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The ultimate guide to heli skiing
A stay at your favourite ski resort may be off the cards this winter, but the adventurous charterer has another option. Olivia Michel reveals where to hit the slopes from your superyacht - with a little help from a helicopter
On a cloudy February day in 1963, Austrian mountaineer Hans Gmoser ferried a group of skiers in a small Bell 47 helicopter to the top of a Canadian peak to start their day on the slopes. Gmoser certainly wasn’t the first to have such an idea, but this pioneering adventure in Alberta is generally considered to have marked the beginning of commercialised heli-skiing.
Skip forward nearly 60 years and an increasing number of superyachts are now being delivered with both ice-breaking hulls and a helipad – or two – on deck. They follow in the wake of a converted logging tug named Ocean Explorer, which expedition company Elemental Adventure used in 2003 to experiment with heli-skiing from a yacht in the same country Gmoser started it four decades earlier.
The 73.2-metre Admiral Planet Nine, SilverYachts’ 85-metre Bold and Damen’s new 77-metre La Datcha are just some of the expedition yachts launched in recent years that are equipped for such activities. They share the common features of ice-classed hulls and commercially certified helipads; some are also kitted out with heated ski rooms for equipment storage and drying, while others carry snowmobiles, ice-condition tenders or fat skis for freeriding tucked into the toy box. They are true go-anywhere yachts that combine the best elements of land and sea and can take owners and charterers almost anywhere. Which raises the question – where should you go?
According to Henry Cookson, founder of luxury tour operator Cookson Adventures, Canada retains its reputation as the leading heli-skiing hub. “Canada is the deep-powder heli-skiing capital of the world and the breeding ground of some of the world’s best big mountain skiers,” he attests. Cookson recommends chartering a superyacht around the First Nations’ region of Bella Coola in British Columbia, as “this coastal mountain range tends to get more snow than the Canadian interior ranges and has a far less extreme climate.” December through to May is peak season.
Alternatively, Baffin Island in the Canadian High Arctic offers true explorers the chance to “experience the northernmost ski fields in the Arctic tundra of the Cordillera Mountain Range, where none have skied before”, says Cookson. The season here starts later, and is shorter, from March to May, but venturing to such a destination will allow intrepid adventurers the opportunity to lay fresh tracks in an untouched, snowy wilderness. The dramatic landscape challenges skiers as they descend down some of the world’s longest couloirs and highest vertical cliff faces, and during downtime there are plenty of opportunities to experience the rich Inuit culture.
You certainly need an Ice Class superyacht for heli-skiing here. Charter experts at Edmiston recommend Planet Nine for cruising through the Arctic waters of Baffin Bay shared by Greenland and Canada. She is outfitted with an MD-600N helicopter, a hangar and a landing pad, so guests can explore the snowy shores before returning to the warmth of luxurious cabins and the onboard hammam. In recent months, Bold, available for charter with Hill Robinson, has also been spotted braving the cool Canadian waters.
Head south to the other end of the Americas and the winter wonderland of Patagonia awaits. The cloud-piercing Andes, with peaks ranging from 2,500 to 6,800 metres, provide flawless runs for skiers and lots of lightweight powder to plunge through on the way down. Then there’s the stunning alpine scenery: pampas-covered plains are coated in white by austral wintertime, interspersed with frozen lakes and fjords that are reachable from Santiago, Chile’s capital city.
Carlos Miquel is an expert at crafting superyacht heli-skiing itineraries in the region, together with South American Superyacht Support (SASYSS). When defining the region’s offerings, he describes adrenaline-filled outings that include skiing across volcanoes such as the Yate, Osorno and Corcovado, interspersed with serene kayak outings past the blue glacial ice walls of Alberto de Agostini National Park.
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Heli-ski charters in Patagonia require a secondary support helicopter for emergencies or for splitting up larger groups of guests, Miquel says – so unless you’re on board 126-metre Lürssen Octopus, or you’ve booked a charter with Edmiston on board La Datcha with access to her twin B3 Eurocopters, the crew will need to contact local aviation companies to organise a land-based chopper that can join where needed. Prices vary greatly depending on yacht type and kit requirements, and a Patagonian heli-ski superyacht charter can range anywhere from $250,000 to $2 million (£185,000 to £1.48m) a week.
The region is vast, but Miquel advises that “northern Patagonia gives you more options” in terms of activities on and off the slopes. He recommends seeing the sights from the decks of 76.3-metre Cloudbreak, which is managed for charter by SuperYachtsMonaco. “More remote destinations [like Patagonia] have now come up as an alternative” in recent months, he acknowledges, and expects this to carry on while the Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect how and where people travel.
Punta Arenas iLa Datchan Patagonia is often the final stop before the Antarctic snowscape. Though one of the last regions on earth to be discovered, the frozen tundra of the southern continent has become increasingly accessible to curious tourists. High winds and dry conditions mean less powder and more corn snow here, but adventurous skiers who reach Antarctica can expect the gratifying experience of making first ascents and descents on virgin slopes. This icy world – characterised by teeming wildlife, epic icebergs and untouched glaciers – offers some of the most unique skiing experiences that money can buy.
That price isn’t modest. Besides the basic superyacht charter rate, there are the add-ons: ski guides, helicopter charters (if there isn’t one on board) and additional equipment such as avalanche packs and skis for a variety of terrains. Cookson, for example, is currently taking bookings for 2021 Antarctic yacht charters that incorporate heli-skiing, and its 24-day experience on board 77.4-metre Legend has a starting rate that averages at $124,000 a day.
But heli-skiing across the Antarctic peninsula is worth the investment. Professional polar explorer Douglas Stoup, owner of adventure travel company Ice Axe and expedition adviser to adventure company EYOS, pioneered skiing in the Antarctic peninsula and has ventured there 49 times. He describes the location as the world’s best skiing spot “bar none”. The ability to ski down to wildlife is what makes this region stand out, he says, describing visions of “millions of penguins and thousands of seals and hundreds of whales” awaiting skiers at the bottom of frosted slopes. Long days stretching between 18 and 22 hours of sunlight from October to February means there’s plenty of time to plough through powder or open up the superyacht toy box to explore the landscape in greater depths.
Glaciation, melting ice caps and large crevasses can make skiing by the waterline problematic, but these issues are resolved by heli-skiing, he says. If a chopper is deployed, guests can climb above ice walls and be dropped at the very top of a mountain “where it’s safer [and] the snow is a bit better”. “Later in the season, as the temperatures increase, it’s actually warm up there,” he adds.
Legend is one of Stoup’s favourite vessels for heli-skiing in Antarctica. Originally delivered in 1974 as an icebreaking tug, she now has a commercially certified helipad with refuelling facilities and safety equipment. She doesn’t have her own helicopter, but Tim Burton, senior project manager at Cookson, says that this lack is a plus rather than a minus, meaning more freedom for guests to charter a chopper best suited to their activities or locations. The crew’s team is trained in operating various helicopters. “Our favourite heli to bring on an expedition is an AS355. It’s great for remote, challenging and snowy locations,” says Burton, adding that Legend also has “a ski room, snowmobiles for those cloudy days and drying rooms to get your wet and snowy kit ready for action again, as well as a hot tub on the deck to sit in and look back at the lines you left on the last mountain.”
The constantly changing geography of Antarctic ice creates a different blank slate to pattern with ski tracks on each visit. “Every year, we’re pioneering more and more... but the crevasses are constantly moving. Earlier in the season it might look like a complete white canvas but if you go back in February, you think, ‘Oh my gosh, we skied across all of this,’ and now there’s just huge holes everywhere!” says Stoup. Onboard guides and pilots keep guests safe among the challenges of this kinetic landscape.
The owner of 27-metre Oyster Firebird, himself a fanatic skier, also recommends using an International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA) mountain guide, even when sailing and skiing in Europe. “Working with experienced pros just makes the whole expedition so much more rewarding, not to mention safer,” he says. Although he’s not a fan of heli-skiing himself, preferring to encourage guests to make an unassisted ascent: “Consider the ascent as a cake, summit as icing and a powder run down as a cherry on top. If you opt for only the latter two, you are just depriving yourself of the cake.”
For guests that don’t ski, there are plenty of options for experiencing the surroundings. Legend, for example, carries a five-seat personal submersible. “Submersible diving in some of these remote, icy locations is like nothing else and often a highlight for everyone,” says Burton. “The weird and wonderful marine life of the polar regions never ceases to amaze me.” Legend and Planet Nine also have snowmobiles for zipping across the tundra, while La Datcha carries a pair of snow scooters for similar purposes. But Burton says there’s an even better option: “We would suggest kayaking, as this is the best way to get up close and personal to the coastlines, glaciers and fauna of these remote areas.”
Returning to the north, the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula and the slopes of Scandinavia offer plenty of opportunity for merging marine adventures with mountainous ones. Organisers across the board attest that demand for heli-ski charters has been steadily increasing over the past few years. Some even anticipate an uptick this season as travellers plan to take trips to quieter locations within a single bubble of guests and crew. So advice for those whose interest in heli-skiing has been piqued is to go and make your tracks in the snow as soon as you can – before the crowds start to catch on to the wonders of these pristine pistes