A Day in the Life – Heli Skiing Edition!

Lauren Wigan June 1, 2021

Ever since I started ski touring and exploring the off piste and backcountry, it has been a dream of mine to go heli skiing. I mean, which skier or snowboarder wouldn’t want to be flown up into the beautiful mountains, dropped on top of a peak and ski endless powder all day? My name is Lauren, and I’m a ski instructor and wannabe freeride skier. I’ve been living the seasonaire life in the Mountains ever since  I got my instructor qualification in 2018 in Whistler, and have since instructed in Niseko, Japan and done freeride focused seasons in Canada and Switzerland whilst studying my bachelor in International Relations.

This season in Verbier, Switzerland that dream came true. After a long winter of ski touring in the backcountry, a day heliskiing seemed pretty tempting (even though it’s not as environmentally friendly as ‘earning your turns’).  After chatting to a heliskiing guide in town, he told us that this would be one of the best powder weeks of the season up on the glacier, which is quite unexpected in April when we had gotten used to spring skiing! We decided to believe him and got an awesome crew together to go heliskiing with the company ‘Adrenaline Verbier’ two days later.

PREPARATION

We prepared everything the night before, which meant lots of snacks (backcountry = snackcountry), suncream, water, and most importantly avalanche gear, with a fully charged beacon, shovel, probe and airbag. The Alps’ dramatic beauty and steep faces means they are unfortunately notorious for avalanches, so always be prepared, and it’s a must to get avalanche safety training before going on these types of trips, as even though the guide will know where it is safe, the snowpack is never 100% predictable.

THE TRIP 

Then it was time to go! We woke up at the crack of dawn to catch our 7:30 AM morning meeting with our guide to discuss the day and plan the route, before taking off in the helicopter at 8.30 AM. The flight from the valley to the top of the glacier took 20 minutes, and with 360 degree mountain views all around and the sun shining, every second was magical. I loved the helicopter trip so much that I was about to skip the skiing and fly around with the pilot all day.

However, I’m glad I didn’t! We got out of the helicopter, crouching on the ground as it flew away, and suddenly everything was silent, it was just us alone with the mountains. Standing on top of a glacier at 4000 meters with the sun shining over the alps was quite a nice way to start the day! 

We traversed carefully above the glacier, all equipped with harnesses and ropes , and up there the snow was quite wind blown and icy, so I was a little worried about the snow conditions. After traversing round a corner and the first run was in sight, we could easily see that what our guide had said about the best powder of the year was true! A huge open powder field lay in front of us. As usual in the off piste we went down the steeper section one by one, and I couldn’t wait to make the first turn! My heart was beating so fast, as we were so high up and it was a long way down to the valley. After my first turn I immediately relaxed. I was skiing  knee deep, fluffy powder and everyone was literally shouting with joy. It was a perfect run, steep but not so steep and the sun was shining over the hundreds of kilometers of mountains below us. All the seasons of practicing my powder skiing had led up to this. And the best thing about it was the amount of fresh turns we got! After that as a warm up, Chris our guide took us to ski a couple of steep couloirs. This was pretty gnarly, technical skiing, and I was happy I had already practiced skiing couloirs in the resort in the months before, had my short turns locked down and felt good on my skis. That definitely got our heart rate up, and made skiing the wide open powder fields after even more enjoyable!  After our first few runs, skiing untouched champagne powder right next to an ancient glacier with not a soul in sight, I was already thinking about how I was going to become a heliskiing guide so I could do this every day. Our guides Chris and Gilbert were pretty confident they had the best job in the world.

The day that followed was filled with a couple more rides in the helicopter, lots of stoke and inspiring chats with the crew, and what seemed like endless long powder runs ( the longest being 1 kilometer of vertical). One of the people in our group was a 70 year old local, and he had done many of the first descents on the particularly steep and gnarly faces in the area, which is famous for some of the best freeride terrain in the world, so it was good put our French skills to the test whilst he gave us some steep skiing tips ( yes, he could ski better than us at 70) and told us lots of crazy skiing stories. On our last run, the guides stopped us, and we thought we were having lunch, but in fact we were standing right beside a hidden ice cave! We left the skis and took a walk inside, and it was surreal. The ice which had been blown by the wind over hundreds of years was so smooth to touch, it was hard to believe it wasn’t glass. After taking enough photos for the gram we headed down for the last run of the day, with big smiles on our faces. However a day of freeriding is never complete without some local Swiss wine and cheese which we enjoyed with our group before heading home. Truly one of the best days of my life!

 

 

IS IT FOR YOU?

Heli Skiing is for you if you love the off piste, steep skiing and adrenaline are your idea of a perfect day in the mountains. You get to ski amazing terrain, untouched snow and see the mountains from a new perspective. Even the helicopter ride itself with the beautiful views is reason enough to go!

PRACTICAL INFO

Like everything else which involves flying in helicopters, extreme sport and highly trained professionals, heli skiing is expensive, but totally worth it! In Verbier, heliskiing can cost between 400 and 1000 Swiss Francs depending on the trip. 

As previously mentioned, make sure to have avalanche gear and basic avalanche training before going for peace of mind.

Bring your fat skis!  Bring wider skis that will help you float through all that powder, something you feel safe and supported on. 

Be aware of the altitude! I experienced a little bit of altitude sickness from moving around too fast at the top of the glacier, and although it didn’t affect my trip I felt dizzy for a few days after. So don’t make the same mistake as I did and take it easy up there! 

Get your friends together! Awesome experiences like this are best shared with the people you love. <3

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