How Heli Skiing Works

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Some of us are satisfied skiing at large resorts or local runs, the more daring of us on on black diamond trails. The rest of us are generally happy to enjoy the skiing experience from a perch near the log fireplace in the lodge. But some brave ski souls just can't scratch the adventure itch with the offerings provided. Instead, they crave uncharted territories to "drop in" on.

Hans Gmoser knew that feeling. In 1955, Gmoser began flying airplanes full of skiers to remote Canadian glaciers, allowing them to ski in the summertime. Soon, more guides were airlifting skiers to hard-to-reach spots all around the world. If you could afford it, the destination was a skier's paradise: unskied terrain, untouched powder, and a course that reveals itself with each new drop and turn.

Gmoser's operation gave skiers access to the ridges and runs of the Canadian Rockies, and the locale still boasts the vast majority of heli ski guides and operators worldwide.

Around the mid-1950s, airborne ski guides made the switch from airplanes to helicopters. While airplanes were becoming easier to land on short runways, those flat runways were still a requirement. Also, while planes could carry more people, helicopters could get them atop the narrow, sky-kissed ridges that skiers craved. Helicopters could also easily land beside wooded areas where skiers liked to explore. Finally, when it came to landing in a valley or gorge, helicopters held a distinct advantage.

By the 1960s, Gmoser himself had switched to helicopters, and by the mid-1970s, he was building "heli-lodges" that could accommodate 44 people. It's not an arbitrary number -- Gmoser's helicopters could carry 11 people and make four trips a day.

Heli skiing has continued to grow in popularity, with new heli ski opportunities continuing to crop up around the world to meet the demand of the approximately 20,000 skiers each year who choose to make their ascents via helicopter.

The sport offers at least one benefit to guides and tour operators: While certain conditions and accessibility needs must be fulfilled to build a ski resort, heli skiers can be dropped in on nearly unlimited mountain ridges. This doesn't come cheap, however: Weekend trips can cost as much as $5,000, while full-week trips can run as much as $10,000.

Next we'll learn the basics about heli skiing skills.