Heli Ski High in the Himalaya

Reachin My Heli Ski High in the Himalayas

 Awesome scenery!

Awesome scenery!

I’ve written previously about the amazing experience of heliskiing endless powder, remote wilderness, incredible views, awesome lodge experiences. I used to think heli skiing in Canada or Alaska is pretty exotic, cool, epic- all those words. But then, I went heli skiing in The Himalayas and that changed my view on everything.

When i started heli skiing (read – pre internet proliferation), I had no idea about the extent to where you could go heli skiing, thinking options were limited to a couple of locations in Canada and Alaska. So, it was my mission when I started Total Heliski ,my heliski media and travel company, that I would open up the global possibilities of heli skiing and boarding to my members and clients. As such, The Total Heliski World of Adventure was formed, and this is my story about heli skiing further afield than Canada or Alaska. About heli skiing in the remote, majestic Himalayan peaks of the Himachal Pradesh region of India.

I reached my very own heliski-high in more ways than one last winter when after heli skiing prolifically in Canada, Alaska, and Europe, I figured it was time to venture further afield. To travel to the far remote corners of India, to chase my dream- Heliskiing in the Mighty Himalayas.

I had been to the Himalayas before, spending six weeks in the 90’s in Nepal, trekking, white water rafting and safari viewing. Back then, it was still pretty exotic to everyone but the tight knit community of high altitude mountaineers and their clients. At that time I was privileged to visit Everest Base Camp during summiting season, staying over night with an expedition, and thus witness first hand serious expeditions on summit day. Expeditions that take such risk and require such precision to succeed. We witnessed the satellite phone calls of teams from the top of Everest, which I shall remember forever.

Boarding for Kullu

I’ve written previously about the amazing experience of heliskiing endless powder, remote wilderness, incredible views, awesome lodge experiences. I used to think heli skiing in Canada or Alaska is pretty exotic, cool, epic- all those words. But then, I went heli skiing in The Himalayas and that changed my view on everything.

When i started heli skiing (read – pre internet proliferation), I had no idea about the extent to where you could go heli skiing, thinking options were limited to a couple of locations in Canada and Alaska. So, it was my mission when I started Total Heliski ,my heliski media and travel company, that I would open up the global possibilities of heli skiing and boarding to my members and clients. As such, The Total Heliski World of Adventure was formed, and this is my story about heli skiing further afield than Canada or Alaska. About heli skiing in the remote, majestic Himalayan peaks of the Himachal Pradesh region of India.

Twin prop plane

I reached my very own heliski-high in more ways than one last winter when after heli skiing prolifically in Canada, Alaska, and Europe, I figured it was time to venture further afield. To travel to the far remote corners of India, to chase my dream- Heliskiing in the Mighty Himalayas.

I had been to the Himalayas before, spending six weeks in the 90’s in Nepal, trekking, white water rafting and safari viewing. Back then, it was still pretty exotic to everyone but the tight knit community of high altitude mountaineers and their clients. At that time I was privileged to visit Everest Base Camp during summiting season, staying over night with an expedition, and thus witness first hand serious expeditions on summit day. Expeditions that take such risk and require such precision to succeed. We witnessed the satellite phone calls of teams from the top of Everest, which I shall remember forever.

Himalayas in the Distance!

On arriving at Kullu airport and picking up our bags, we were driven in taxis for an hour or so up to our hotel past Manali.

Our Drive to Manali
 

Greeted with our Hats

Finally, we arrived at Hotel Manali, our (Indian standard 4 star) hotel home for the next week. It was a lovely local Indian architecture style. We were ushered in from our taxis into a freezing cold foyer, heating was superfluous in here as you only go in there for 5 minutes. We were met and welcomed to Manali by the friendly Indian owner of our Himalayan operator- Manjeev and his team of Kiwi, Aussie and Swiss guides, and showered with rose water tea and a gift of a traditional Manali hat.

Impressive.

Photos were taken, and we were soon shown first to the main lodge dining/ lounge room which was to be our central meeting place over the week, and then to our rooms.  I was impressed, I received a large room with expansive four poster bed make of teak or some other equally impressive hardwood, looking out onto a balcony overlooking the court yard, and a view up the valley of Himalayan mountains. Sublime.

Helipad out the back, what more could i ask for. Wifi that worked? Well yes, it did, enough for Facetime when there wasn’t load shedding. Cable TV? In theory in the room. In reality not enough bandwidth. Oh well, i was here to heliski, not watch tv. It had been 36 hours ofp travel for me from Vancouver via Hong Kong, Delhi and Kullu after all.

 Our Bell 407 awaiting us on the helipad.

Our Bell 407 awaiting us on the helipad.

 HAHAinvented air bag system. Awesome.

HAHAinvented air bag system. Awesome.

We were shown the helipad and ski room- to pick our skis or take our own boots/ skis for setup. And then told to remain for the safety and helicopter briefing. Now, the back story here is that the original owner of this heliski operation was a Kiwi who was also an inventor. He actually invented airbags for this operation before they were commercialised elsewhere. These are still in use today, and although their demonstration was rather funny and design rather unproduction like, it proved they do work, and we would be protected in the event of an unsightly avalanche.

It was a fine sunny afternoon by this time. I had been expecting a nice slow afternoon of rest after 36 hours, but given the blue bird day, group consensus was ‘Let’s go heli skiing’. So we hopped in the bird, and up we went, up the valley, over the plateau and into the terrain closely above the hotel. It was only about 3600m altitude for starters. 2 runs later, to warm up the legs, i realised that my lack of sleep was a really bad influence on my skiing. I was skiing like a grandmother. But the views were breath taking and I had to keep pinching myself- we were in the Himalayas!! There was tree and glacier skiing. The trees were really spaced apart- more similar to Australian skiing than North American.

 While waiting for the others...

While waiting for the others...

Pintu, our Indian guide.

That night, at dinner, which was always delicious and healthy, we properly met the other skiers- A private Russian group who spend their time skiing all over the world- they had skied every where BUT Canada or Alaska as it turned out. There was a Swiss group and us. The lead guide is a fellow Aussie from Tassie called Roger, who runs NZ’s most popular heliski company, he’s been around the race track a few times, but boy can he ski. Then there was Nigel the gnarly kiwi heli pilot who has flown every where from Papua New Guinea to the Himalayas and in between. His specialty of course is high mountain flying. But sadly, he loves skiing too. A dilemma for any heliski pilot. Then there was Trevor, he runs the competing heli operation to Roger in NZ in the winter. He has been leading this operation for many years. A real Kiwi mountain man i thought. And there were also two Indian guides- Pintu and Chuni. Remarkable all the more because they taught themselves to ski, without the benefit of real ski resorts.

 Roger, our awesome guide.

Roger, our awesome guide.

 Gerry with his oxygen on.

Gerry with his oxygen on.

However, probably the most interesting of the characters was Swiss heli pilot Gerry. He was the chief pilot, the CEO of Air Zermatt, and later shared with me in an interview that he was in charge of the mountain climbing air rescue service in Nepal during high altitude climbing season.He spent about an hour one night showing me his extraordinary photos of high altitude helicopter mountain rescues he had performed all over Nepal during climbing season. It was like watching National Geographic and CNN combined. There were some serious close calls, amazing rescues there were also some tragedies- notably a live helicopter crash by a newly trained Nepalese pilot at 7,000m killing the pilot, destroying the machine (it literally dropped out of the sky), and leaving the rescuee stranded on the peak for another day. Filmed by the guy who had first been rescued and was filming his friend’s imminent rescue.

Snowing outside

The next couple of days, we had to lay low, literally, not heli skiing because it snowed endlessly (over a metre), and so we did side trips to a local village and the town of Manali. Interesting. Tough way of life around here. It didn’t seem so bad having to wait for 10mins for hot water to flow through the shower in my room, when the locals live in practically mud huts with no sanitation or hot showers themselves. But they seem like such happy cavalier people. It’s easy to see how simplicity has it’s benefits. You have never seen anything more amusing than Indians try to ski down the main street in 80’s skis with boots way too big. Just like the Warren Miller films. Dumping, dumping, dumping. It was continuous. I was wondering how we would ski in such snow when it finally would stop. There was a local ski resort, but ironically when it snows this much, they can’t get the electricity to work the lift, so it becomes more like back country skinning.

 Ski rental - Manali Style.

Ski rental - Manali Style.

And then, just like the snow came in, on our 4th day in Manali, the sun came out and we were able to hit the Curry Powder again. This time we climbed up to 4,000m and then 4,500m gradually ascending more on each run. Gerry and Nigel fly with oxygen because it’s too high for pilots. Landing and climbing out of the helicopter used energy, but once the heli flew off, we could see from almost 5,000m of altitude an infinite, surreal backdrop of Himalayan epic peaks. Whereas in Alaska, the scenery is amazing because of it’s proximity to water, the Himalayas was spectacular because of the sheer mass of the peaks. They were huge, like giant European alps. And they made me feel so small, and insignificant, and i love this about heli skiing. Just love it. 5,000m remarkably is quite easy to ski downhill I noted. Doing the ski buckles up, another thing altogether.

 Thumbs Up Day!!

Thumbs Up Day!!

 Sweet Turns!

Sweet Turns!

The skiing was insane this day. There were runs which we skied with bottomless powder, turn after turn. The snow although light, felt deep, felt thick and rich, like a thick custard. And we got some awesome footage with the Go Pros from the heli and from the helmet cam. I just need to get it edited now.

And then, just as quickly as the trip arrived, it was over. We skied high and we skied hard. We experienced amazing scenery, and were touched by the people we met in the local villages, and the familial atmosphere at the Manali Hotel. Leaving but remembered forever as the place I reached my heliski high both literally and figuratively.