Now for Regular Skiers, the Ultra Terrain
JOAQUIN AND VIRGINIA FOLCH have skied virgin powder through the fjordlands of remote eastern Greenland and forged trails at altitudes of over 13,000 feet in the Rohtang Pass in the Indian Himalayas. Heli-skiing with a group of experts, Mr. Folch opened a route on Mount Elbrus in Russia near the Georgian border, where they heard the sounds of guns and explosives in the distance. “And we were going into the helicopter each morning surrounded by Army people,” Mr. Folch said. “It was a little scary.”
You might assume that the Folches are stunt professionals or accomplished members of the Explorers Club. But Mr. Folch is a 56-year-old businessman, chief executive of a Spanish paint manufacturer, and Mrs. Folch, 50, is an interior designer — albeit a very athletic one.
“We were in a completely unexplored area,” said Mr. Folch, describing his adventures in Russia. “One day the conditions were magnificent: bluebird-colored skies and 30 centimeters fresh powder snow. There wasn’t one person for miles around, and as we skied down we had Mount Elbrus — the highest peak in Europe — always in front of us.”
Until recently it was generally only hard-core professionals and guides who would dare to go on exploratory trail-breaking trips in locations like Greenland; daring skiers like the Folches would have been limited to heli-skiing in Canada or off-piste skiing in the Alps. But recently, thanks to the efforts of some intrepid entrepreneurs, extreme ski touring has hit the mainstream.
“The market for big mountain skiing in remote locations is growing in a big way,” said Chris Owens, one of the owners of EpicQuest (888-983-3742; www.epicquest.com), an adventure tour company focusing on heli-skiing trips that began last year, the result of a merger of two existent outfits.
“People are just starting to realize that you don’t have to be a professional athlete to do it,” Mr. Owens said.
Mr. Owen stressed that most experienced skiers would qualify for one of EpicQuest’s trips. “If you can ski the blues and blacks at your resorts, you can ski remote backcountry,” he said. “We can serve everyone from an advanced intermediate to a super-duper expert.”
For a price (around $9,500 a person for a weeklong trip) EpicQuest can fly a small group up into the isolated Tordrillo Mountains in Alaska — with the two-time Olympic medalist Tommy Moe as one of the guides.
The cost of such trips are steep, but skiers willing to embark on trips like this aren’t just taking some physical risks, they are willing to pay a premium to do it. (Meals and rental equipment are usually included in the package prices.)
John Falkiner (41-27-776-1307; johnfalkiner.com), a professional ski and mountain guide from Australia who has lived in Verbier, Switzerland, since the late ’70s, has developed a growing reputation on the so-called “ski safari” circuit. Nicknamed the Powder Hunter, Mr. Falkiner, 54, has performed in James Bond films, skied off cliffs with only the light of the full moon to guide him and starred in extreme-skiing documentaries. A few years ago he realized that some of his clients wanted to join him on his wilder ski adventures — and would pay for the privilege. “What’s happening is that people are being introduced to ski touring and then discover that they like getting away from the crowds at the ski resorts,” he said.
Most winters you can find him guiding regular clients on custom backcountry trips through the Alps. The trips use a combination of lifts, skins (strips of nylon strapped to the bottom of skis to aid climbing steep hills), and sometimes helicopters to get skiers to the top of isolated peaks. Then the group cuts fresh tracks into valleys of untouched powder, taking breaks in mountain huts or tiny secluded villages.
But what Mr. Falkiner really loves to do is take a few of his most venturesome clients to places like Lebanon or Kashmir. “The North America experience is too slick and smooth,” he said. “Skilled skiers are beginning to look for something a little bit different, something outside the normal ski holiday box. I’ll take them ski touring from central Lebanon all the way to the Syrian border. Sometimes we sleep in a five-star hotel and sometimes a snow cave. You ski into isolated villages where they rarely see Westerners. There is a great sense of exoticness.”
Beyond this remoteness, part of the appeal of these trips is spontaneity. As Hans Solmssen (41-79-446-2289; www.swissguides.com), another Verbier-based ski safari guide, described it: “The final details of where we are going are frequently not decided upon until the last minute, which allows us to chase the best possible conditions. This is what my clients enjoy the most: that I take them to places I myself have not been and that we are flexible enough to change the itinerary at the last minute.”
Over the last few years, technological advances in both remote communication and ski equipment have made these kinds of trips safer and easier.
Beat Steiner, a founder of Bella Coola Heli Sports (604-932-3000; www.bellacoolahelisports.com), which offers ski safaris in the far-flung Bella Coola Valley in British Columbia, said: “You’ve got satellite phones, so there’s more security even if you are in really remote areas. All our helicopters are tracked by satellite, and our dispatcher tracks helicopters on Google Earth.” (Mr. Steiner’s company has exclusive access to an area that is 2.64 million acres, with descents up to 5,500 feet — more than 300 times the size of Whistler-Blackcomb and about one and a half times the height of Vail.)
“Recent ski technology makes it easier to ski powder,” Mr. Steiner continued. “The latest are the reverse camber or rocker skis Shane McConkey invented, which are the complete opposite of traditional skis. They are narrow at the tip and wider under the foot and they work absolutely fantastically in power snow. You can ski longer and not get tired.”
Stephen Drake, author of “The Powder Road,” a memoir of deep-powder skiing in Alaska and elsewhere, and a founder of DPS Skis (www.dpsskis.com), a small four-year-old company that manufactures custom-made skis for deep powder and big mountain skiing, said that while ski sales in general were flat, “the market for free-ride and powder skis has been growing every year.”
"The last six or seven years have shown dramatic growth,” he continued.
Mr. Drake described the exhilaration of skiing an area no one has ever been on: “You look out 360 degrees over a landscape where there are no tracks and nothing made by man. It could be a million years ago.” He paused and added, “Those are the moments that give you a sense of complete freedom.”