By Susan Schnier
Portillo Helicopter Skiing
It’s August 23 and I’m standing atop 4,100 feet of cold, dry powder. The highest peak in the Americas, 22,841-foot Aconcogua, looks close enough to hit with a snowball.
Five days into a week-long ski trip to Portillo, and 12-days into a snowless corn cycle, I met heli guide and North American Ski Training Center (NASTC) instructor Don Roth, pilot “Tinto” in the parking lot. We flew into neighboring Ojos Valley, landing at 13,860 feet on top of Pancho Mama.
Next I’m sinking into 10 inches of soft pow and carving endless fall line turns. The snow is so unexpectedly plush that I can’t stop despite burning summer legs.
It’s a relatively cheap thrill – heli skiing at Portillo is one of the least expensive ways to fly, since you commit only to a minimum of one run. The first costs $241, and if you like what you get, additional lifts are $170.
One the second run, we made Portillo heli history with a first descent. Landing on the other side of the valley, we got a centerfold view of our last conquest. The slope below us began with a 45-degree spongy chute, widening at the bottom. I let out the GS turns, screaming to the bottom of the 3,050-foot face. We named the run, Honeymooners Sweet, after the newlyweds in our group who claimed it first.
Skiing Portillo is an all-inclusive resort experience. Tahoe, California-based (NASTC) runs a trip each August with ski lessons from experienced PSIA instructors and guides, combined with a heli excursion that’s empowering rather than intimidating. skinastc.com.
Max Elevation: 13,500
Max Vertical Drop: 5,000 feet
Average Vertical/Day: 7,000 feet
(based on a half day, full days are also available)
Price: First run: $241, additional runs: $170
Himachal Helicopter Skiing
It’s a long journey, but for the devout skier it’s a religious pilgrimage to India’s Kullu Valley, known as the Valley of the Gods. You’ll take a 16+ hour flight to Delhi, transfer to the domestic airport for a propeller plane ride to Kullu. A 45-minute drive through narrow streets – past samosa vendors, school children and holy cows – delivers you to Span Resorts. From there, Llama helicopters fly you off the lawn and into the snow drenched peaks. After a few days acclimating around 13,500 feet, you’ll get high – up to 17,000 feet.
The terrain ranges from north-facing open powder fields to creamy corn slopes to steep couloirs, skiable later in the season when avalanche danger diminishes. Birch tree dodging at lower elevations keeps you nimble.
The only 5-star hotel in India, Span sits at 5,000 feet, nine miles from Manali, on the banks of the Beas River. Indian food like Allo Panner and Masala is served buffet-style in the glass-paneled dining room facing the river. There’s mini-golf, tennis, a pool, gym, library, yoga, massage and email access. The bar serves apps at happy hour, but watch your tab, as New York City priced drinks quickly pad your bill.
1. Drive up to snowline at Rohtang Pass and see how the locals ski. Ski shacks accommodate weekenders outfitted in bright one-piece suits, faux-fur coats, skinny skis and antique rear-entry boots.
2. Stop by the Solang Valley Resort where a local engineer is installing a gondola that will service 500 vertical feet of terrain and replace the rope row built in the 70’s. The only ski area in the region, it is 13 miles from Manali.
3. To lower the cost, earn your turns with a ski touring package. Alison Gannet guides a week-long, heli-accessed touring trip in the spring that brings the cost down.
Max Elevation: 17,000 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 3,000 feet
Average Vertical/Day: 10,000 feet
Price: $6,000 – $7,500
Harris Mountains Heli-Ski
Queenstown, New Zealand
From aqua coastline to lush green forest to towering mountains, every acre of the country is bursting with natural beauty. The size of Colorado, New Zealand has more goats than people, more farms than strip malls and some of the most scenic heli skiing in the world. The biggest kiwi operation, Harris Mountain, operates out of Queenstown, Wanaka and Mount Cook. Heli skiing here comes with flexibility; you’re not locked into a pre-paid package so you can choose your days and make your vacation as you go. A large helicopter supply mean there’s always room.
You’ll ski a mix of glaciated and non-glaciated above-treeline terrain, overlooking Lake Tahoe-like large blue lakes and green valleys.
The region gets maritime snowfall, and the heli operation averages five flyable days out of seven. Mid-July through mid-September is the best time for powder.
Harris Mountain coordinate transfers and accommodations in Queenstown and Wanaka, the preferred base. Whare Kea Lodge and River Run Lodge are secluded private lodges with helipads while the Minaret Lodge and Te Wanaka Lodge are more intimate and town-based. Fine restaurants like Missy’s kitchen or Relishes serve local meats and produce – don’t miss the venison. Their wine lists include the local Central Otago Pinot Noirs.
Take a scenic fixed-wing flight from Queenstown to 12,316-foot Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. You’ll meet the helicopter there for five to seven high-elevation runs. After lunch you’ll have the option to add extra runs before flying back to Queenstown.
Max Elevation: 8,000 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 4,000 feet
Average Vertical/Day: 15,000 – 50,000 feet, depending on the package
Greenland Heli Skiing
More than just powder indulgence, this heli ski trip is also a cultural immersion. Based in one of the most remote locations in Greenland, in a tiny fishing village in the western part of the country, you’ll stay in the houses of local Inuits and gather each night for a meal prepared by local cooks. You’ll take a boat to meet the B3 AStar helicopters at the operational base in Kangaamiut. Hans Sampson and Hugh Barnard are you UIAGM-certified guides.
Three trips are scheduled for May; before that the weather is too fickle and after that it’s too warm. May skiing is usually phenomenal – with a range of spring and powder conditions IN 20+ hours of daylight. 6600-foot runs take you from the top of peaks to the water’s edge at sea level, starting with steep couloirs and funneling into long flat glaciers. “We are still doing first descents every season,” says Barnard. Hundreds of glacial runs drop into three fjords behind the Island of Kangaamiut.
Guests stay in houses on a hill above the wharf where the heli parks, and they eat together at a home in the village. The fabulous Regina, a local denizen, serves up quality home cooking, mostly game and fish. Musk Ox is the highlight.
Max Elevation: 7283 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 6560 feet
Price: $8900 Euros
Krasnaya Poliana Heli Skiing
Based out of Krasnaya Poliana, one of the biggest ski areas in Russia, you’ll ski the West Caucasus Mountains, which rise out of the Black Sea. It’s the northern-most subtropical environment in the world and the wettest place in Russia – coating the high slopes with plentiful snow for deep heli turns. Base elevation is 1,804 feet, the summit is 10,171 feet, and most runs are between 8,200 and 4,900 feet. The choppers are Russian-made MI-8’s – monstrous machines that can carry up to 25 people. For heli skiing, each carries 12 clients and three guides.
Some terrain is glaciated, but most runs combine steep, narrow alpine lines at the top with skiing along creeks, amidst standing and fallen deciduous and evergreen trees lower down. Typically, when it snows it dumps. Up to three feet of sticky, maritime snow overnight is typical. With warmer storms, it sometimes rains at lower elevations.
One of the finals candidates for the 2014 Olympics, new hotels and restaurants have sprouting up over the past five years. Lodging is in a small, private hotel-chalet in the center of the village, ten minutes from the lifts and the helipad. The restaurant serves bortch, uha (fish soup), local trout, and bliny – pancakes with red caviar. Vodka is the après-ski drink of choice, served frozen with cucumbers, tomatoes and cabbage. Warm up with a Russian Banya – a traditional “massage” with birch oak or eucalyptus branches followed by steam from a wooden stove or heated rocks.
Take a tour of Sochi City, the closest major town where you will fly in and out. The Russian St Tropez, many Russians take summer vacations in this sea town. In winter, visit the “Dendrari” park on no-fly days to see a collection of trees from all over the world.
Max Elevation: 10,171 feet
Mex Vertical Drop: 4,900 feet
Average Vertical/Day: 18,000 feet
Price: $2450-$2500 Euros