Popping my heliski cherry

27th January 2017, by Abi Butcher

Heliskiing is easier and more affordable than you think, and an experience of a lifetime

Heliskiing is easier and more affordable than you think, and an experience of a lifetime

Heliskiing — not for the faint-hearted, right? Well, wrong, actually. After 20 years of dreaming, a slight obsession with helicopters and major obsession with skiing, this week I finally ticked off one of the experiences at the top of my bucket list with a heli drop on skis in Alagna, Italy.

Alagna is a little-known resort in the Monterosa that shares a ski area with Champoluc and Gressoney. It draws expert skiers from across the world thanks to its a reputation for immense off-piste — in good conditions Alagna is the stuff that dreams are made of. Sadly, this week it is languishing in the same snow drought that’s affecting much of the Alps but that didn’t stop us finding good off-piste skiing, steep couloirs, spring snow and managing a heli drop.

The village of Alagna is like another world — it’s remote and comprises old wooden and stone farmhouses. There are only 350 tourist beds here and 450 residents, so it’s small, friendly and charming. While the village sits at 1,200m, the lift-served ski area extends up to 2,971m or higher if you have skins for your skis. Some 44 mountain guides are kept busy all season taking groups off-piste in some of the best terrain you could ask for — seriously steep couloirs, sweeping powder fields, high glaciers and some tree skiing.

Will Robson from Fall-Line magazine about to drop into Esgchetti Couloir

One small note of caution: you’d be foolish to try this terrain (or any off-piste) without a guide — on our last day we passed a group of snowboarders clearly out of their depth, none were carrying avalanche equipment and one was literally clinging to the side of the mountain for dear life. They’d followed ski tracks along a steep path in the Balma valley that was virtually impossible to pass for snowboarders. Our guide, Alagna local Miki (who has climbed both the south and north face of Everest) shook his head in disgust: “and I’ll be the one having to risk my own life to rescue these idiots…if only people would learn.”

But on to more fun stuff. Take a guide, and you’ll have a ball, as we did on a three-day trip organised by James Orr Heliski who has been sending clients here for more than a decade. On day one we explored the Bors glacier and Balma valley, finding fresh snow despite no recent snowfall, enjoying a full morning of spring skiing before a delicious lunch of cold meats, home-made pasta and semi-freddo in the cosy Grande Halte Refugio — known among guides as the best place to eat on the mountain.

Skis are bundled into a cage on the side of the helicopter

Day two was the big one — by chance the New Zealand junior Freeride World Tour team was staying in our guesthouse, the wonderful Tre Alberi Liberi run by Elena and Roberto “Robbie” Valzer. Robbie is a mountain guide and formed a plan to take our group (of four) and the FWT team for an adventure — we skinned for an hour up the Bec de Corno Rosso to Passo Zube where we found an open powder field with a couple of cliffs for the NZ team to throw some shapes over before dropping into Esgchetti Couloir – 5m wide with a 45-degree pitch. And that was for starters.

As we waited on a plateau beside Refugio Cittadi Vigevano (2,880m), having taken off our skis, a bright yellow helicopter appeared up the valley, coming in to land beside us, whipping up snow. Robbie had tied all our skis into a bundle, and loaded them into the cage on one side of the chopper, motioning us all to climb in. Our pilot took off, sweeping along the Pass d’Otro to Pala d’Erta (2,633m) — just a five-minute flight but magical. No sooner had we been flying but the heli was off, leaving us on another plateau with an hour-long descent of just over 1,000m down Valle Vogna, with varying terrain from small gullies to wide stretches of what would be powder on a good day. Nothing tough, just empty, wide terrain. We had wind-blown snow but it was still nice to ski and the silence was magical — this is remote Italy, we skied past summer cowsheds and through trees, eventually hitting a snow-covered road that fed us parallel to a stream to finish at Rifugio Valle Vogna, sadly closed on a Wednesday.

Heliskiing doesn’t have to be gnarly: this was the gradient of a gentle red

Regular readers of Where to Ski and Snowboard will know that I snapped my ACL and did other untold damage to my knee three years ago — but it’s now strong enough to cope with anything and heli-skiing was possibly one of the least taxing experiences I’ve put it through. I was the only woman in a group of three men and a guide, and James Orr tells me very few women go heliskiing. I’m not sure why, it’s a shame — the terrain we skied was fairly benign, the bonus was that we were on our own, making fresh tracks, surrounded by beauty. It wasn’t the gnarly, hardcore, male-dominated vertical hell that some might think it is — and I’m completely hooked. I’ve promised Robbie I will return with friends to see what Alagna has to offer when it’s thigh-deep in pow. Until then, I’ll just keep looking at the sky…

Smiles all round: Abi with Alagna guide Robbie Valzer

Heliskiing is accessible closer to home that you might expect at a price point more accessible than if travelling across the Atlantic. James Orr Heliski offers a four-night, four-day holiday with one day heliskiing, ski pass, four days with mountain guide, private transfer from Milan and hotel accommodation in Alagna for £1,485pp. For more information visit heliski.co.uk

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