Gotta love the French. Masters of bureaucratic directives. Or circumventing them. Take heliski, for instance. Heliski is illegal in France. But here we are, spending a day with skis and helicopters. For only 60€, to boot.
It turns out that it is illegal to use a helicopter to take us to a mountain. But there is nothing that prevents using one take us from a mountain. So we are using the lifts to take ourselves to the highest mountaintop in Alpe d'Huez, Pic Blanc. And then we ski the backside, choosing any route as long as it gets us to the small village of Clavans le Haut. A scheduled heliservice will then pick us up, and five minutes later we are back in the central parts of Alpe d'Huez. At the cost of only 60€ per a run. Each run is over two kilometers of vertical and in an amazing backcountry that takes time to negotiate through. You can only do one or at most two runs per day. The costs are amazingly low for heliskiing, although for the first time you have to get a guide to learn the route.
The ski route that we chose was Glacier du Grand Sablat.
Dirtbag Heliskiing Options
I have never been to the expensive heliskiing operations in North America that can set you back 5 000$ or 10 000$ a week. And not just because of the money. Somehow these ultra-luxurious services are not even attractive. People who take them boast about the amount of vertical they get to do during the days and how it is all only perfect powder. But for me, skiing only powder would be akin to drinking only Champagne. It would get boring very quickly. You need to put in some effort as well, some traversing, skiing on in difficult conditions, or walking should be required. And the route in Alpe d'Huez had that. We do get back by the helicopter, but before that we've traversed a bit, walked a bit, and experienced all snow conditions from a meter of light powder to ice and wet slush.
A couple of years ago we paid 300€ for one special-request heliski ride in Alagna, Italy. We landed on a col near Monte Rosa, at 4250 meters and my skiing altitude record at the time. Even our half-empty copter was struggling to generate the lift to move at these altitudes. When we landed, we had to stay under the helicopter as it lifted off, for we could not put our skis on near the helicopter. And moving on the glacier without skis even for few meters could have been dangerous. The three kilometer run down the mountain from this spot was an adventure, including for instance, having to ski roped through crevassed areas.
A long, long time ago I went with a student group to Kittefjäll in Sweden. At the time they had one ski lift and two helicopters. At the end of the season the cost of full day heliskiing in the nearby mountains was 50€. The pilots doubled as bar tenders in the evening. I do not know if this service still exists or even if the place is still there, but it was a great experience. And again, the snow in the mountains in Sweden is not all powder. But skiing on hard, wind-blown snow forms on top may have been more interesting than mere deep powder.
The next day at Alpe d'Huez we returned to the same route. And took our time exploring the area and taking photographs, ending up at the village too late. The last heliride for the day had already gone. What now?
We succeeded in hiring a local farmer - who spoke no word of English - to take us back to the ski area with his car. A forty kilometer ride later we had gone around the valleys and had reached the closest ski lift. With just a couple of minutes to spare before the lift would have closed.
Ready to Walk Back?
On the third day we chose to abort our descent just before dropping into the village, and have our guide lead us on a hike back to a ridge where we could ski to Alpe d'Huez. The vertical rise was not more than a few hundred meters, but it was a tough walk for me. At the top of the ridge we reached a hut and enjoyed a drink. Interestingly, a barrel sauna was sitting next to the hut. It would have been even more fun to be able to use it. But we were due back to the ski area, and had no time.
We hired our guide from the ski area's guide office. Our guide was Patrick Guillaume.
This article is about our trip that happened in January. An earlier article described the tunnel ski run, but I ski too much to be able to write about everything on a timely basis.
Here is Jarmo's full-length video about our trip to Alpe d'Huez:
Photo and video credits (c) 2013 by Jari Arkko and Jarmo Ruuth. Tämä artikkeli löytyy myös suomeksi.