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Heli-skiing: Blades of glory

For some really wild skiing, take a helicopter into Italy’s Alta Valsesia Natural Park, where the only other tracks will be paw prints

Heli-skiing: Blades of glory
Image: SuperStock

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“When the helicopter comes in to land, keep your head down and wait until I motion you over. Put your gloves on and keep hold of everything,” says Robbie, our guide, as he pulls tight the straps binding our four sets of skis together. We crouch in the snow, waiting. My heart is beating so hard I can feel it in my mouth — I rarely feel nervous skiing and it catches me by surprise.

We hear the helicopter before we see it — the chop, chop, chop of its blades cutting through the air — then suddenly, over the crest of the hill, a bright yellow AStar appears, landing just metres away, stirring up the snow into a storm around us. I glance up and see Robbie beckoning
us over to climb in.

I’m in Alagna, Italy, at the far end of the Monterosa, an area known for its gnarly off-piste skiing — couloirs, glaciers and wide-open powder bowls that are easily accessed via lifts and a hike. But take a helicopter and you can drop into the wilderness of the Alta Valsesia Natural Park and ski with a mountain all to yourself.

It’s a cliche but I feel like James Bond as the chopper rises and banks away from our pick-up point beside the Rifugio Citta di Vigevano (9,396ft) refuge, whirring along the Pass D’Otro to Pala D’Etra (8,639ft). Another swift landing, we bundle out, Robbie grabs the skis from the basket attached to one side of the chopper, slams shut the door and the pilot lifts up and away, gone so fast I’m left wondering if it actually happened. But it did — we’re standing on an utterly remote peak, a wide open, gentle powder run in front of us into Val Vogna.

The sight of the run ahead of us quickly slows the rush of adrenalin I’ve had for the past half-hour. I’m the only female skier in the group (heli-skiing is for some reason very male-dominated, and conjures up images of diesel-fuelled, hardcore skiing in inaccessible, dangerous locations). But the run ahead is mellow, and as Robbie — an IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations)-trained guide, born and bred here in Alagna — shows us the line, my fears abate. Yes, I’m wearing a transceiver, avalanche pack and carrying a probe and shovel, but today the avalanche risk is two (moderate), and the gradient of the slope we’re about to tackle is much less than 30 degrees — the golden number, over which the risk of avalanche rockets.

It’s my first taste of heli-skiing and the remote wilderness is glorious. While I love ski touring, I feel guiltily delighted that I’ve ascended this high via one quick swoop rather than climbing on skins for several hours. Crucially, my legs are fresh.

The run down lasts two hours — it hasn’t snowed recently but we make turn after turn in fresh, untracked, spring-like snow, through a small forest alongside the Vogna torrent and eventually climb out to ski along a road to the Valle Vogna, located at 4,531ft, home to a stone church and mountain hut hotel-cum-informal restaurant. Robbie’s wife, Elena, arrives five minutes later to pick us up and drive us 10 minutes home to Alagna, where a celebratory G&T is waiting in the bar opposite their B&B, Tre Alberi Liberi.

I pause before taking a sip. It’s something to savour, your first heli drop on skis — the chance of a lifetime, and a memory to hold forever.

How to do it: James Orr Heliski has four days in Alagna for £1,485pp, with B&B accommodation, private airport transfers, a guide, ski pass and one day’s heliskiing.

Three to try: Affordable places to heliski

Arcalis, Andorra: Arcalis is a freeride heaven — indeed it’s one of the stops on the Freeride World Tour. Couloirs, cliffs, off-piste and powder bowls abound, and heliskiing here is affordable and fun. Four drops in this off-piste playground cost €210pp (£184); minimum four skiers/snowboarders.

Silverton, Colorado: North America’s answer to La Grave in France, Silverton has one rickety old chairlift serving some of the steepest skiing in Colorado. It’s all off-piste, and normal access is lift followed by hike, so treat yourself to a heli drop for $179 (£138).

Reverse heliski: With Val Heli-Ski’s reverse heliski packages you meet a guide at the top of a lift in Tignes, climb for up to 45 minutes with touring skis, enjoy a long off-piste run and, at the end, a get a helicopter ride back to resort. £125 for a half day, £210 for a day (min four people).

Published in the Winter Sports 2018 guide, free with the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)