Once the powder bug bites you, a natural next step for avid skiers and riders is to reach for terrain at new heights, often out of bounds beyond where a lift or T-bar can take you, to find pristine, untracked lines. If you’re a powder hound who’s antsy to embark on the ultimate adventure and commit to a heli or snowcat experience but doesn’t know where to start, a ski trip to where these operations originated and exploring Canada’s endless backcountry is an excellent place to begin.
To start, there are quite a few misconceptions surrounding both heli and snowcat, or ‘cat’ skiing. For instance, the idea that only expert skiers can go on these outings via helicopter or snowcat, or that the terrain guests will be skiing is exclusively extreme. To help debunk some of this thinking and showcase each ski adventure, we caught up with some experts on both heli and cat skiing to help you better familiarize yourself with each experience and see if it is a good fit for your next ski adventure.
Cat Skiing with Ski.com’s Cat Iwanchuk
Cat Iwanchuk, Director of Supplier Relations at Ski.com, emphasized that cat skiing is not limited to extreme and advanced skiers. However, the terrain being skied is all backcountry and the guides will pick the routes based on the ability and skill level of members in the group, and also based on safety and considering avalanche conditions every day they operate.
“There’s a guide in front and behind the group. The first guide goes and then everyone goes one step to the right or left of their line. This is how they make sure all group members are getting fresh turns and no one touches anyone else’s snow, and also to stay out of potentially hazardous terrain” Iwanchuk said.
She also mentioned that depending on the weather and terrain, a snowcat can get places a helicopter can’t and operate more reliably on weather days. The guides will make decisions about which route best suits the group and snow conditions for the day, but when it comes to cat skiing there are no down days, an upside of staying grounded versus airborne.
If you’re looking to ski with your own group there’s an option to buy out the snowcat (10-12 seats including guides). However, Iwanchuk raves about the community aspect of cat skiing trips, particularly when they’re multiple days long and in a backcountry lodge, creating a truly inclusive experience.
“Everyone who’s there is stoked,” Iwanchuk said, and the excitement just continues to grow with each run taken together. Outside of the skiing, there are après events to close the day out and continue the camaraderie through the evening usually incorporating incredible dinners.
“If you do go solo or with a friend, you end up meeting strangers during the trip who end up not being strangers by the end of it,”
Last Frontier Heliskiing
For the inside scoop on all things heliskiing, we caught up with our friends at Last Frontier Heliskiing, Ann Cook, US Manager, and Mike Watling, Managing Partner on what’s important to know before deciding to take a trip and why they love this variation of the sport.
Ski.com: How do you plan for a heli trip as a first-timer?
MW: Make sure that you’re good enough. Heliskiing isn’t really about what people see in the movies, you need a certain level of ability and fitness. If you can ski a black diamond run and be enthusiastic about it no matter the conditions, that ticks box number one.
Ski.com: Can you explain the timing of booking a heli trip, and do you have to book a season out from the current winter?
AC: We do have seats available for the 2023 season, however, we are currently 94% booked*. To get your choice of seats or if booking in a group, booking a year in advance is advised. The booking cycle starts early, about 1-2 years in advance.
*reservations as of this interview in mid-December, 2022
Ski.com: Is there an age limit?
MW: There is no age limit (for Last Frontier – other operations may vary). That said, you have to keep in mind what you’re doing. If you’re going to bring (kids) they need to be old enough to be told what to do and do it. … From a guiding and safety point-of-view, they need to be old enough to receive and follow instructions. … That filters down to people who probably (are not) coming with kids who are younger than twelve.
Ski.com: What’s included in a standard 5-7 day trip?
MW: It’s almost easier to tell you what’s not included. Your flights to and from our gateway town Terrace, alcoholic drinks and any skiing outside the vertical that is within your package is not included. Each of the trips includes a certain amount of skiing. … gift shop purchases and massages aren’t included, but all your food and accommodation are included. … pretty much all you need to bring is your regular ski gear and outerwear and your boots in your carry-on (powder skis are provided at Last Frontier and generally available at most heli operations).
Does Last Frontier Heli Skiing have any unique opportunities coming up?
AC: We are booking now for a 2024 HeliWomen trip focused on collecting women who are either first-time heli skiers that want a supportive environment or women that are looking to meet other advanced women who ski at their ability. A common statement from advanced women is that they have a harder time finding other women to rally with. This group will flip the male-dominated lodge dynamic.
Why Do North?
Canada’s location in the northern latitude enables annual snow totals across the country, varying based on the region, with numbers that are high enough to make any powder aficionado want to book their trip out there. According to an article on OpenSnow, eastern parts of Canada average about 150-200” every season of firm snow, ready to be carved, and plenty of chances for fresh powder. Out on the coast, Whistler averages 469” of snow a year and has a powder day about one in every five days. Getting up into Alberta also creates a different kind of snow in the Canadian Rockies with its lower temps generally making it fluffier than other spots across the country.
If the snow wasn’t enough, Canada is home to 297 ski resorts served by 880 different lifts. This is just accounting for inbound terrain, but Last Frontier Heliskiing states the heliskiing operators in British Columbia account for more than 80% of the world market share.
Canada also happens to be the birthplace of both heli and cat skiing. Hans Gmoser created heliskiing back in 1965 with CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures when he first began bringing adventurers into the mountains of British Columbia searching for untracked lines. Ten years later, also in British Columbia, Allan and Brenda Drury of Selkirk Snowcat Skiing debuted cat skiing which followed a similar concept—venturing outside of resort bounds for fresh powder, only by snowcat instead of helicopter.
Keeping all of the above in mind, US-based skiers are presented with the beauty of an international ski trip close to home and with current low exchange rates there’s never been a more opportune time to experience the legendary snow of Canada or book a trip for heli or cat skiing.
No matter which direction your next ski adventure takes you, climbing into a snowcat or to new heights in a helicopter, we recommend exploring the backcountry of Canada for some of the best snow you’ve ever skied. Work with one of our Mountain Travel Experts today at Ski.com to plan your perfect trip to Do North!