Heli-skiing is reputedly the ultimate experience for a skier, and it was that hope that persuaded me to join a flight into the Harris Mountains in New Zealand as part of my Snowskool ski instructor course.
The day started with a short journey from Wanaka to the base of the mountains and the 'LZ' (Landing Zone) from which the adventure would begin, followed by a safety briefing and tuition on avalanche preparedness. Each group had a dedicated guide and they all seemed pretty serious about the potential risks of the day ahead. One pilot, one guide and five skiers per helicopter...adrenaline starting to flow already as we jammed our skis & poles onto the side rack and climbed on board, not really knowing what to expect.
I had flown in helicopters dozens of times before, but none of those flights quite prepared me for the experience that was to come. A 15 minute flight from just above sea level and green fields and pasture, up almost vertically through a narrow pass and soaring above one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world. As the terrain changed from green to rock to white, the pilot tipped the chopper over pristine knife-edged mountain crests in search of the perfect run, in the process bringing gasps from us all at both the immense landscape and also leaving our stomachs a hundred feet above us!
Finally, the perfect virgin run five hundred feet below us...the pilot banked us hard right onto the ridgeline, our hearts in our mouths as he used the rotors to ram the chopper skids down into the deep ridge of snow above a thousand foot drop..barely enough room to stand as we stumble out, grab skis & poles and crouch low as the aircraft beats away to pick up the next group.
Then silence, no wind at all, thousands of feet up looking down on a steep carpet of powder metres thick. Seriously, five guys with nothing but skis and the biggest playground yet to be touched by human feet...the only question was...'who goes first?'. Turned out it was me. Clip in, then tentatively edge tips over the lip and dropping 10 feet or so until the snow cushioned the fall...pulling the tips up to 'surf' the snow and prevent a wipe-out in the first fifty metres...then picking speed up quickly as the skis cut through powder with the consistency of flour...no crust, no old tracks, just acres of pure deep snow to carve a route into. The technique is so different, lean forward and tips dive under and take you with them, lean back and thighs burn and turning becomes harder...get it just right and powder flies, adrenaline pumps and you soon find yourself slicing deeper turns, yearning more speed, and wondering how you will ever be satisfied by a resort piste again!
Trust me when I say that it is 4 months since I took the trip, and just thinking about it still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. If you ski, you just have to do this at least once in your life. Forget sky-diving; leave white water rafting until you want something more boring to do...put your skis on a helicopter and prepare yourself for one of the most immense experiences ever...you owe it to yourself to have this much fun just once before you die!
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