Un­charted ter­ri­tory, a heli ski adventure

Go Travel New Zealand - - Contents - by Re­becca Bond

Rarely has my mind clung to such a pre­car­i­ous emo­tional knife-edge. On the one side, un­bri­dled sheer ex­cite­ment and the other want­ing to throw-up from nerves at the thought of my first time in a he­li­copter, the drop, the iso­la­tion and the un­charted ter­ri­tory of ver­ti­cal ski ter­rain. A ques­tion turns over and over in my head: am I re­ally good enough to heliski? Ac­cord­ing to Tim, yes. If you are a strong in­ter­me­di­ate skier you will have no prob­lem – and it will be one of the best days of your life.

A ma­jor fea­ture on any keen skier or rider’s wish list, he­liski­ing has al­ways con­jured up images in my mind of drop­ping from a chop­per with skis me­tres above a near-ver­ti­cal, waist wide gully into deep pow­der, with noth­ing to get me down the moun­tain but adrenalin, faith and sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion.

The next morn­ing, as promised I am picked up from my ho­tel and taken to the heli pad; there are five of us in our group. We meet up with Tim and El­liott our guides for the day; they get busy sorting the kit – trans­ceivers, shov­els, air bags. Oh my god, what have I let my­self in for? We are told it is all pro­ce­dural and the chances of us be­ing buried in an avalanche on this blue­bird late July morn­ing are “very slim”.

Most of us are in the same heliski vir­gin boat, I am pleased to write, with me be­ing the only woman. Glanc­ing around dur­ing the safety brief­ing (pull the red loop on your airbag in case of an avalanche, make sure your trans­ceiver’s work­ing, don’t stand up by spin­ning blades) I see the same ex­pres­sion on each face; anx­ious an­tic­i­pa­tion, and sheer hor­ror. El­liott hands me a back­pack and check­ing it fits per­fectly, gives me a much needed re­as­sur­ing smile. I lay my skis and poles in the pick-up zone for him to load into the chop­per, take cover 15m back, take a deep breath and wait for the go sig­nal.

We are in now, belts on and no go­ing back. We do a cir­cle over the air­port and take off to the west head­ing to one of Alpine Heliski’s ex­clu­sive lo­ca­tions, Mt Ni­cholas Sta­tion, where the wool comes from for the fa­mous Ice­breaker cloth­ing brand. This can’t get any bet­ter, I thought as we flew over snow topped moun­tains and a crys­tal clear blue lake. We head to the top of a ridge, and my head starts spin­ning, and my hands are all sweaty as the he­li­copter’s skids touch down. My heart is pump­ing as I tell my­self to re­mem­ber the drill - duck down, clear the blades and do as di­rected. We all hud­dle to­gether and wait un­til we get the sig­nal.

Tim and El­liot empty the ski pod of our gear and sig­nal all clear to Nick the pi­lot. I look around at the panoramic alpine beauty as the he­li­copter lifts off, up and away; I have have never felt a rush quite like this be­fore.

We are alone; there is barely a bird in the pierc­ing blue sky, and all around is si­lence. I am so used to the ever-present din of the chaotic com­mer­cial slopes that the peace seems sur­real. I am left as­tounded by the empti­ness and beauty. As I glance around, the ter­rain is much more gen­teel than I ex­pected. The slopes of Mt Ni­cholas are lovely rolling wide open spa­ces that seem to go on for­ever. The run we are about to do (“Twice as Nice”) looks out of this world - wow, this is go­ing to be epic!

Tim calls out “fol­low one at a time” as he slips into his first turn, the soft, mid-morn­ing snow spray­ing out be­neath his fat skis – thank­fully I had rented a pair of th­ese (sound ad­vice from my guides). My group ex­change a few ner­vous nods and ar­range our­selves into a punc­tu­ated line with El­liot bring­ing up the rear. I slot in about half­way, not want­ing to be too close to the front or too near the back. I make my first few turns care­fully, get­ting a feel for the new sea­son snow. I hear Tim’s words echo­ing in my mind “he­liski­ing is for ev­ery­one”.

My ski legs come back; I start to re­lax into the slope and cruise over the white crests, find­ing my way down the val­ley. I begin to re­alise he­liski­ing is about more than dis­cov­er­ing in­sanely gnarly pow pow – (a boys’ day out) – it’s about the ex­pe­ri­ence as a whole; the prepa­ra­tion, the lift, the drop, the si­lence, the iso­la­tion, then the de­scent.

It takes us just un­der an hour to reach the bot­tom of the val­ley where we await our lift. The he­li­copter is heard be­fore seen then within 30 sec­onds it lands. I pick up my skis and move to­wards it, but El­liott ges­tures me back. The chop­per’s blades slow be­fore chug­ging to a stop, and Tim reaches in and brings out a ham­per – our lunch. Tim and El­liot pre­pare a snow ta­ble for our pic­nic lunch of hot pies, rolls and sand­wiches with soup. I can’t be­lieve I am hav­ing a pic­nic in such a re­mote and beau­ti­ful moun­tain set­ting. Soon we are ush­ered back into the he­li­copter to com­plete our two fur­ther runs of our three-run day, “Crys­tal Glide” and “Bot­tom Less” which turned out to be just as out­stand­ing as “Twice as Nice”. Our re­turn flight to Queen­stown Air­port and Alpine Heliski’s base was a fit­ting end to an amaz­ing day as we flew down the Von River Gorge, with se­ri­ous canyons and fast flow­ing wa­ter emp­ty­ing into the great lake Wakatipu.

I am still grin­ning now, safe in the knowl­edge that my nerves had got­ten a lit­tle car­ried away; he­liski­ing is not the bru­tal, cold-blooded mon­ster of a hell trip I had let my­self worry it was. There is a softer side just as ex­hil­a­rat­ing and frankly awe­some with­out be­ing ter­ri­fy­ing. It is still a white-knuckle ex­pe­ri­ence, but one for which the bal­ance of an­tic­i­pa­tion can be firmly kept to child­ish ex­cite­ment rather than blub­ber­ing fear. You need not be in the top per­centile of revered skiers or rid­ers (half de­cent should do it). In short – one of the best ex­pe­ri­ences I have ever had! GTNZ


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