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That whirlybird you hear over snow-covered mountains may be the sound of a load of skiers being ferried to untracked terrain. If you'd rather be up there with them instead of taking another icy chairlift to the top of a crowded slope, think about booking a helicopter-skiing vacation. Or, if you're afraid of choppers, stay on terra firma and hitch a ride on a snowcat -- essentially a heated cabin on wide bulldozer treads that can wend its way up steep paths.
Not so long ago this type of skiing was an indulgence reserved for expert skiers and snowboarders who had the skills to maneuver in the deep powder of the back country. But ski equipment technology has put it within reach of more people. "Powder skis are wider and allow more flotation. They have opened the doors to many intermediate skiers," says Joe Royer, who owns Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing in Lamoille, Nev. (helicopterskiing.com).
If you're more at ease on blue-square trails than black diamonds, make sure the company can accommodate you. Steamboat Powder Cats (blueskywest.com) in Steamboat Springs, Colo., which operates three snowcats a day, divides skiers into groups by skill level, sending out 12 with two guides and a driver. Manager Kent Vertrees says intermediate skiers stay on tracks with open glades and low angles. "There's nothing over their heads," he says. Expert skiers will be taken through trees and on slopes as steep as 40 degrees.
For back-country skiing, kids usually need to be at least 12 years old. Kim Gutner and Russell Davis, a psychiatrist and lawyer from Del Mar, Calif., have gone to British Columbia for a week of heli-skiing every year since 1997. This month they plan to take their daughters, ages 15 and 12, for the first time on a trip organized by Canadian Mountain Holidays, a multisite resort company based in Banff, Alberta, that's starting a family program. The cost of the Christmas-week trip is $5,155 for each adult and $2,578 per child, including meals, lodging, and non-ski, kid-related activities, according to canadamountainholidays.com. Mark Baumgardner, owner of Sun Valley Heli-Ski in Sun Valley, Idaho (sunvalleyheliski.com), says he has had guests as young as 10. "If the kids are mature enough to take direction and are good skiers, the trip can be a great bonding experience for the family," he says.
On a typical day heli-skiers can rack up 12,000 to 14,000 vertical feet in 6 to 12 runs. A chopper flies skiers to the top, lands, and lets them off. Then it flies off to pick up another group. When the first group gets to the bottom, the helicopter retrieves them and takes them to a new location. For snowcat skiing, the vehicle stays with the group.REFUND POLICIES
There are differences between heli-skiing and snowcat skiing. A helicopter can fly to terrain snowcats can't reach. Because choppers are faster, heli-skiers can cover more vertical feet. You pay extra for that: A day of heli-skiing costs as much as $750 to $850 per person, while a snowcat day goes for $225 to $350. Heli-skiers also run the risk of wind, heavy snow, or thick cloud cover canceling the expedition at the last minute, so check the operator's policy before you sign on. When its helicopters are grounded, Ruby Mountain uses snowcats, providing rebates if the guaranteed vertical feet are not met. Sun Valley offers a rain check or the chance to ski the next day, or charges $100 if you want a refund.
No matter what your skill level, back-country skiing carries risks. Although helicopters occasionally crash, a more common safety issue is avalanches. Last year 37 skiers, snowmobilers, and hikers in the U.S. and Canada died in avalanches, according to the American Avalanche Assn. Prospective skiers should ask about the guides' training in avalanche rescue as well as precautions the operator takes to check for potential hazards and the procedures in case of a slide.
At Sun Valley and Ruby Mountain, each skier wears a transceiver that emits an electronic signal alerting the others if the skier is caught in a slide. The guide leading a group of four will start off first and then shelter behind an "island of safety," a rock or ridge that affords protection in case of an avalanche. The others follow one by one, always in view of one another.
Even the best plans can go awry. Ken Ambrose, 57, a heli-skier who owns a company in San Francisco that manages corporate flight departments, once found himself "tumbling down in a cascading wave of snow" that covered him to his shoulders. The rest of the group, which had been standing behind a rocky outcrop, rescued him within seconds. "It really gives you a respect for snow safety," he says. "If you have people in safe islands, they can dig you out."
To find heli-skiing in the U.S., check the Heli Ski U.S. Assn. at heliski.org. For snowcat operators, use a search engine or a travel agency that specializes in skiing. Snowcat companies are often located near ski resorts. For Canada, check the British Columbia Helicopter & Snowcat Skiing Operators Assn. (bchssoa.com). Depending on the operator and its location, you can purchase a day at a busy mountain resort or a three- to seven-day package, including lodging and meals, in an isolated area. The chance to ski down untracked runs from remote mountain tops is well worth the cost. And for powder heads, there's no better way to go. By Susan B. Garland