially with an extended hike or short climb in the middle.
There are loads of articles and tips to ensure you’re slope-ready, like this guide to ski fitness from the Guardian.
3. Challenge yourself with varied terrain
While the terrain is largely alpine, the conditions on long runs can vary over the course of the run.
Going down these runs will really recreate the excitement that came from becoming an advanced skier for the first time – a feeling that’s hard to beat.
So yes, it’s important to be at the advanced intermediate level skier before you attempt heli-skiing with some experience of powder snow. Since heli-skiing often involves skiing in deep or soft snow, you should learn how to ski in these conditions and have the right equipment (such as a well-fitted pair of ski boots) to get the most out of the experience.
4. Apres-ski is that little bit sweeter
A major upside for many skiers is that European heli-skiing is generally hosted out of resorts, and are day trips, as opposed to a week-long trip staying in backcountry lodges. This makes it possible to plan a great ski weekend at a resort and include heli-skiing in your itinerary.
A traditional European style heli-ski involves around two, maybe three drops in a day. Obviously, this gives you the huge advantage of being able to heli-ski and resort ski in the same weekend – even the same day!
It also gives you the opportunity to reward yourself after those long runs by enjoying the quality nightlife found in some Alpine resorts. Verbier is a geat example of this – the selection of bars and clubs see it regularly named as one of Europe’s top ten après-ski resorts whilst heli-skiing is available through the excellent Adrenalin Guides.
Ok, but what’s so great about heli-skiing in the Alps?
Heli-skiing in North America is not only costly, but you’ll have to book at least a week (if not two) of precious holiday time from work.
And whilst you’re sitting in your lodge in the middle of nowhere with a predominantly male group (which is the last thing I want to have around me on a down day with no flying and nowhere to escape to), you’ll be wishing you had chosen a weekend of civilised heli-skiing in the Alps.
This is especially the case if you’re on a family ski holiday and/or have been holidaying in the same ski resort for far too long.
Getting away from the marked runs of the same mountain for the day whilst your kids or spouse stay in resort is a great way to challenge yourself and enjoy your ski holiday in a new way.
The best places to heli-ski in Europe
Heli-skiing is all but banned in France and Germany, so if you have a favourite resort to stay in one of these I’m afraid you’re probably out of luck.
Switzerland and Italy are the two main Alpine nations where heli-skiing is legal, so if you aren’t basing yourself in either it’ll have to be somewhere with good access to the Italian or Swiss border, like Chamonix.
But don’t be scared off by talk of limited options, because there are some astonishingly beautiful places to go…
With the most helicopter ski options in all of Europe, Switzerland is the place to start if you’re planning on doing some heli-skiing.
Zermatt and Verbier
If you’re looking for a place to start your hunt for the perfect pow, these are the places. With at least one heli-skiing operation on each of these mountains, choose the one that suits your tastes and suit up!
For great nightlife (as mentioned already) plus tons of off-piste excitement and stylish accommodation you’ll want to look into a Verbier ski holiday.
For a more luxurious experience, Zermatt is the resort for you. Dominated by the stunning Matterhorn and dotted with classy cocktail bars and dinner restaurants, Zermatt is one of Switzerland’s most famous resorts.
While not as wide-ranging as Switzerland, Italy is a cheaper option and home to many wonderful heli-skiing opportunities. If you choose to visit the Italian Alps for heli-skiing, here are my top picks:
One of my absolute favourites and a great baptism for first timers, Courmayeur has easy, non-glacial terrain which means no falling in holes!
It’s a great value resort with beautiful scenery and Mont Blanc as a backdrop, which makes it easy to love.
One of its major draws is that you can be picked up by the helicopter from right in the heart of the main piste area in the morning to do your drop and still be back for lunch to meet with the rest of your group. Plus you’ll be able to enjoy the charmingly compact pedestrianised village centre with some great bars, stylish boutiques and superb restaurants.
Valgrisenche, right below Courmayeur, the only place in the Alps that we know that works like Canada. One valley, no lifts, two lodges, 3 lifts a day (weather permitting) all included in the price, and more if you feel like it. Go to espritheliski.com for more information, and thanks to our reader Julian for that tip!
Finally (and critically), with quick access to the resort from three different international airports, and heli drops from as little as Euro 200, Courmayeur is perfect for an affordable weekend heli-skiing getaway.
Linked to Switzerland’s Zermatt (as you may remember from my popular article Zermatt vs Cervinia: Which Is the Better Ski Resort?), think of a Cervinia ski holiday as a less expensive but comparable experience to its neighbour.
Great dining, enormous ski area, and a quieter nightlife make Cervinia the right choice for many skiers. Cervinia also offers single day, multi-drop, and multi-day helicopter trips. Lots of options to fit your plans!
First off, the helicopter ride will take your breath away. Remote peaks and dramatic skylines dazzle the eyes like something out of a movie.
Monterosa is also the second-highest mountain in the Alps at 4634m, providing some of the biggest descents that money can buy. You can expect to ski a huge 3000m vertical drop through the biggest play area in Europe, with drop zones (where the helicopter actually lands) above 4000m.
With three different hills and tons of heli-skiing and off-piste options, this underrated destination offers great value and a world class experience.
You’ll want to be at least a strong, intermediate skier with plenty of off-piste experience to tackle this ride.
What if I don’t want to go to Switzerland or Italy?
You’ve still got some options. France and Germany are out, but Austria does have some (limited) heli-skiing. Typically the options are restricted to single heli rides with a guide.
Heli-skiing in Russia is becoming increasingly popular. As infrastructure and investment improves, Russia, Siberia and Asia will become major heli-skiing destinations in the years ahead.
Until then, if you’re dead-set on experiencing heli-skiing in North America, we can tailor-make that perfect holiday just for you.
In fact, I can thoroughly recommend Revelstoke. It has a local railway town village feel with a couple of dodgy bars with pool tables where you can get away and enjoy a game.
But more importantly there is a gondola and the most amazing mountain with 1000m vertical of ungroomed snow (two descents and I guarantee you being knackered). Now that is what I call an alternative to a down day with beers and locals looking at you in a funny way afterwards…
Also, just 40 minutes from Revelstoke, you can go Cat skiing in the Monashee Mountains. Take a look at Mustang Powder’s website to see what’s in store (thanks for the tip, Rob)!
Decision made? 10 expert tips to know before you go
So you’ve decided you’re up for it. Good choice! There’s nothing like hearing the noise of the helicopter approaching to pick you up. And once it lands, things start to really pick up speed (check out the video below).
Some guides tend to hurry you towards the helicopter… probably because they know every minute costs the pilot £60 or so in fuel costs! The same goes for when it lands. Remember, when heli-skiing, safety is of the utmost importance.
Some of the points below are common sense. But believe me when I say I’ve seen some of this happen – usually with unsavoury reactions from the guide or the pilot.
- Guides should normally group you towards where the helicopter lands so the pilot can see what everyone is doing before approaching the helicopter and vice versa.
- Keep your head low to avoid contact with the rotor.
- When in the cabin and in flight it is not a good idea to touch the pilot or his seat. Let him concentrate on his flying!
- Don’t forget to take your seat belt off when the door opens or you’ll risk looking extremely uncool.
- Normally the guides put all the skis together and do all the loading and off-loading, but you may be asked to bring your skis towards the guide near the helicopter. Don’t carry your skis on your shoulders! Drag them.
- Whilst off-loading don’t take the pilot’s skis out.
And once you’re skiing with your guide…
- Unlike ski slope etiquette where you are normally asked to stop after your instructor to avoid collision with a domino effect, when off-piste always stop above your guide. They might be stopping above a crevasse.
- Follow the guide’s instructions on where to ski, which will probably be in their tracks when skiing in glacial terrain – or simply close to his tracks in other circumstances.
- Look out for crevasses, tree wells and cliffs.
- If skiing in trees, always ski in pairs. I fell in a tree well in Canada once and had no way of getting out! Tree wells have weak snowbridges and some people fall a long way down and then get covered by snow. Almost like being in a mini avalanche.
Why you should do it
So now I’ve prepared you with the best places to go and prepped you with some handy tips, what are you waiting for? There is really no better way to experience the Alps than through heli-skiing. You get the vistas, the best skiing and the nightlife all rolled up into one experience! Just think of the stories you’ll tell afterwards.
The nice thing about heli-skiing the Alps is that it doesn’t have to be a big affair. You can book a day trip, have an experience of a lifetime, and be home for work Monday morning.
Or you can let the kids ski the resort while you’re enjoying the challenge and excitement of some high elevation off-piste action. Or maybe you’ll bring the kids along this time around?
And if you don’t want to heli-ski but get one last blast, this coming bank holiday weekend is a true gem in Val d’Isere before they close the last lifts. Uncrowded slopes and great quality skiing in the mornings and a late lunch – the perfect way to end the ski season!
Whatever the case, and if you’re interested in giving heli-skiing the Alps a go, we can make it happen. Get in touch today and we can plan your tailor-made trip to any one of our world-class destinations.