Heli-ski pilots are an adventurous skier’s best friend – but what’s a typical day like?
By Dan TyeHeli-ski pilots say they get as much of a rush as the clients they drop off to ski down remote mountain sides. These pilots fly at treacherously high altitudes day in day out, hovering over deep snow, dropping off skiers and snowboarders without compromising their safety – or that of the birds they fly. No two days are ever the same. Right now the pilots of CMH Heliskiing (via Alpine Helicopters) are enjoying some of the best flying – and snow conditions – at bases throughout Canada.This is where heliskiing began after a young Austrian named Hans Gmoser started Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) to offer backcountry skiing and climbing trips. It was Hans, now 72, who spotted the potential of helicopter-accessed skiing when flying with friends. He would point to peaks and ask the pilot whether it would be possible to land in certain places on them so he could try and ski down the lines which looked so perfect, but so out of reach.
In 1966, Hans tested the idea and hosted 70 heli-ski guests. Word spread about the incredible experience and the next year the number of skiers grew to 160. Today, CMH flies 7000 heli-skiers and 5000 heli-hikers each year. The demands on the pilots remain the same as they did back then though; wacky and swirly mountains winds, fast-changing weather, high altitude operations and up to 100 takeoffs and landings a day.
Not every helicopter can handle the conditions: heavy loads at altitude, high winds and temperatures down to minus 25 degrees C. For most operators, the machines of choice are Bell 212s (Hueys) or 206, 207s. These tend to live outdoors, wrapped in covers with engine oil and cockpit heaters plugged in to keep them warm overnight. Pilots must be happy to make starts at 5:30am to check the weather and trudge through knee-deep snow to unwrap the helicopter and pre-flight. Skiers and boarders then receive an airline-style briefing on how to work the doors, how to turn off the fuel, how to activate the ELT and where not to stand in relation to the helicopter for pick ups and drop offs. It’s not all down to the pilot, though – the ski guide, who occupies the left-hand seat, is vital. The guides need to understand where the pilots can or cannot land and more importantly, have just as good knowledge as a pilot about the wind and weather.
True, heliskiing is expensive but for the Brits making the trip over to Canada this season to try it out, the helicopter flying will be just as exhilarating as the skiing.