Planning a heliskiing trip in North America, but can’t decide where to go? Every heliski operator and their dog promises bountiful snow and epic terrain, so what really differentiates them? From Canada’s pillow fields to the raw steeps of Alaska’s Chugach range, luxury lodges to roadside motels, LUEX snow specialist Claudie takes you through the top 10 factors to consider when choosing your dream trip.
I’m sitting in Calgary’s international airport waiting for my return flight. For three weeks I’ve been travelling across the Canadian Columbia and Rocky Mountains. Like the many gold diggers who came here centuries before me, I was on the search. But this is the 21st century, so my hunt was not for gold nuggets, but rather for ‘white gold.’ The facades of many buildings and houses are still characterised by the style of a bygone era: Wild West architecture and bars reminiscent of former cowboy saloons are not uncommon. Back in the day, many ski resorts were created during the gold rush, and the cowboy vibe prevails to this day.
Right now, I’m just deeply satisfied. My search for white gold was more than successful: I scored bucket loads of light, blower powder, the mind-altering cold smoke of every skier’s dreams. And the interesting thing about it – these perfect conditions were not an accident or even pure luck. They occur with great regularity. There are not many places on earth where the snow falls as consistently, and in this incredibly dry quality, as right here.
My thoughts wander further; I realise I’m already thinking about next winter. Perhaps another journey is on the horizon? Back to Canada, or perhaps Alaska instead? Taking the whole experience into account – where’s better, when it comes down to it? Tough question – which probably can’t be answered in general terms, though there are some decisive criteria. Above all, it depends on what you’re looking for.
How to Choose between Heliskiing in Alaska and Canada
1: Snow Quantity and Quality
The amount of snow is directly influenced by the proximity to the Pacific. A simple formula can be applied: the closer to the sea, the more snow. This is true of the Canadian Coast Mountains or the Chugach Range in Alaska. On the other hand, in the interior you often find drier snow. In the Canadian Rockies, for example, the humidity is lower and temperatures are colder; basic ingredients for the candyfloss-light powder which makes the skiing so magical – with great regularity – in the Monashees, Selkirk and Purcell Mountains! The latitude also plays an important role: the further north, the colder it is. All else being equal, colder temperatures produce more snow from the same quantity of water – meaning deeper and lighter powder (even at lower altitudes). Which is why Alaska has such vast quantities of white gold. The height above sea level has an impact on the quality of the snow too: the higher it is, the colder it is – thus also drier and deeper. That’s why you often find pretty sweet and dry blower powder at higher elevations in the coastal mountains around Bella Coola – the highest mountains in Canada.
2: Snow Stability
Alaska is known for extremely stable snow conditions, which in turn means a comparatively low risk of avalanches. This is due to the proximity to the Pacific – wet ocean effect snow is thickly plastered onto the mountains, where it sticks to even the steepest slopes. However the truly remarkable thing about Alaska is that the very cold temperatures then suck the moisture from the snowpack, leaving perfect velvety powder. AK is probably the only place in the world where you can safely ride powder on extremely steep terrain up to about 60 degrees! If it’s challenging terrain you’re looking for, Alaska is a great choice.
3: Standard of Lodging and Food
On average, the lodges in Canada are of a much higher standard than in Alaska. While riders in ‘AK’ often stay in simple motels, apartments, or even in motor homes between wet ski clothes and empty beer cans, in Canada you can cosy up in secluded luxury lodges. Hot tubs, saunas, decent beds, a selection of fine wines, trained masseuses and fine gourmet meals are all part of the routine in Canada. In Alaska however, you’ll be waiting in vain for a hot chocolate on the mountain, and the chances of seeing a grizzly bear are larger than enjoying a professional massage after your pow sesh! As always, there are exceptions to the rule: there are three to four very luxurious heliskiing lodges in AK with excellent service.
4: Terrain Preferences
Those looking for steep lines and spines are well-placed in Alaska. Looking for good tree runs? You won’t find much up here, except for a few spots around Haines. The terrain in Canada is fabulously varied: world-famous tree skiing, perfect pillow fields, vast glaciers, wide open bowls, narrow couloirs, and runs with different inclinations. In Canada there is truly something for every level, including steeps. The ride isn’t quite the same as in Alaska,but with the right package or a private trip (a good choice for a group of 4 friends upwards) you can ski the steeps in Canada too. If this is your plan, make sure to choose the right heliski provider – one that delivers true steep and deep to guests (not all of them do). In the Coast Mountains, where the snow is slightly more stable than in the Rockies, the chosen routes are usually a bit steeper. There are of course huge differences within Canada and Alaska as far as the terrain is concerned,but that’s beyond the scope of this article – to ensure the right option for you, ask an experienced heli specialist.
5: What Kind of People do you Meet
In Alaska, you’ll encounter a mass of ski freaks from all parts of the world. With a colourful mix of laid-back line hunters and eccentric pow junkies, there’s definitely an above average number of people here for whom skiing is the absolute be-all and end-all. Snowy stories circulate of the incredible adventures during the ‘down days’. In Canada, however, lodge life unfolds in a slightly more dignified manner. The mix of guests is often stimulatingly diverse: passionate ski bums who saved 10 years for the experience sit at the table alongside doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. Add a few celebrities to the picture, maybe an oil sheik or a construction magnate who do 10 similiar trips per year, and your mental image comes close to reality. In Canada you enjoy and celebrate in a more relaxed style: typically relaxing in the hot tub, then a fine gourmet meal along with a good red wine. Evenings of excess are rare.
For both countries it rings true that, provided you choose the right trip, the skiers that you meet along the way are often the best part of the whole trip. Passion unites!
6: Group Size
Ships or birds, large or small helicopters… That is the question! The large helicopters (e.g. Bell 205) with capacities of up to 11 guests are more commonly found in the Canadian Interior – with some packages from Canadian Mountain Holidays or Wiegele, for example. As an advanced skier, it’s possible that you may spend the day waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, or cruising tracked snow, disenchanted. The ‘birds’ (e.g. Eurocopter A-Star or Agusta Koala) from the boutique heliskiing providers are more typical in Alaska, the Coast Mountains, and occasionally in the Rockies. Smaller helicopters with space for 4-6 guests ensure smaller groups – a must for sporty, ambitious skiing. Certainly more expensive, but definitely more than worth the price!
On average, Alaska is far more affordable than Canada. However, you often fly less as down days are more common. In addition, the standard of accommodation is usually lower.
8: Down Days
Alaska experiences a lot of down days where the helicopters can’t fly – in worst case scenarios up to three or more per week. This doesn’t often happen, but it can from time to time:the immense amount of snow has to come from somewhere! In the Canadian Interior, however, there are really only a few days when the helicopter must remain grounded For example, you can fly almost every day in the Rockies around Revelstoke; on average there’s one or less down days in any given week. In order to fly the heli-pilot needs two points of reference. This is not granted on many days in Alaska as the majority of the terrain is high alpine and the weather can get pretty extreme. Over in Canada you can still ride freshies in the trees during light snowfall, and navigation here is much easier for the pilot. These can actually be the best days in Canada, full of the fluffy white goods!
9: Travel and Accessibility
Alaska is sometimes a bit harder to reach than Canada. The flights between Anchorage and Valdez, for example, are frequently cancelled. Also, there are significant differences in travel time. Some packages seem very cheap at first, but end up costing a bomb when you add up the additional flight costs. For more details, talk to an expert prior to booking such an adventure!
10: Ski and Adventure Level Ambitions
If you are a first-time heliskier, intermediate skier, or just want to have fun riding instead of challenging yourself every day, Canada is a solid choice. For lovers of mixed terrain Canada’s your best bet with both steep and playful and heaps of moderate stuff to mess around on. For those that prefer a certain standard in terms of accommodation, Canada is again the better option.
For more adventurous skiers looking for steep lines and pure skiing … go to Alaska, now! AK provides the perfect terrain to push your abilities. Also, first descents are still possible!
Alaska rocks, as does Canada. Finding the perfect fit is a formula of personal type and taste, though it can be hard to decide. Learn more about how to plan a heliski trip here, or get in touch with our snow experts for free objective advice!