Rising to the Top: Heli-Ski Whistler/Blackcomb

Heliskiing in British Columbia with Snowwater
Heliskiing in British Columbia with Snowwater  (Nathan Borchelt)

With over 200 runs spread across two mountains, a virtually unanimous ranking as the best all-around skiing destination in North America, and praise from skiers of every level—from beginners to double-black-diamond experts—it's hard to trump British Columbia's Whistler/Blackcomb resort. The ambitious, however, should focus on an airborne assault of this alpine region. Canada is the North American forerunner in heli-ski facilities, and the Whistler/Blackcomb region is certainly at the top of its game. Helicopters whisk strong intermediate and expert skiers up into the surrounding Rocky Mountains for the endless untracked powder. The average run is 2,000 vertical feet, but can vary from 1,400 to 5,000 vertical feet.
Whistler Heli-skiing Ltd. (www.whistlerheliskiing.com) has operated in the area for 20 years. The company operates two helicopters, one mainly for veteran heli-skiers or private parties, another for intermediate to advanced skiers and novice heli-skiers. Coast Range Heli-skiing also operates in the Whistler-Pemberton region, 25 minutes north of Whistler Ski Resort on Highway 99 (www.coastrangeheliskiing.com). If you can handle a blue (intermediate) run on the resort (you can cut parallel turns as a skier and handle deep powder as a snowboarder), you're golden—your skills are strong enough for a heli-ski expedition.
Typical packages range from three to seven days, but you may want to sign on for one day initially to see if you have the energy for more. Your guide will map out each day's route after considering reports on the wind, temperature, and snowfalls. Guides take care to cover all precautions on the mountains, from testing the stability of the snow pack to carrying emergency avalanche rescue gear. The helicopters have hundreds of ski runs in the untracked snowy arena surrounding the resort's mountain to choose from (approximately a 50- by 30-mile area). The terrain is diverse, ranging from expansive glaciers to bowls and gladed tree runs. You should get about three to four runs in per day—depending on weather and snow conditions—covering a jaw-dropping 8,000-10,000 vertical feet (if there's time and your energy allows it, you can commonly tag on a few more runs for an extra fee). On average, skiers take 45 minutes to finish a run. Most package deals also include lunch on the mountain and après-ski entertainment, including screenings of your own descents filmed from the helicopter.
One point to keep in mind: Whistler has earned a reputation for nasty weather that can potentially spoil a dream vacation. Its location near the coast will bring occasional rain and fog, but remember, unpleasant weather at the base doesn't always mean that conditions are poor at the summit, or on the surrounding summits where the heli-skiing takes place. In fact, some of the wettest days in Whistler Village lead to the best scenic skiing up top. Temps on the upper reaches of the region can drop as low as minus 22 degrees, but the snowfall (averaging an astounding 420 to 480 inches per year) on the upper reaches will keep your mind off the cold and on your next cut in the powder.

Published: 4 Nov 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Feb 2013
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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