There is a world of unbroken terrain out there that awaits those willing to venture off the beaten slopes. Helicopters and snowcats will get you there.
Powder is to skiing what whipped cream is to a sundae — it makes something you already love even better. Over the past two decades I’ve been lucky enough to catch my fair share of “epic” powder days: knee deep in Telluride, thigh deep in Jackson, waist deep in Alta. I say lucky because snow is unpredictable, and even in high-snowfall places it comes more often in inches than feet, and on the average weeklong ski vacation the chances of catching the big one are poor. Even if you do, it never lasts because locals wait all year for storms like that and they hit it hard and fast. Everyone wants to ski powder, and untracked resort snow means long lift lines and skipped lunches. It rarely lasts out the day, even though you can see plenty more outside the ski area boundaries, all the way to the horizon, taunting you on every lift ride. If only you could leave the thousands of other skiers behind and have all that unbroken powder to yourself, that would be skiing (or snowboarding) heaven.
Now you can. For decades ski resorts have been adding luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, and endless off-slope activities, from bowling alleys to zip lines, dog sledding to spas. But suddenly, avid skiers and riders are looking for something else when they plan winter vacations: even more skiing and snowboarding. And more snow.
The out-of-bounds powder skiing seen in countless ski videos and accessed by helicopters or snowcats has long been the sport’s ultimate fantasy, skiing’s Holy Grail. But two barriers to entry stopped most skiers and riders from trying these. First, they were suited only to true experts, and secondly, many historically operated as weeklong itineraries out of remote wilderness lodges in northwestern Canada and Alaska, requiring a long trip and leap of faith. A lodge-based trip was a real commitment — and intimidating — especially for someone who had never tried it. They are typically not family friendly, not too luxurious, and are all about the skiing, minus the other charms that make ski resort towns great vacation destinations.
This has changed rapidly thanks to massive technological advances in skis, leading to far more by-the-day opportunities at destination resorts. The big difference? Instead of a heli-skiing or snowcat, or cat-skiing, vacation, you can now take your “normal” ski or snowboard vacation — and still go heli- or cat-skiing.
I’ve been heli-skiing a few times and cat-skiing several times but usually just for one day per trip, and I’ve never had to go far out of my way from a full-service resort. And yes, it is awesome — because of all that powder. I’d find myself laughing halfway down because I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The average heli-skiing operation puts a couple dozen skiers per day in an area several times the size of Vail (the nation’s largest single-mountain ski resort). Not to mention, there’s also a permanent grin on my face when I’m skiing powder like that every run.