Are You Good Enough...to Heliski?

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WHAT IT TAKES: Helicopter skiing isn't always about light powder in open bowls. On a typical day, you'll likely encounter a variety of weather and snow. The best heliskiers are physically strong and can handle anything: extreme steeps and tight trees, powder, crud, corn, crust and, yes, even ice—sometimes in a single run.

Heliskiing requires discipline and humility. When a guide says, "Stay to the left of my tracks, or you may die, he means it. Though North American heli outfits have stellar safety records, it's an inherently risky undertaking in a totally uncontrolled environment. Avalanches, crevasses, cliff-drops—even heli crashes—are facts of life.

There's pressure to keep up, too. Three groups typically share a helicopter, and they can only go as fast as the weakest skier. If someone falls and loses a ski, it's understandable, but everyone must wait. When someone just can't keep up, others are less forgiving.

Veterans know that their week might include a number of perfect days, but also periods of poor visibility and so-so snow. Provided you're proficient in powder, there are lodges that specifically cater to less-aggressive skiers, with comparatively tame terrain. "If you can ski black runs at Aspen or Stowe, you can heliski, says heli-icon Mike Wiegele. "Some of our most loyal guests are only strong intermediates. The 'extreme' image is changing.

Once you've mastered anything they can throw at you, you might be ready for Alaska (chugachpowderguides.com)—the post-graduate powder experience. There, no matter what level of skier you are, you'll feel exposed and vulnerable. A better word might be "terrified.

HOW TO GET THERE: Borrow or buy fat powder skis and practice with them in all kinds of snow. Ski long, sustained runs to increase your endurance. Work out. Read up on backcountry safety, though your guide will train you before your first flight. And if you need to, take powder lessons, or consider clinics (skiingontheedge.com, gravitydex.com). If you're in doubt about your ability, try a snowcat skiing operation first. Then talk to the heliskiing outfits (wiegele.com, cmhski.com) about which terrain best suits your ability.