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What does it take to ski off-piste or Heli ski for the first time?

post #1 of 21
Thread Starter 
As the question suggests I am a virgin of sorts. I am interested in the idea of a special ski trip involving far more extreme skiing than I would typically find in the East BUT since I have had few opportunities to ski powder I am unsure about my ability. I am in decent shape, I can get down most trails without a problem - the runs that I do not enjoy are steep and icy bump runs. I am also not wild about flying through trees. Soft bump runs, modest glades, steep and fast - I like.

How do you know if you can Heli ski or ski off-piste (to be honest I am not sure I really know what off-piste is)? What can one do in the east to get more confidence or experience? Any thoughts would be appreciated. I would hate to go on a great trip and have to take the heli both up AND Down the mountain!

I would also love hearing about peoples "first time"!

FYI I saw this site Flugel Tours on one of the Barking Bear boards and it started my curiosity
post #2 of 21
My definition of "off-piste" is anything that isn't on any official trail map -- i.e., if you're there and you get hurt, the ski patrol isn't coming to save you.

I can suggest a couple Eastern off-piste trail experiences. One is Mittersill, an abandoned ski area right next to Cannon Mt. in New Hampshire. Look on the "Resorts and Travel" section of this web site; there's a recent post that contains a web-site detailing how to get to Mittersill, and more importantly, how to get back. Or just go to Cannon, hop onto the Cannonball Express Quad, and start asking people about Mittersill. It's obviously never groomed, but it's well-known enough that you won't be skiing deep powder either (unless you time your trip right). But it'll certainly give you a lift-serviced taste of all-natural snow conditions.

Then there is Thunderbolt Trail off of Mt. Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts. I've never skied this one (although it's on my "todo list"). If you do a web search on Google though, I'm sure you'll find references to it. Obviously, this is in the hike-up ski-down category.

Don't forget Tuckerman's Ravine, although I have heard horror stories about hiking Mt. Washington in the winter.

I don't have a link, but you probably also want to do a web search on the "New England Lost Ski Areas Project". Or something like that. It's a list that someone is compiling about all the closed-down ski areas in New England. You might be able to find some gems with enough vertical to make it worth your time.

As for tips -- the cardinal rule is "don't go alone".

Hope that helps!
post #3 of 21

You might consider taking an XTeam Clinic. These New England born skiers teach all over the world but will be taking their road show to Sugarbush and Jay Peak this season. Clinics are typically 3 days and they will safely guide and instruct you on terrain you would never venture into yourself. Great bunch of guys and great skiers as well. They are the ones that first got me interested in all mountain skiing. Highly recommended! They will change your skiing life! (go to www.skiclinics.com then click on XTeam)
post #4 of 21
Off-piste in the Arlberg basically means ungroomed. The vast majority of the skiing there is above treeline. They will drive around with the snowcat making groomed trails. Everything else is "off-piste". The area doesn't really have much in terms of boundaries, so you can go way off-piste into hidden valleys that lead back into town. Some are less used than others. You will find varying conditions. At your skill level, you may find some days where it is easy and some where it is near impossible. A week after a storm, you're going to find a lot of bumps off-piste. Of course if you (or your guide) know where to go, you may still find powder or something like it. The same goes for heli-skiing. It does not guarantee powder. Powder is relatively easy to ski, but when it gets cut-up, melted, frozen, re-melted, re-frozen, that's when you start needing the "mad skillz". My toughest week of skiing ever was in Jackson Hole 3-4 years ago when it snowed every night and rained every day.

Really though, I think the Arlberg is a great place to get introduced to it. I find that the snow doesn't get tracked out nearly as fast as out west, and that with the size of the area, you can really get away from the lifts, and crowds if you want to.
post #5 of 21
I would take a trip to a western resort likely to have some powder and take a lesson there. Off piste skiing in the east is really apt to be quite a different experience. Definitely do not plan on skiing Tuckermans Ravine in winter!
post #6 of 21
I always thought of off-piste as non-groomed.
post #7 of 21
First off - get equipped or at least some experience on the kind of board you will use. A fatty. Skiing deep and fluffy on a fat board is a hoot. K2's AK Launcher skis a lot like a conventional ski but with a ton of float. Next get in skiing shape. I'm not talking buffed here but you are going to need more leg than usual. This often takes more effort than lift served and those fatties aren't the lightest tool in the shed either! Chose your trip wisely. Don't kid yourself about the kind of terrain you can do and don't lead your host astray. It will be a lot more enjoyable all around if you are skiing terrain you can handle. To a large extent, steepness doesn't count as much as obstacles. Once you get the feel for the gear, you'll be skiing lines in the powder that you wouldn't have looked at before. It would be a huge plus to get some time in at a lift served area that has a whole lot of snow. Not the best year for the southern BC areas yet but in a normal year, Red Mountain and Whitewater are great places to begin. Reasonablly spaced trees, lots of heavy deep snow. Bunches of lines to hike to. Take a full day private lesson focusing on the deep and steep skills at some point during that visit. Tip well and explain that you also want your instructor to work as a Mountain Guide and show you around. Red is a particularly good choice. Big Mountain, MT would be another although I prefer Red.

Just north of Nelson, BC which is itself an hour north of Red is Baldface Cat skiing. link there from http://www.netidea.com/~redline/home.html
A week that tied together Red Whitewater and Baldface would be a killer way to get started. Hell, for most folks, that would be the killer trip itself!

Take a serious look at Cat operators. Island Lake Lodge and Baldface serve a whole lot of terrain, have the incedible southern BC snowpack and have lift served skiing and towns nearby. We aren't talking night life here but then after a day of this, if you aren't toast, you aren't trying hard enough ;~)

Most of all - Do It! Once you get a taste of the un-groomed nothing else will quite do. I have personal experience with Island Lake and would recommend them strongly. Fernie is a great hill and relatively uncrowded if you want to warm up with lift served and then more into the cat. That is a good way to get your legs under you before you start racking up big dinero!
post #8 of 21
Thread Starter 
Thanks for all the GREAT feedback...I am already looking into the extreme skiing clinic at Sugarbush!
post #9 of 21
Originally posted by arcadie:
I would take a trip to a western resort likely to have some powder and take a lesson there. Off piste skiing in the east is really apt to be quite a different experience. Definitely do not plan on skiing Tuckermans Ravine in winter!
Are you serious dude? Febuary is the best time for Tucks. Contrary to popular belief, just because it's winter and there's fresh snow desn't mean that avalanches are likely. I've had awesome days in Tucks during the febuary school vacation (back in high school). If you get it on a good day you can ski the Inferno from the summit on knee deep powder. The only reason there are so many more people in the late spring is because all but 2-4 ski areas are closed, and only 1 still has any expert terrain (Killington). That's why people go to Tucks late. If you want the best snow you go in late february to early april. I'm actually thinking of maybe hitting Tucks early this year, since there's been over 200" on Mt. Washington already (compare to last week of march in an average year).
post #10 of 21
MM- that seems like some pretty irresponsible advice. Tuckerman's is at it's deadliest in the winter. How many lives has it claimed with storms and avalanches? You suggest that a guy who has no off-piste, let alone backcountry experience whatsoever should go to Tucks in February to learn to ski pow. That has to be some of the worst advice I have ever seen on this board. As for avalanches, the fact that it's winter sure as hell doesn't make them less likely.

Have fun at Tucks... and try not to die MM.
post #11 of 21
I would defing off piste, as used here, as skiing an area not patrolled by trained ski patrollers.


I agree with your assessment. Bad advice like Mitters advice deserves censure.

Before anyone ventures into the backcountry they should have a working understanding of avy's, avy safety, and emergency/safety gear. If you don't have such experience/training take a course in avy safety and ski with experienced backcountry experts till you feel competent. Don't listen to the yahoos on the forums who post otherwise. They will get you dead in a hurry. Remember life is short and death is long.

National Ski Patrol can help you find courses in first aide, and avy safety, as can your local ski shop.

Heli skiing is usually guided so the need for a full understanding of the above is lessened. But why go in without some knowledge. Get some training before you go and feel comfortable while you are there.

Remember avy's happen in bounds, out-of-bounds and while being guided. Since your life depends on knowing what to do I think all skiers should know basic avy safety and first aide.

post #12 of 21
There's a big difference between off-piste (off the groomer) and backcountry. Off-piste skiing at an open resort is probably still controlled and patrolled (obviously read the signs before crossing gates and such.) Backcountry implies that you're on your own for avalanche safety and rescue. So you definitely don't want to venture into the backcountry without proper training and equipment, or a guide who is telling you where to go and what to do.

I would think you'd be best off to learn to ski powder at a resort before spending your money on a heli-skiing trip, but there are heli-skiing operations that service easy terrain and would be what you're looking for. You'd just have to do some research to figure out what one to go with (there was a good list in one of the early issues of Powder this year.)

[ January 15, 2003, 04:22 PM: Message edited by: altagirl ]
post #13 of 21
Originally posted by Mikec13:
Thanks for all the GREAT feedback...I am already looking into the extreme skiing clinic at Sugarbush!
Most heli operations cater to the intermediate skier. Your extreme skiing clinic in Sugarbush will probably be more exciting (fear wise), than anything you'll encounter while heli-skiing. Look at the promo videos and photos at sites like CMHski.com.

The only way you will get into some more technical skiing is if everyone in your group is an expert skier. Otherwise, it's gentle 30 degree slopes. Some of the promo videos I saw from the various operations made think twice about dropping $3K-$7K for a week of bunny hills.

So how do you prepare, be an intermediate skier in reasonable shape. Most good heli operations will provide you with fat skis (100 cm waists).

[ January 15, 2003, 07:58 PM: Message edited by: Bullet ]
post #14 of 21
I can't imagine skiing the headweall. or left gully either in February. You are either going to find the worst crud imaginable like icy, leg breaker crust or rock hard ice, avalancheable wind slab or, if the snow is wonderful, near certain avalanche conditions. Two have died there already this season. True you could have a gas on the summit snowfields, weather permitting, but its a long hard climb to get there, probably over Lions Head, which has claimed avalanche victims as well. This is really mountaineering more than skiing, in winter. Just for kicks, check the weather. (www.tuckerman.org, I think). last time I looked, it was 27 below with a 75 mph wind and blowing snow and freezing ice fog. Sound like fun?

I'll recommend once again a resort in the western US or Europe. Crampons, ice axes, Himalayan gear, rocks, stumps, ice slab, death crust....this isn't prep for heli skiing.

[ January 15, 2003, 08:18 PM: Message edited by: arcadie ]
post #15 of 21
Tucks 11/29/02 - 7 climbers caught, 4 buried, 2 killed

post #16 of 21
Go heli skiing. The guides usually give you a brief discussion on safety, show you how to use a beacon, etc. It is not 100% safe from avalanches, etc, but you are in much better hands then trying to organize it by yourself. Also, most operations will provide you with some powder skis that will make it easier on yourself. If you have never skied powder before, you should book a couple of trips to different resorts and hope you hit a powder day and take a lesson before you drop hundreds of dollars on a day of heli skiing. Whatever you do, for your own safety, do not go into the bc withour first gaining some knowledge and carrying the appropriate gear.
post #17 of 21
Originally posted by Mikec13:
I would hate to go on a great trip and have to take the heli both up AND Down the mountain!
Smart idea! FWIW many people that go heli are very good skiers and get annoyed by someone that can't 'keep up' so take the offered advice of training very seriously. How about joining us in Utah?

[ January 16, 2003, 02:15 PM: Message edited by: Ryel ]
post #18 of 21

I can give you some first and second hand insight into first time heli-skiing.

I have been heli skiing a couple of times with Whistler Heli Ski. They do day trips originating at the Whistler Village. Now, I'm a pretty advanced skier have have skied powder many times (even though I'm in the east, I taught at a major western resort and have been teaching for a long time). But I think the experience that is more relevant for you, is when I got my wife to go with me once. She is an intermediate skier, and was extremely nervous and almost backed out. But after her first run she was so happy to be there she could hardly contain herself. She even opted for additional runs at the end of the day. They have fat skis that you can rent from them, and they teach you how to use the avi transceivers as well as how to move around the helicopters and how to operate in the group. It's true that they cater mostly to intermediate skiers. The slopes they take you on are fairly tame, unless you specifically request to be in an advanced/expert group. The guides dictate where you go, to keep you safe, and I think Whitler Heli Ski has only lost one person in all the time they have been in operation (a long time). However, there are other outfits that will take people into riskier terrain, and have lost more people. You'll get to ski nothing but untracked powder, and it's worth every penny, if you can afford it (it takes a LOT of pennies to go heli skiing!).

I would definitely suggest doing it. It would be helpful, though, to have some experience in untracked powder that's at least knee deep.

FYI, some of the customers they get are only marginally intermediate. They have these extra fat powder skis for them, and I've watched people make wedge turns in untracked powder with them. They also have normal powder skis to rent, or you can bring your own or rent from somewhere else and bring them.
post #19 of 21
A cheaper alternate to heli skiing is snowcat skiing at Mt. Bailey in Oregon. The mountain tends to get alot of snow and have many powder days each year. The cost is much lower than heli skiing.

See the below site:

post #20 of 21
Thread Starter 
Thanks for all of the great advice (skiing Tuckermans in Feb excluded). My plan of action (for now) is to try to set up some type of pow oriented resort trip to get a little experience first. I am a pretty decent skier and the thought of skiing "blue heli runs" doesn't carry much appeal. If I am going to go on an adventure I would like to push the limits a little bit ( not to worry I am old enough and have made enough foolish mistakes to not deliberately put myself or the others I am with at risk). I recently got a chance to ski in 2 feet of fresh pow in Vermont and it was by FAR AND AWAY the best ski day of my life. In fact, it was that day that started me down this path. It took a little to get used too but once i got the timing and weight adjustment down it felt like I was a much better skier than I am. Another thought might be to look at Europe. Our wives (think blue)are starting to express an interest in going as well so we need some balance. I looked into the cost and Europe from the East looks like the cost is at or below skiing out West.
post #21 of 21
Extremely bad Tuckermans advice - for the real scoop, go to http://www.tuckerman.org/faq/faq.htm
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