Origins: Heli-Skiing

Ryan Flynn |
Arlberg, Austria heli-skiing
Heli-skiing near Arlberg, Austria. Image: Heliskiing

In this week’s edition of Origins, we will take a look at heli-skiing! Like many of us, I have yet to go heli-skiing in my life, but it is something on my bucket list. If you missed last week’s edition of Origins on Snowboarding, you can check it out here:

The most expensive side of an already expensive sport is heli-skiing. Providing access to peaks that usually would take hours, if not multiple days, to access on foot; heli-skiing opened a new side of skiing that mixes jaw-dropping views and exposure with new terrain. You see it in ski movies every year, but did you know where it all began? Let’s take a look.

The first time helicopters were used for skiing is…..unknown. There are multiple theories that the sport first saw the light during the 1950s in either Alaska, Utah, and or Wyoming. There is one thing for certain, Hans Gmoser is the father of modern heli-skiing.

Hans Gmoser, an Austrian mountain guide,  moved to Canada to fulfill his dream of living within the Canadian Rockies. With his backcountry experience, he sought to create a company that he could use to share his love of the mountains with others. The company he eventually formed is now known as Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). The initial idea was to show guests tours of the backcountry and provide deep powder without lift lines or crowded lodges. Gmoser’s idea was successful, driving clients from all over the world to British Columbia.

Jeff Bellis, David Gheriani, Sue Smith, Jess Leahey, Eric Poulin, Adam Ü, Tess Golling heli-skiing at Canadian Mountain Holidays

In the mid-1960s, Hans Gmoser was asked by some guests about the idea of using a helicopter to access more remote areas within the Columbia Mountains. While Hans was not instantly sold on the idea, he kept it in the back of his head. After two failed attempts, the first operation within CMH’s portfolio was in the remote and rugged Bugaboo Mountains of British Columbia.

The first helicopter used at CMH was the Bell 47 B-1. It was chosen due to its ability to fly at high altitudes (highest flight at the time 18,500 feet) and its long-range (longest flight 1,217 miles). It only had 178 horsepower, the same as a small car at the time, but there was no better craft at the time for mountain flying. It was an instant success, and CMH saw the addition of new lodges throughout the years. Today they provide 12 separate lodges to heli-ski from.

Seen behind the group of people, the first helicopter used for skiing at CMH was the Bell 47 B-1. Credit: CMH.

Helicopter skiing was widespread after its commercialization by Hans Gmoser. It was extremely popular in Europe and North America for many years. While it saw an overall positive reaction, some countries eventually banned its use. The sport was banned on Mont Blanc Massif in 1980 by French President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing after being lobbied by local groups over noise and environmental concerns. The irony of the situation….just before banning the sport, Valerie had just finished skiing Mont Blanc from a helicopter. Oh, the irony of politicians sometimes. The sport was later banned in the entire country in 1985.

Mont Blanc Massif, Alps. Helicopter skiing is illegal within France. Credit: summitpost.org

Funny enough, there are some workarounds from the original French law. The law states that you cannot drop passengers off in the mountains for leisure purposes except for designated locations. Some workarounds for this are to get dropped off in Italy. After being dropped off, you can ski into France. Another way is to use ‘Reverse Heliskiing.’ This is when you either skin or use lifts to get up a mountain, ski down to a certain point, and then catch a helicopter to get you back to your origin point. The law only references getting dropped off by helicopter and not picked up by one!

Heliskiing was also banned in Germany. Currently, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria (only two landing locations) all allow the sport.

It is the most expensive side of skiing, but also arguably the most surreal. Helicopters allowed for the descent of new terrain that many thought would never be accessed. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for next weeks edition of Origins!


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3 thoughts on “Origins: Heli-Skiing

  1. Check the name in your story.
    I think you will find CMH heli-skiing was started by Hans Gmoser not “Gromer”.
    There is a good biography of Gmoser called “Steep Rock Deep Snow” written by Chick Scott which tells the story of heli-skiing in detail.

    1. I think you will find the biography is called “Deep Powder and Steep Rock” and is written by Chic Scott not “Chick”.

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