On November 10 the Explorer Yachts Summit, in association with Damen Yachting and in collaboration with ExplorerYachts.com, will return to Monaco Yacht Club. Ahead of the event, which is the only international summit dedicated to expanding the explorer yachting sector, seasoned skier Arnie Wilson reveals how exploring the mountains from your superyacht opens up thrilling new possibilities
Those who have been heliskiing in British Columbia, Chile, India and New Zealand might think they have the ultimate skiers’ bragging rights, but did you know you can go one better? Heliskiing from a superyacht, accompanied by an expert mountain guide, can give access to some of the world’s most remote and unspoilt slopes.
It’s an ultra-luxe experience, but also an incredible way to access snow-packed areas that would otherwise be out of reach. The yacht acts as a floating lodge, transporting you, your mountain guides, a helicopter and a refuelling station to the foot of the mountains, which often rise directly from the sea (leading to a bigger vertical drop than you might expect). Another added bonus is that the flight time to get to these mountains is usually reduced, and runs may end right on the shoreline, meaning that skiers and snowboarders can watch seals or penguins after they descend, before returning to the yacht by tender.
The idea first emerged in British Columbia, but many of the region’s prime heliskiing locations are a little too far from the Pacific for the idea to be practical. The following destinations, however, make for great adventures, and great skiing.
Some years ago, EYOS pioneered yacht/ski trips in the Arctic and Antarctic. These are areas where there are no local heliski lodges, and where a yacht is the only option. The first-ever heliski trips in Antarctica, several years ago, were completely private, but the company has since operated charters, bringing the most exclusive of ski destinations within reach of those who are determined to seek out fresh ski thrills.
Tim Soper, an EYOS co-founder – and a keen snowboarder who joined his first expedition ship in 1994 – has spent more than two decades immersed in the expedition travel business. While heliskiing wasn’t his first focus, it certainly is now. “I led an amazing heliski charter with two yachts in tandem over new year in Antarctica, and recently got back from a trip to Greenland,” he says. “We also see potential in places like Iceland and Alaska, and perhaps even Greece. This concept has potential wherever mountains are close to the sea, but it is in places where there is no shore-based infrastructure that make being yacht-based most advantageous, allowing access to terrain that would otherwise be out of reach.”
Working year-round as expedition leader, diver, boatman and guide, Soper lives many skiers’ dream life. He’s lucky enough to make seasonal migrations between the polar regions and the tropics, and has led icebreaker expeditions deep into the Ross Sea and Weddell Sea in Antarctica, equipped with helicopters to fly across the pack ice to visit emperor penguin colonies. He, too, is seduced by the wonders of heliskiing.
“Having looked up at the mountains from sea-level for such a long time, it is awesome to be able to enjoy them on a snowboard or skis,” he says. “But these places have a huge amount to offer beyond skiing such as wildlife, history, the culture of the indigenous Arctic peoples, incredible landscapes and simply making you feel as if you are at the end of the world. The whole experience is pretty remarkable. Even for non-skiers, just flying up to a mountaintop here is amazing. And with all the other activities on offer from the yacht, a couple where one is a keen skier and the other isn’t can still enjoy the experience together.”
The whole idea of heliskiing is not to create challenging terrain, but to allow skiers to escape from the hustle and bustle of a conventional ski resort with all its whirring lifts and queuing. “Antarctica, with its extreme remoteness and environmental sensitivity, needs to have skiing and helicopter operations managed carefully, to stay safe and avoid disturbance,” says Soper. “With no local search-and-rescue, we have to be entirely self-sufficient, carrying our own medics and rescue equipment, including a second helicopter to retrieve skiers from the mountains quickly should the first helicopter have a technical issue.
“Helicopter flights have to be planned very carefully to avoid disturbing penguins and other wildlife near the coast but, once high in the mountains, there’s a vast amount of terrain to discover, and most descents will never have been skied before,” he continues. To a degree, skiing in powder snow may be an acquired skill, but it’s easier than you might think. Many skiiers actually prefer off-piste to on, especially with a guide to keep you safe.
As for the heli part, well sadly, you don’t leap out of the machine in mid-air à la James Bond. Instead, expect run after run of fresh tracks in deep, sometimes steep, powder, with the helicopter on call to whisk you back up again like a jet-powered ski lift. No yacht? No problem. EYOS has recently started offering yacht-based heliskiing, along with other expeditions, to the polar regions, on a per-cabin basis, bringing the experience within reach.
The icy wilds of Greenland are also surprisingly accessible, with a flight lasting just four hours from London or New York bringing you to an airstrip at the edge of the ice cap. Originally built as a US airbase during the Second World War, the airstrip is now part of the country’s main airport. From here it is a short hop by small plane or helicopter to join your yacht at the coast, and you could be skiing later that day. Here, north of the Arctic Circle, the high latitude means long days, with sunset at 9.30pm in mid-April and midnight sun from late May. It is still cold enough, however, to enjoy powder into May and June.
There are several distinct areas that are well-suited for skiing, allowing a longer yacht voyage to work its way north with the season as the sea ice breaks away from the coast during the spring. Fjords stretching far inland offer calm sea conditions and practically endless terrain to explore, all set against the backdrop of the largest glaciers and icebergs in the Northern Hemisphere.
No matter where you do it, heliskiing is the ne plus ultra of “serious” off-piste skiers. Over the years it has become much scarcer in Europe to protect the tightly linked mountain villages from helicopter disturbance. It is banned in France and virtually forbidden in Austria, where there are only two locations in the Arlberg region where it’s practised. It is still tolerated in parts of Switzerland and Italy, however, and a growing sector in North America, the Andes, Greenland, New Zealand’s South Island, and the Arctic and Antarctica.
The most important feature of heliskiing from a yacht is that it gives you and your group access to skiing terrain that may have never been skied before. In fact, there are so many unexplored off-piste slopes in Iceland that you can be the first to ski a descent and even name it.
Whether you are based on a yacht or not, there are a few key things to know about heliskiing if you’ve never tried it. You don’t have to be an expert to heliski – just reasonably good in powder – but never ski past the guide. He or she can spot danger before it happens, such as avalanche-prone slopes or crevasses. Perhaps most important of all for newcomers is to know how to stay out of trouble when the helicopter lands, rotor-blades whirring, to drop you off for your next run. The guide will normally unload your skis using an external basket attached to the chopper while your group hunkers down. If a loose article, such as a glove, gets caught in the downdraught, never attempt to retrieve it. The rotor blade can easily inflict an injury to your head.
Equally, when you are being collected after a run, drag your skis along the snow by their tips and don’t carry them over your shoulder. On one occasion I was told about a Canadian heliskier who suddenly put his skis upright above his head, and promptly broke the rotor blade. Another cardinal rule is never, under any circumstances, walk or ski round the back of the helicopter: the tail rotor is spinning so fast that it is both invisible and lethal.
Of course, being close to the sea – or indeed, in it – can sometimes present problems with weather that discourages heliskiing. In some land-based heliski lodges – in Alaska, for example – snowcats (snow-grooming vehicles) are available when the weather plays up, so skiers can still access remote terrain. The yacht, as your moveable lodge, can reposition itself, based on the weather forecast, to follow the best conditions, which reduces “down” days. And on those days when you can’t fly, there’s always ski touring from sea level – or a range of other activities such as kayaking, paddleboarding, whale or penguin watching, or boating among the icebergs.
A yacht expedition is a chance to discover a remote destination in ultimate comfort, with gourmet cuisine and world-class heliskiing. There’s never a dull day – and you won’t have to search for your lift pass once.
This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BOAT International.
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