Snow has been falling in the Southern Alps for hundreds of thousands of years, yet it’s only in the last handful that we’ve been accessing it for our pleasure. In fact, snowboarding was invented for big mountains like ours, and literally millions of hectares of terrain await exploration… providing you have the means to access it!
Of course, we must thank skiing for breaking the early ground for the snowboarding pioneers of the 70’s, who were driven to ‘surf’ powder snow standing sideways. Resorts had already been established to cater for the growing ski demand, allowing our forefathers somewhere to test their early prototypes and start the ball rolling. The rest is history, as they say.
But participating in something that invokes total freedom of expression could never be contained within resort boundaries. Combined with growth in tourism numbers, untracked snow is pretty hard to find after opening hour. This is why heli boarding has become a bucket list item for most of us driven to ride virgin powder.
Our Alps are not just okay for that… they are incredible. In fact legend Norwegian pro rider Terje Haakonsen summed them up this way, “In New Zealand, you can get everything from mini Alaska to wind lip lines or whatever, so you kind of get everything.” He would know, having spent countless back-to-back New Zealand winters riding the Arrowsmith range near Methven filming for his sponsors during the late nineties and early 2000’s.
The beauty of heliboarding is it’s not just limited to professionals or even experienced riders. Even a few days riding under your belt can see you participate. Heli operators have packages that identify rider ability, making sure you’re placed with others of similar skill. And its not just the actual riding experience that will blow you away… the heli ride itself adds a whole new adrenaline journey before you’ve even laid your first turn!
So how does it all roll? Well, once you’ve made the decision to throw down the necessary funds, there are a couple of options up your sleeve:
- Get some mates together and charter your own chopper and guides. This is the Rolls Royce option, and comes with an associated price tag. Chartering means you’ll have ‘the bird’ with you at all times, and gives you more options in terms of what terrain you can access and at what times of day you can operate. Normally two guides will accompany your group of three, four, or even five riders, depending on what machine you have at your disposal. Chartering normally means committing to a minimum of two hours flight time, so the price can get up there. But for the ultimate experience this is the way to go.
2- Join a group package. This is the most common option, which sees you one of a large pool of riders that are then placed into smaller groups of 4 or 5 of similar ability level. You’ll still have guides with you, but the machine will drop your group off then relocate to another run with another group. Easier on the pocket and still a great way to experience heli boarding.
Once again, thanks to skiing, using helicopters to access out of bounds terrain is well established here in New Zealand, and with a great safety record to boot. In fact, many pilots and guides travel to the northern hemisphere winter to work during our summer, so are highly experienced.
Preparation is pretty much like any other day riding in terms of equipment and protective gear, but if you have a bigger board than your standard resort stick, this is the time to break that baby out. Longer rails and stiffer flex is what you want if the plan is to Mach it. If you only have one board, set your bindings back a tad to keep the nose up, and don’t forget to wax!
Picking the right day to roll can be the hardest part of the heli equation, with New Zealand’s weather notoriously fickle. Study the weather maps in advance to see what’s in store. If there have been recent large snowfalls (over 50 cms), most companies will wait a day or even two to let that new snow consolidate and bond with the base for safety reasons. If you can help it, only fly when there are light winds and clear blue skies. Not for any safety issue, it will just enhance what could be the best day riding of your life. It could take some take time for those two factors to line up, but if time is on your side, wait for it! Also keep an eye on freezing levels, the lower the better. If they’ve gone up after a fresh snowfall, that could mean a light crust has developed on the surface. Snow that has remained in the shade may still be blower powder, but you may be limited to riding on those facing aspects if you want to enter the white room! Also, lower freezing levels mean longer runs, as the powder at lower levels will remain just that!
Having been lucky enough to have a few trips under my belt now, I can honestly say they are not nearly enough… so be prepared to feed what might become a long and expensive addiction!
Words and Photos by Phil Erickson Ski and Snow 2019