New Zealand is the land of helicopters. They're involved in just about every kiwi outdoor activity. Mountain bikers, kayakers, hikers, hunters, fly-fishers, snowshoers, glacier walkers, and mountaineers all regularly use helis for access. It's only natural that skiers would see this was the transportational equivalent of peanut butter and jelly, and NZ has long had a reputation for great and (relatively) affordable heliskiing.
If, like me, you grew up watching Warren Miller ski movies, you'll have dreams of flying in to untracked runs in bottomless powder, but it's well outside the budget of the average ski bum. This season, however, I graduated from average ski bum to heliski guide with Alpine Guides in Mt Cook - one of New Zealand's biggest guiding companies (for climbing and skiing) and the oldest heliski operator in the country. My friends, I have seen the promised land, and it is good.
You'd want it to be good. The price for a day of heliskiing still lies somewhere on the scale between "Sobering" and "Downright Alarming". So if you're going to fork out around $1000 for a day of skiing, it pays to make sure you're getting the best possible value for money.
The advice I'm going to give below is based on operations at Mt Cook Heliski. Each operation will have a slightly different approach to loading helis, taking bookings, private charters etc. If you're booking with someone else ask them how they do things and adjust this advice accordingly.
Is Mt Cook Heliski the best place to go? I don't know. I've never heliskied anywhere else. Every heli company says they're the best. A good day heliskiing is going to be awesome no matter where you go. Personally, I think the terrain around Mt Cook is epic, and the height and east-west spread of our heliski runs means we can usually find good snow. Plus we have a lot of terrain more terrain than customers, so we don't normally have to farm powder. Whether the opinion of a shameless snow and terrain snob like me is enough to entice you to Mt Cook village is something you'll have to figure out for yourself.
0. Get a private charter
If money's not an issue and you want the best ski day possible, charter your own heli. You'll get your pick of guides, your own helicopter, and the most freedom around where you go and what you ride.
You can do as many runs as you want, and you pay per minute of time the helicopter is flying. A normal day of heliskiing usually includes a set number of runs (for us it's 5) and then you have the option of paying more for extra runs. Once you get up to beyond about 10 runs, a private charter works out to be a good deal - especially given the advantages listed above.
Unless you have a specific guide in mind, ask whoever you're booking with for their most experienced guide. They'll want to know your ability. Everyone says they're a strong rider so expect to be disbelieved. Tell them you've skied in Chamonix, or Jackson Hole, or Red Mountain, or wherever.
This is the 0th piece of advice because it's the cost is prohibitive for most people (expect to pay over $2000 each in a group of four people). But if you're ready to spend big, this is the way to go. Also, be aware that some companies won't do private charters during their busiest periods (August) and/or they'll have a minimum flight time cost.
Assuming you didn't sell your Juicero shares at the peak of the market for a tidy sum and you're not ready to fork out for a private charter, how should you maximise your heli day?
1. Fill your heli
I cannot stress this enough. Fill your helicopter. That probably means a group of 4, maybe 5. Don't stuff this one up.
Heliskiing is a business, and margins are tight. You'll spend the day riding with the same group of people and guide (your "load"). If your group is too small, the heli company will combine your group with others to fill the helicopter. If it's too large, it will split you over multiple loads and fill whatever gaps are left.
Maybe you'll get paired up with someone cool who rides at your level and you make a new best friend and everything's great. Or maybe you get paired up with someone really slow, or someone so weak your guide needs to take the whole group down mellow terrain. You're about to put $1000 on the line. Is this a chance you really want to take?
A heli load is usually four people (plus a guide). If you've got someone light in your group (55-ish kilos or less) they'll put them in the front seat between the pilot and the guide, which frees up a seat in the back and takes your load size to five (plus a guide). Different heli companies work this out differently, so talk to whoever you're flying with and find out what you need to do to fill your machine. It will help to know the weights of everyone in your group when you call up to book.
Having a full heli load will give you the best possible chance of riding terrain that suits your ability (see below). If you want to do extra runs you'll need at least three people to make them viable. If you're in a group of friends, and you're all a similar level of ability and fitness, you've got a good chance of having people to do (or not do) extra runs with. It's the closest you can get to a private charter without forking out the extra cash.
A full heli load even helps to get a booking if it's busy. If you call up on your own or in a pair the company will need to wait for other bookings to make up a viable load so you can go skiing. If you call up with a full load, ready to go, they just need to have a guide and enough capacity in a helicopter. There's a pretty good chance they can pull that together with short notice, but if they don't have enough customers to make your load viable, you won't fly anywhere.
That also means your day won't get unexpectedly cancelled if you've only got half a load and whatever other group they'd paired you up with pulls out. That's always the worst way to miss out. Bring 3 friends (plus an optional lightweight one) and avoid it.
2. Give yourself a weather window
Getting good conditions in New Zealand is always going to be hit and miss. Coming to Mt Cook (as mentioned above) is one way to maximise your chances. The other is to give yourself a few days to pick and choose conditions.
If you book a day months in advance, you're really relying on luck. August and September are your best bets (probably the first two weeks of September). You're better off giving yourself a window of a few days where you've got other good things to do/places to ski, but you're close enough to drop everything and fly if conditions come good. If there's no storm in the forecast just call up, ask what conditions are like and pick the day that makes the most sense.
But really, you want to heliski after a storm. If the storm is southeasterly or southerly get there ASAP. For a norwester it's a bit less urgent - the second clear day can often have given things time to settle and dry out. When you book, you'll usually be asked if you're willing to roll your booking to another day in case of bad weather. During a storm the guides come into the office in the morning and start calling the day's customers to roll their bookings over. Meanwhile, the phone will ring like crazy as people start trying to book in for the first clear day in the weather forecast.
By the time the storm has ended, there's usually a pile of accumulated rolled over bookings, plus a bunch of people (usually locals) who have seen the forecast and booked in. That process is happening across all the guiding companies, so they all end up calling around trying to get extra guides and helicopters. Eventually the companies max out their resources and start putting customers on a wait list.
You want to get your booking in before the wait list starts. As soon as a decent storm fires up, look at the forecast (start with MetVUW), and book in for the clearance. Keep an eye on the weather forecast. It will change. Stay in touch with your heliski company. If they can't contact you, or you don't return calls, don't be surprised if your booking gets bumped. If you're using an overseas phone number and using flight mode to avoid international roaming charges be sure to check your voicemail.
Having a full heli load will maximise your chances of getting a booking and keeping it as people drop out or call up at the last minute. Consider paying for your booking in advance. If it's busy enough to start wait listing people, be aware that groups that book for a particular day usually take priority over groups getting rolled over from a previous day. You can get caught out if you book for the tail end of the storm and assume you'll just get rolled over to the first day of fine weather.
3. Don't expect bottomless powder
Heliskiing is cool, but it's not like living in a Warren Miller movie. Actually that's a lie. Sometimes it is like living in a Warren Miller movie, but that's only every happened to me working with a film shoot. Anyway, it's only very occasionally like living in a Warren Miller movie and if you're involved in photo/film shoots you probably don't need to read this blog.
The first thing to be realistic about is snow. A few weeks ago I was talking to some English clients who were getting excited about skiing waist deep blower pow after a hefty storm.
I didn't say it, but we're talking about New Zealand.
It's the green thing in the middle of the map, surrounded by blue stuff. The blue stuff is where bad weather comes from, and there sure is a lot of blue stuff near the green stuff. Not to mention that all this is smack bang in the middle of the roaring forties. It's very windy. 80km/hr winds at ridgeline is normal weather here. Maritime snowpack? Strong winds? These are not the ingredients for champagne powder.
Yes, waist deep blower pow does happen, and it does (I'm told) happen while heliskiing. But it's not going to happen to you. It's a one day in 10 year event. If winter is 100 days long, that's a one in one-thousand chance. You're not going to heliski waist deep blower pow. Accept that now and we're all going to have a good time.
I tried to let my new English friends down gently: Yes, we've had a metre of snow, but we'll probably be skiing the top 20 to 40cm. It could be quite wind affected. Stability will be an issue, we might have to avoid steep terrain.
And in the end it was 20-40cm deep, pretty light and dry, stability was OK, and we all went out and skied 5,000m+ of untracked, boot to shin deep pow on some long, reasonably steep runs and had a great time. Imagine not enjoying that because you were hooked up on a one-in-a-thousand day. The best days up here are 30cm deep of dry southerly snow with good stability and a strong crew. We can jump on steep stuff and charge 700m vert steep faces with confidence. Leave your snorkel at home, or better yet, bring it to Japan.
4. Expect to ski faces, not gnar
The second thing to be realistic about is terrain. Guiding companies take responsibility for your safety, so they have to be a bit conservative. You're not going to be able to ride lines right at your limit like you would if you went to your favourite ski area. Don't get me wrong, your guides would love to go ski steep tight chutes and get rad. But we wouldn't like to have to heli-evac anyone, fill in heaps of paperwork, or lose our jobs. It's easy to forget when there's a helicopter buzzing around, but we're in some big mountains and the consequences of getting hurt can get serious pretty quickly.
Your day will be limited by avalanche danger and your group's ability. Your guide will try to provide options for strong and weak skiers if your group has a range of abilities, but you're going to ride much better terrain if everyone's at the same level (see point 1). If avalanche danger is high, you can expect to ride low angle terrain no matter how strong you are.
A good day will involve skiing big open faces. The first line will be mellow while the guide gets a look at your riding, and the last run might be too (everyone's tired, and we don't want anyone to get hurt). In between you'll get some steep faces with plenty of room to rip up some fresh snow. You might have to cruise down some gentle valleys at the bottom to get to a suitable pickup spot. The weaker heliski loads tend not to do extra runs, so extra runs tend to be a little more challenging.
If you want to ski tight chutes or drop cliffs go to a ski area with your friends, or get a heli bump into the big mountains and go touring. If you're desperate not to walk, get a film crew, sign a bunch of extra waivers, spend some more money, and do a film shoot.
A good day heliskiing is pretty ridiculously good. It's like a highlight reel of your best ski touring runs combined into a single day. But the stakes are high, and if you're going to spend the money it's worth doing it right.