Heli-Cat Skiing

December 6, 2016

What powder dreams are made of!

By Miranda Murphy

Photo at right: An early morning heli-skier makes first tracks in fresh powder. Photo by Alain Sleigher, courtesy of Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing


It’s the stuff powder dreams are made of: no crowds, no lift lines — just untracked snow as far as the eye can see.

Imagine loading into a helicopter or snowcat with your favorite ski buddies and climbing up and away from the groomers and terrain parks of ski resorts and into your very own playground full of steep chutes, alpine bowls and perfectly gladed runs

Heli-skiing and cat-skiing allow small groups of snow enthusiasts to ski to their heart’s content, stopping only for photo opportunities and picnic lunches but otherwise shredding the day away. Professional guides and pilots lead the way through secret powder stashes and across breathtaking terrain to the helicopter or snowcat waiting at the bottom of each run, primed and ready to whisk everyone back up the mountain for a repeat performance over and over again.

Ian Tomm, Executive Director of HeliCat Canada Association, the industry association of helicopter and snowcat skiing in Canada, is a professional ski guide and no stranger to sharing epic skiing experiences with clients.

“Immediately, at the bottom of the run, people love to give play-by-plays of what they just skied to their friends,” explains Tomm. “‘Did you ski the left side? Did you hit that pillow line back there? I couldn’t see where I was going there was so much snow! That was incredible!’ That never gets old!”

While helicopter and snowcat skiing offer similar products and services in the way of a highly personalized and remote backcountry experience, they each have their own unique vibe.

A helicopter flies over the Selkirk Mountains near Revelstoke, B.C. Photo by Alain Sleigher, courtesy of Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing

Heli-skiing is the gold standard of ski vacations, combining the thrill of alpine helicopter tours with the potential for skiing thousands of vertical feet of untouched powder snow in small groups of like-minded explorers.

“Guides really appreciate their job when they get to see the apprehension of a group before lift-off or their concern at the top of a great line change, to sheer joy at the bottom,” says Tomm.

Cat-skiing, on the other hand, provides a similar opportunity but at a generally lower cost and with fewer restrictions due to weather. Snowcats may not be able to access glaciers and alpine terrain as quickly and easily as a helicopter can, but they can operate in any weather, including low-visibility conditions so you never have to miss out on incredible old-growth tree skiing on a powder day.

“Intermediate to expert, young to old, family to old-friends’ reunion and business trips, the experience in the backcountry results in a ‘best day ever experience,’” explains Tomm when asked about why both snowcat and helicopter skiing are so popular. According to HeliCat Canada’s 2016 Socioeconomic Impact Assessment, there is a 55 percent returning guest rate for the industry.

As if choosing between heli-skiing and cat-skiing wasn’t hard enough, the experience itself varies even more with each individual operation. Some are based in busy ski towns or resorts with daily packages and a no-frills approach; others operate from mountain lodges with a more luxurious, all-inclusive feel.

Finding the right operator is key, as well as selecting the trip or package that best suits you and your group.

“The idea of being with a small group of people, some of whom you have just met, and sharing what may have been your best day ever, is a highlight of the guest experience,” says Tomm, who explained that it’s this type of experience that sets these ski trips apart.

“And since you can only ski for the daylight hours, which are short in the winter, this community feel continues into the evening. Dinner, games, hot tubbing and relaxing in the evening with a group of people who are all reliving the same fabulous day is almost as great as the skiing itself.”

There is something for everyone out there — from intermediate skiers looking for a new challenge to expert skiers keen to charge as much vertical as they can find.

Before you book, it’s best to be honest about who you are and what you’re after to ensure that your next ski vacation is a powder dream come true.

Miranda Murphy works for HeliCat Canada, the trade association of the Canadian helicopter and snowcat skiing industry. Its primary mandate is to promote the continual improvement of the industry through research, education, advocacy and overseeing a trade accreditation program. They speak and act on behalf of members, to guide and develop best practices in the areas of sustainability and safety, and to promote the growth of the sector in a way that is economically, environmentally and socially responsible. This article appears courtesy of HeliCat Canada. www.helicat.org