Feeling like you want to break out of the confines of a resort? Guided heli- and cat-skiing can take you to new heights where you can ski or ride like you own a whole mountain.
The ups? Heli-skiing can drop you on a sea of white snow in mere minutes with nary a track in sight. Most trips amass substantial vertical. The downs? It's pricey -- often running more than $1,000 per day -- and subject to no fly days. Operations near lift-skiing resorts or with cat-ski alternatives can still fill in the grounded days with powder skiing. You'll find the bulk of North America's heli-skiing in Alaska and British Columbia with a sprinkling of companies in western states; however, Alaska holds the crown for extreme terrain.
Cat-skiing gained a reputation as the "poor man's heli" as per day rates run around 60-70 percent less than heli-ski costs. Cats tucking riders inside the warm shelter of a cabin can still travel in storm cycles, allowing you to access the goods. Cats take longer to climb back up the mountain, resulting in less vertical than heli-skiing, but offering a chance to rest the legs and carbo-load for the next run. You'll find cat-trips offered at lift-served resorts and as separate operations across western Canada and the U.S.
Chugach Powder Guides, based at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, runs cat- and heli-ski tours in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska where big years see up to 80 feet of snowfall. Terrain varies between steep extreme faces to more sedate alpine bowls. Some runs drop 3,000-4,000 vertical feet, mostly above treeline. The season begins in February when enough daylight is available. "No fly" days are not wasted with cat-skiing picking up the slack. The company's new heli operation at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge redefines big mountain skiing with massive glaciers and scary giant chutes in one million acres of the Alaska Range near Denali.
Heli-skiing started in British Columbia in the Bugaboos, where voluminous snows blanket peaks that run between high elevation alpine glaciers and tree skiing that provides more protection on blustery days. Canadian Mountain Holidays as the granddaddy of heli-skiing has now expanded to run 11 lodges--hostels to remote backcountry luxury-across the Columbia Mountains. Each of the lodges operates with a different combination of multi-day trips that include accommodations, meals, guides, and heli-skiing or riding.
Revelstoke Mountain Resort started as a cat- and Selkirk Tangiers Heli-skiing operation before it added lifts. That makes it a perfect place for first-timers to make the leap outside lift-served boundaries. Revelstoke aids skiers and riders in getting ready for handling the type of terrain encountered with cat- and heli-skiing with their Cat/Heli Prep program, a one-day springboard for intermediates into the off piste realm. Best of all, you can overnight in the same lodge for doing lift, cat, or heli at the resort.
Three mountain ranges in Idaho provide 750,000 acres of terrain for Sun Valley Heli Skiing, the pioneer of heli-skiing in the Lower 48. Most runs descend about 2,000 vertical swooping down high alpine bowls and dropping into trees. Abundant sunny skies ward off no fly days, but when weather cancels flights, you can still hop the lifts at Sun Valley. Plus, the town bursts with the amenities of one of the country's oldest ski resorts, with luxury lodges, fine dining, spas, nightlife, entertainment, and shopping.
Those with a thin pocketbook can get a taste of heli-skiing or heli-boarding at Silverton with its no frills program that offsets the resort's helicopter avalanche control costs. Flexible options let you pay for one, two, or six drops-some on flights concurrent with throwing explosives for avalanche control. The terrain spanning 15,000 acres in the San Juan Range cruises from a lung-busting 13,514 feet in elevation with options for open bowls, steep and narrow couloirs, and tree runs up to 3,100 vertical per run. Backup lift accessed skiing subs in should the weather fizzle.
Strong intermediate skiers and riders looking to hop off piste into the unmanicured terrain outside resorts can make the leap best with cat-ski trips. Steamboat Powdercats runs three cats per day to be able to separate guests by ability so that beginning cat-skiers don't have to worry about holding back experts. The company's 10,000 acres of terrain on Buffalo Pass provides plenty of bowls with wide-spaced trees and gentle slopes to gain skills in powder. The area usually gets the most snow in Colorado, almost guaranteeing you'll get to taste untracked snow.