The Heli-Ski Blog

The inevitable Sidecountry to Heliskiing evolution

Posted by Topher Donahue on Jul 26, 2012 7:42:00 AM

As skiers and snowboarders, our obsession with snow riding usually follows a similar trajectory.  We start out bumbling, tumbling and eventually learning to ride; we fall in love with the thrill and freedom of gravity-driven bliss, but at first we don’t think beyond the prepared runs inside the ski resort. 

heliskiing Canada

Then, at some point, we see a ski track outside the ski area boundary. We stop. We stare. We dream - of skiing perfect powder without a crowd of other skiers racing for the same snow.

Eventually we work up the nerve to give it a try.  If we’re not concerned with safety or rule-breaking, some of us eventually duck a rope without any avalanche gear, training, or experience and poach some of that beguiling out-of-bounds powder. If we’re lucky, we don’t get hurt, caught, or worse.  If we're smart, we talk to a ski patrol or ski guide and learn when, where (and most importantly if) there is a recommended place to try a few sidecountry turns.

A decade or so ago, enough skiers started poaching the areas outside the resort that some savvy ski areas decided to allow access in places where leaving the resort was appropriate and those resorts installed gates in where skiers could legally leave the ski area.  Some gates are even equipped with sensors that detect avalanche transceivers.

In recent years, the practice of leaving the resort has become extremely popular and, like all outdoor sports that evolve from fringe to mainstream, it was christened with its own name: SIDECOUNTRY.

Not quite backcountry, but not inside the ski area either.  The best sidecountry resorts have access to get out of the ski area at the top, and then access back into the ski area at the bottom so we can ride the lift again - an excellent combination.  Recently, sidecountry skiing has blown wide open.  Now some outdoor apparel companies like Outdoor Research have reported that sidecountry gear is their fastest growing product category. 

The inevitable result of sidecountry's burgeoning popularity is that the area around some ski areas is now getting skied heavily, which has two effects:

  • First, the skier compaction of the layers in the snow reduces avalanche hazard in some cases, but not always, so we are tempted into skiing without partners, avalanche equipment, or training.  Often we get away with it.  Sometimes we don’t.   
  • Second, the fresh snow gets skied quickly and the good terrain around the resorts sporting the best sidecountry access ends up almost as tracked as the in-bounds runs.  

After a few rounds of sidecountry fun, we start to look further away from the ski resort, into the backcountry.  For many skiers and snowboarders, the backcountry is the ultimate place to play, but there is a steep learning curve required before we can play with reasonable safety in the backcountry. 

Before banking the years of experience required to be competent in the backcountry, hiring a guide is the best way to experience the wild, pristine world of backcountry skiing.  If the guide comes with a helicopter, even better.

So if we can, we eventually book a heli-ski trip and get to live the snowrider’s dream: endless fresh snow, a guide, and a helicopter.  We get to see snow professionals at work, making decisions about terrain, weather, and timing.  We learn more about skiing in a single week than we imagined possible, but most importantly we learn that we don’t know very much about safety in the backcountry. 

avalanche education heliskiing

If we’re keen to work towards our own backcountry competence, perhaps the best heliski trip is the CMH Avalanche Skills heli-ski trip, Avi Skills 201: Backcountry, where the helicopter allows access to more terrain in a week than most skiers could cover in an entire winter of ski touring.  A perfect balance of avalanche education and tons of skiing, the course is the ultimate fast-forward start towards backcounty competency.  

By the end of the week of heliskiing and avalanche education, you’ll have a vastly better understanding risk assessment in the backcountry, and have earned graduate equivalent of Canadian Avalanche Association's Avalanche Skills Level One

For many of us, we don’t want to make backcountry decisions on our own, and just the experience of heliskiing with a guide is enough.  We can go back to our resort knowing that we’ve experienced the greatest skiing on earth.

Surprisingly, most of us who finally experience the world’s greatest skiing don’t become powder snobs.  Instead, we find that after heli-skiing we love all kinds of skiing even more and develop a vastly greater respect for our ski areas, the sidecountry, and of course the backcountry domain of ski touring and heli-skiing.

Are you a sidecountry skier curious about the next step?  Give us a call at 1 (800) 661-0252.

Photo of heliskiiing the Bugaboos, where heli-skiing began, and CMH guides sharing snowpack wisdom with CMH staff during the setup for the Nomads South private heliskiing program by Topher Donahue.

Topics: 2013 Heli-Skiing Trips, Backcountry skiing, Educational Travel, Avalanche Safety