Is Heli Skiing For Me?

May 31, 2022

Over the last twenty years, helicopter skiing has gone from a fringe market in a tiny corner of the adventure travel sector, to a popular destination sport for skiers and riders. What was once thought an extreme endeavor for adrenaline junkies, is now accurately seen as an accessible way to ski fresh powder. Skiers and riders have discovered that heli-skiing can be catered to different ability levels, and its popularity has exploded. But with the relatively high cost of heli skiing, is it the right fit for you?

 

By far the most common question we receive is “how good of a skier/rider do you have to be?” It’s a simple question, but the answer requires some elaboration. To understand how ability levels are addressed, you need to understand both how groupings work, and what different products are available. In Alaska, nearly all heli-skiing is done in 5 passenger “AStar” helicopters (as opposed to the larger 12-passenger ships often found in Canada). In each group there are 4 guests and 1 guide, and the helicopter 2-4 groups at a time.   While your group is skiing, the helicopter is bringing another group to the top. Ideally we want to find 4 people of similar ability to ski together in each group, but different abilities or desires from group to group is normal and can keep everyone at the right level for their group

 

When we are taking reservations we get inquiries from single guests, couples, groups of 4, and even larger groups. The group size you are coming with has an influence on the ability-level customization we are able to deliver. Let’s say you are an expert skier, and you want to come for a day by yourself. It’s generally not too difficult to find three other expert skiers to share a group with because many people that choose to go heli-skiing are experts. The same applies for advanced skiers and riders. There are plenty of other people like yourself, and our office is very good at creating those groups based on the forms you fill out and the conversations we’ve had with you on the phone. 

If you are not quite in that advanced or above level, or if you haven’t skied much deep powder, we can still take you heli-skiing, but we need to make sure we have a full group of similar ability. Once we have those groupings dialed, we can head out into the field and each group can ski its preferred level of terrain. While Alaska is known for its steeps, there is no shortage of awesome moderate-angle skiing. It’s not uncommon to have these different level groups in the same helicopter. In any zone we may ski in, there’s always options for different runs and variations to keep everyone happy.  

 

For even higher levels of customization, we offer private charter heli-skiing. This means you essentially own the helicopter for the day, and you don’t share it with other groups. This obviously comes at a higher price point, but offers advantages for both expert or lower level skiers. While the majority of private charters are seasoned heli-skiers looking to take their experience to the next level, it also serves as a great option for guests to test the waters. If you have never ever skied powder but want to give it a try, you can do a private charter and not have to worry about the fast pace that inherently comes with multiple group heli-skiing. You are also less confined on terrain with a private charter. This is helpful for beginner powder skiers because you can go at your own pace and be very selective with what you ski.

 

Over the years, we’ve taken almost every ability level out in the heli.  When planning your trip, it’s helpful to come as a group of four, or to consider a private charter if you’re concerned that you might not keep up. For any level, the most important thing is that you communicate your ability and desires as accurately as you can to our office. If you do that, there’s a good chance we can give you the rewarding experience you are looking for. 


A skier arcs a perfect turn in untouched powder.

When is the best time to heli ski?

May 25, 2022

One of the most common questions our office answers is “when is the best time to come heli skiing?” Weather is a major factor on any ski trip, and we understand why guests want to hedge their bets when investing in a trip. While the weather is too variable to declare a “best” time to come, there are certain trends associated with early, middle and late season that may help influence your decision. 

 

The CPG operating season runs from December through April. December and January are what we refer to as “early season.” We don’t offer our four day package until February, but we have day skiing for both heli and snowcat during the early season period. The days are short this time of year, so we don’t encourage anyone to come up just for helisking. However, the resort can be great in December and January, so if you are here for Alyeska and there are clear skies, definitely consider a day of heli skiing.  Because the sun is low in the sky, the “magic hour” light that photographers love to chase at sunrise and sunset lasts for much of the day. The sun doesn’t produce much heat this time of year, so the snow stays nice and cold on all aspects. We take many local Alaskans heli skiing this time of year because it’s a great opportunity to get out before the busy season. 

 

By February we are rapidly gaining light and heli season is in full swing. Cold snow and cold temperatures are still the norm, but we have more hours in the day to ski. This can be a great time to visit Girdwood because things are a little quieter than in March. Both our snowcat area and Alyeska Resort can have some great powder days in February. Coming in February can give you a better chance of the best snow, and we also tend to have more flexibility in booking.

 

March is our busiest month, and historically the most popular time to heli ski in Alaska. By mid March we have the same amount of daylight as the continental US. As the days grow longer, we have more flexibility to launch late if the weather is poor in the morning. It’s not uncommon to launch the heli at noon, or even 2 p.m. in March. Bookings fill up fast this time of year, so if you want to come during peak season it’s best to book well in advance. 

 

By April the mountains are reaching their peak snowpack for the season. The days are now longer than anywhere else in North America with sunset occurring after 9PM. With more hours to work with, the heli can launch later than 2 PM in the event of weather holds. We can ski until 7PM this time of year, so a late launch still leaves plenty of time to get a full day in. The temps are slightly warmer on average, but there’s still plenty of cold snow on the north half of the compass. April often provides the best chances of getting on big runs due to the long days and slightly more stable weather. It’s also a great time to enjoy spring conditions at Alyeska, and powder out in the heli. 

 

Keep in mind that these weather trends are tenuous. It’s not uncommon to have wet and warm conditions in February, and a cold snap in April. The weather is always going to be out of our control, and an element of luck will inevitably contribute to the success of your trip. Our fly rate doesn’t change much with the season, so the answer to when the best time to come will always be: whenever you and your crew can make it. Your schedule is always the most important variable. 

 

Whenever you decide to come, we’ll make sure you ski or ride everyday. Thanks to our snowcat area and Alyeska Resort, we ski even when the weather doesn’t support flying the helicopter. This is one of the unique perks of CPG and one of the reasons our guests and guides return year after year. 

 


The Benefit of Ultra-Wide Skis

Here in the Chugach we love to use ultra-wide skis. When we’re stocking our demo fleet and guide skis, we try to buy skis that are 120mm – 135mm underfoot. There’s a variety of reasons we prefer such wide skis, but many guests are overwhelmed at the idea when they’re used to far narrower options back home, even for powder. 

 

The Chugach mountains are known for wide-open terrain and lots of snow. Most of the skiing we do here, especially from the helicopter, is above treeline. In this expansive terrain it’s common to make fewer turns than you’re used to. Oftentimes these descents are big, planar slopes and bowls with few obstacles to avoid. It makes for some of the fastest and funnest skiing imaginable, but it can also be a leg burner. With the bigger skis, it’s easier to let the ski do some of the work. This sounds counterintuitive because big skis can feel like more work at the ski resort, but backcountry conditions in Alaska warrant a different approach.  Obviously the width will help you float up higher in the powder, but it also provides a lot of stability at speed. This can come in very handy on certain runs that have long, flat runouts. The big skis will keep you moving across the flatter areas so you can reach the pick-up zone with less effort.

 

The big skis also do a great job of keeping you off the rocks. Unlike at a ski resort, the hazards out in the backcountry are unmarked, and it’s not uncommon to have rocks lying just below the surface. This is especially true near ridgelines where we land the helicopter. We often find ourselves negotiating these rocky ridelines as we enter a run. With ultra-fat skis you are much less likely to strike a rock when transitioning off the ridge and into the run itself.  

 

Occasionally when we are heli skiing we encounter breakable crust and other variable conditions. While we avoid these types of conditions as much as possible, you may find yourself navigating a crust on the top or bottom of a run because conditions can be elevation-dependent. Sometimes we ski an entire run of powder, but in order to get to a flat spot where the heli can land, we may need to descend through a crust for a few hundred feet. These ultra-wide skis perform far better in breakable crust than narrower options.  

 

Another factor to consider is the sheer amount of skiing we do with a heli. Our standard day is 16-18K of vert. While this may not be an extreme amount for a ski resort, it adds up when almost all of the turns are in powder. Add to this the loading and unloading of the helicopter, dealing with gear, and wearing a backpack all day, and heli skiing can feel like a lot of work. The wider skis will absolutely help your longevity throughout the day. Us guides that heli ski day-in and day-out always use ultra-wide skis because it saves energy. 

 

For guests that have never ridden a ski wider than 110 mm, there is always some hesitation. We understand the concern.  When you are spending a lot of money for your big day, you want to ski your best and not worry about equipment. We also want you to succeed and maximize your investment.  In our experience, getting on fat skis for the very first time really is not a problem. Our ski recommendations come from many years of experience both skiing all types of skis, and putting guests on all types of skis. The evidence speaks for itself, so we aren’t shy about putting almost anyone on fat skis.

 

This certainly doesn’t mean you need ultra-wide skis. Many guests prefer to use what they know and love, and we don’t discourage that. Some people’s style lends itself to a narrower ski, and some guests have done plenty of powder skiing and know what they prefer. But if you ask for our recommendations, we’re going to point you towards the ultra-wides every time.


A Day At CPG: What To Expect

May 24, 2022

What does a typical day at CPG look like? Because so much of heli skiing is weather-dependent, that’s a tough question to answer. Let’s run you through a perfect blue-bird fly day, and then we’ll talk about weather delays and cancellations. 

If it is the first day of your heli ski trip, or if you are only joining us for one day, your morning will begin with a safety briefing. We will pick you up at the Hotel Alyeska lobby at 8 AM and drive down to our hangar/ base of operations, which is only about a mile away. You will definitely want to have eaten breakfast, or grabbed something to take with you at this point. These first mornings are busy, but if you are skiing or riding with us for multiple days, you will have much more time on subsequent mornings. It’s also important to bring all your gear with you because you will not be returning to the hotel prior to skiing. You don’t need to be wearing your ski boots, but it’s helpful if you show up in your layers and outerwear for the day. 

Your safety briefing and equipment orientation will last about one hour. After the briefing you will get booted up and fully dressed to ski/ride. At this point a variety of things can happen, depending on where your guides will be taking you that day. If we are flying to any of our northern zones, we will depart directly from base. In this case we just stay at the hangar and begin shuttling groups into the field. You may wait anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes for your group’s turn to fly. If we are skiing in our eastern or southern zones, we will hop back in the vans and drive to a staging area that is closer to the zone. We do this to shorten the heli shuttle, which saves time and fuel. The van ride will either be 15 or 30 minutes depending on which staging area we use. 

This is a good time to mention cell service. There is some reception for the first 10-15 minutes of the drive, but as soon as we drive further or fly into the mountains, plan on being out of reception for the day. 

It’s now 9:30-10:00 AM and we are flying all groups into their zones. You may wait a short amount of time at the staging area or in the field while groups are flown in. Once everyone has been shuttled to the zone, things speed up quickly. Now the fun begins, and we ski and ride until the helicopter needs to refuel. We also use the refuel cycle as our lunch time. It’s hard to pin down a specific time when this will occur, but typically we get 2-4 hours of skiing in before the helicopter needs fuel. These numbers can vary based on how many groups we have, how far away we are skiing, the terrain we are in and other factors. Generally fuel/lunch time allows for a longer ski session in the morning and a shorter one in the afternoon. If you are day skiing on the vertical agenda, the average day is probably 10K of vert before lunch and 6-8K after lunch. 

Lunch is now over and it’s anywhere from 1:00-3:00 PM. We are refueled and ready to keep skiing. Oftentimes we change venues after lunch and go seek out some different runs. This may have already occurred, or maybe we will stay in the same zone for the day because the skiing is great and there’s still plenty of fresh snow. These factors vary greatly with the situation, but for the sake of a “typical” day, we’ll say we switch to a second venue for our afternoon session. After a short wait while we shuttle the 2-4 groups, we get back to ripping laps of powder skiing with a helicopter! On the day/vertical agenda we will ski until we’ve reached our allotted 16-18K of vert. At that point your guides will ask you if you want to continue skiing at our overage rate (which is a great deal, and you’re already there!), or if you’ve had your fill for the day. Some days you run out of time or the weather deteriorates and overage is not an option, in which case we will begin shuttling groups in. Let’s say we have finished our vertical by 4PM, and we have some time to ski into overage. The guides will figure out who wants to stay, who wants to go, and then make a plan. If you are joining us for a semi-private package or a private charter, the decision to keep skiing or call it a day gets a little more nuanced. The time of year also plays a major role. With all that being said, the average time to return to the CPG hangar is 4:00-6:00 pm, but sometimes it’s earlier and sometimes it’s later.

That is a summary of an average bluebird fly day. If you have already been through the safety briefing, the earliest we would pick you up to launch is 9:15 AM, so you will have an extra hour in the morning for breakfast. You will know when a pickup time is announced by checking our status line at 907-519-7453, or by communicating directly with your guide.

Now let’s say the weather is not conducive to aviation, and we need to go on a weather hold. If you have just been through the briefing, your guide will most likely return you to the hotel for the weather hold, so that you can ski Alyeska. If you have already been briefed, you will check the status line or hear from your guide. Weather holds come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s almost viable to launch, but we know the trend is improving, so we wait an hour or two while the weather stabilizes. Other times it’s storming and completely unviable, but we don’t want to cancel the day because we may get lucky in the afternoon. Most often we call weather holds every hour until we either fly, or cancel the day. For example, it’s the second day of your 4-day package and you call the status line at 8:00 AM to see if you will be launching at 9:30 (our earliest launch time). You find out you are on a 10:00 AM weather hold. This means you will get more information at 10:00 AM. That information will be 1 of 3 things-  another hold, a launch or a cancel. You call the status line again at 10:00, and it has been moved to a 11:00 or 12:00 weather hold. We often skip 11:00 and go straight to 12:00 because the chair lifts open at 10:30 and we want guests to ski on the weather hold, not worry about getting picked up. If the weather clears during that time, we will call at 12:15 pickup and launch the helis, which still leaves us plenty of time to get a full day in. It’s worth knowing that if you are part of a 4-day package or private charter, your guide will have a text thread with the group, so you won’t have to call the status line every hour. Day guests will want to call the status line every hour to stay in the loop. 

Also of note, if you have cat skiing backup reserved, there are a few differences. In the event of a weather hold, you will load up in the cat and head out to the cat area. If the weather then clears, the heli will fly in and pick you up to go heli skiing. If it doesn’t, you will finish the day in the snowcat. We typically return from a snowcat day around 5:00-6:00 PM. 

The latest time we will launch depends on the month. In early February it’s rare to launch later than noon because of the limited daylight. From late February through March it’s not uncommon to launch at 2:00 PM. In April it’s possible to launch as late as 4:00 PM. These late launches don’t always give you a full day of vertical, but any heli skiing is better than none, so we like to capitalize on the long spring days. If you are launching later in the day, expect to be home later as well. The latest you could be home in February is around 5:00-5:30, but in April you may be home at 7:00-7:30. 

This should give you a rough outline of your day with and without weather holds. If the weather is particularly bad, we may cancel the day earlier than the previously mentioned latest launch times. Regardless of when it happens, as soon as we cancel heli skiing for the day you are free to enjoy one of the many down day activities that set Girdwood apart from other destinations. The most popular non-heli ski activity is… skiing! Most of your guides will use storm days to enjoy laps at Alyeska, but there’s plenty of other options as well. 

As you can tell, the days are very dynamic. It’s not uncommon for guests to have a hard time with the unknown nature of heli skiing. With regards to weather holds, many people are reluctant to ski at Alyeska because they are worried about missing a launch. Know that we’ve spent many years building and refining our operations to take advantage of the ski resort, and other Girdwood amenities. We’ve designed the whole program to let you ski on weather holds, so as long as you are checking that status line or communicating with your guide, you are going to be fine. While the unknown can be a challenge at first, experienced heli skiers quickly learn that it’s inherent to the pursuit, and even part of the fun.