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Mon 06 March 2023
If you’re itching for a powder fix this winter, there’s no better way to score than hitching a ride in a helicopter. Forget the hour-long lift lines, the ski patrol ropes and the mountains of tracks. Out in the heli, it’s just you and your crew, a pilot and a guide leading the charge–likely to the best turns of your season. At least, that was our experience riding with Bella Coola Heli Sports last month in British Columbia.
A snowboarder rides down a steep snowy hill with a blue background template
A skier samples the heli-accessed goods in Bella Coola, British Columbia.Illustration: Forbes/Photo: Getty
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It was. The truth is, though, our mission to Bella Coola was strictly business. Yes, we were there to ride as many drool-inducing lines as humanly possible and rip powder until we couldn’t stand anymore. However, our main objective was to sift through a pile of ski and snowboard essentials and find the best heli gear on the planet. Every single turn was research for you, dear reader. Psst–did you hear that, IRS? We were there on business.
Our Testing Grounds: Bella Coola Heli Sports
A five-time winner of the World Ski Award’s “Best Heli Operation” award and the world’s first climate-positive heli operator, Bella Coola Heli Sports runs six lodges in the rugged, remote and utterly snow-caked Coast Mountains of British Columbia. The op’s tenure is unfathomably massive, clocking in at over 3.55 million acres, and those acres are home to some of the best skiing and riding in the world.
Such accolades are far from hyperbolic due to two key factors: terrain and snow. Terrain ranges from mellow glacial bowls and welcoming glades to technical alpine couloirs and steeps that mimic Alaska’s most prolific faces. And then there’s the snow. Storms from the Pacific, which is just a snowball’s throw from the tenure, slather these peaks in foot after foot of cold, crispy powder. See for yourself in this edit from Salomon Freeski.
Factor in world-class guides and pilots, top-of-the-line choppers, luxurious yet cozy lodges, and mouth-watering cuisine and craft cocktails, and you’ve got a recipe for a damn good time. And, of course, the perfect place to spend a week testing ski and snowboard gear. Somebody’s gotta do it, so it might as well be us, right? Now without further ado, let’s get into the gear.
Ski And Snowboard Gear Worth Taking On Your Next Heli Trip
Before we dive into our favorite heli gear, a quick caveat: While this gear is primo for heli shredding, most of it is more than up to the task of hitting the resort, too. After all, if it’s ready for the powder-rich promised land of Bella Coola, it’s ready for anything.
Snowboarders joke that you can ride a barn door in powder, and they’re right on the money–in high-quality snow, most snowboards can throw surfy slashes one run, then straightline a technical couloir the next. That said, few do it as well as the Flight Attendant.
A freeride-meets-freestyle branch of Burton’s experimental, high-end, powder-loving “Family Tree” line, the Flight Attendant is an all-mountain machine tweaked to slay deep snow. When storm totals are measured in feet instead of inches, the Flight Attendant’s wide, rockered nose facilitates float. In firmer conditions, the cambered mid-section enhances edge hold and supplies pop, while the stiffer tail helps rail turns and land cliff drops. And with 10mm of taper–meaning the nose is wider than the tail–the board floats well but can still ride and land switch. Our first taste of the Flight Attendant in Bella Coola was bouncing through a pillow field, spraying surfy turns and launching airs, drops and butters–needless to say it was love at first lap. We’ve actually ridden this shape a ton in-bounds, too, and the Flight Attendant rips groomers, holds a reliable edge in gnarly steeps and can hold its own when it comes to freestyle.
Bottom Line: Demos are included in Bella Coola Heli Sports packages, and the Burton Flight Attendant is the backbone of the operation’s snowboard demo fleet. If you’re going to get one board that can do it all but excels in powder, the Flight Attendant is a go-to shape and one our testers highly recommend.
With more awards on its mantle than all but the most decorated skiers, Salomon’s critically acclaimed QST Blank is a perfect ski for the terrain and snow conditions you’ll find buzzing around the Coast Mountains. With a 112mm waist and early-rise rocker in the mid-flexing tip and tail, the QST is playful in powder and buoyant enough to float in the deepest of deep. That said, thie design sports reliable camber and stiffness underfoot, making it trustworthy if you surf a corn cycle in spring or come across hardpack. Also of note, an alchemical construction that supplies the rare balance between shock absorption and responsiveness. Technical trappings include: a poplar core balanced with cork dampeners, a Titanal insert that runs edge-to-edge, and a blend of carbon fiber and flax reinforcements in the tip and tail.
Bottom Line: All told, the Salomon QST Blank is a smooth, powder-crushing ski that advanced skiers will be stoked to ride in BC. No surprise, it’s a popular pick in Bella Coola Heli Sports’ ski demo fleet. Even better? It handles the chop at your local resort quite well, too.
If you’re entering the backcountry, avalanche safety gear–
and knowing how to use it–is absolutely imperative. At heli operations like Bella Coola Heli Sports, you don’t need to bring your own avalanche safety gear, as they have industry-trusted Mammut beacons, shovels and probes on hand. We’re big fans of Mammut’s Barryvox beacons as they’re easy to operate and have a more-than-respectable range.
If you’re shopping for your own set of avalanche safety gear or need to replace a beat-down kit, we like this option from the alpine aficionados at Mammut. It includes the Barryvox beacon, which, again, is both powerful and intuitive to use, as well as a shovel and probe that strike the balance between minimal weight and maximum backcountry utility.
Bottom Line: A smart one-stop shop for beacon, shovel, and probe.
Need pack advice? Stash your avalanche gear in an avalanche airbag. Heli ops will supply each guest with an airbag, but if you’re looking for one to use at home, we dig Mammut’s Removable Airbag System, as it’s proven, effective, lightweight and affordable. Plus, you can use one airbag across a number of backpack sizes. For example, you can use the Vest for mechanized backcountry skiing (i.e. heli, cat or snowmobile), the Tour 30 for everyday touring, and the Pro 45 for bigger adventures in the alpine.
An Important Note on Avalanche Safety: While guides will give you a basic breakdown of how to use avalanche safety gear when you’re at a heli lodge, that is by no means sufficient for you to explore the backcountry on your own. If you want to venture into the backcountry, buying safety gear is just the beginning. Start with a recreational AIARE 1 course, or take an intro to backcountry course with a local guide, then an AIARE 1 course. Find certified courses and instructors near you here. From there, continue to build your backcountry skillset by reading the avalanche forecast, touring with experienced mentors and hiring knowledgeable guides.