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Okay so this is it; I am at the Alpine Heli Ski office to sign my waiver form and meet the guides. I am handed a form and Tim O’Leary – owner and chief guide – talks me through tomorrow’s adventure.
“Blue bird day tomorrow, it is going to be a fantastic day – the snow is the best so far this season”.
Later, I‘m lying in bed staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep; what have I signed up for? I glance across at the clock, and it is past 1am. I sigh and roll over, knowing full well I should be able to drift off, but the butterflies in my stomach are having a hoe-down and my mind is going 130kph, for tomorrow I am going heliskiing – thanks to my boyfriend who thought it was the best present ever to give me while holidaying in Queenstown!
Rarely has my mind clung to such a precarious emotional knife-edge. On the one side, unbridled sheer excitement and the other wanting to throw-up from nerves at the thought of my first time in a helicopter, the drop, the isolation and the uncharted territory of vertical ski terrain. A question turns over and over in my head: am I really good enough to heliski? My boyfriend Sam thinks so as does my heliski guide Tim. According to Tim, if you are a strong intermediate skier you will have no problem – and it will be one of the best days of your life.
A major feature on any keen skier or rider's wish list, heliskiing has always conjured up images in my mind of dropping from a chopper with skis meters above a near-vertical, waist wide gully into deep powder, with nothing to get me down the mountain but adrenalin, faith and sheer determination with the odd eye shutting moment. I always felt like it was reserved for world-class, rich pro-athletes – not the girl who loves to ski when and where ever possible.
The next morning, as promised I am picked up from my hotel and taken to the heli pad; there are five of us in our group. We meet up with Tim and Elliott our guides for the day; they get busy sorting the kit for the day – transceivers, shovels, air bags. Oh my god, what have I let myself in for? We are told it is all procedural and the chances of us being buried in an avalanche on this bluebird late July morning are "very slim". Most of us are in the same heliski virgin boat – I am pleased to write (me being the only woman).
Glancing around during the safety briefing (pull the red loop on your airbag in case of an avalanche, make sure your transceiver's working, don't stand up by spinning blades) I see the same expression on each face; anxious anticipation, and sheer horror. Elliott hands me a backpack and checking it fits perfectly, gives me a much needed reassuring smile. I lay my skis and poles in the pick-up zone for him to load into the chopper, take cover 15m back, take a deep breath and wait for the go signal. We are in now, belts on and no going back!
We do a circle over the airport and take off to the west heading to one of Alpine Heliski’s exclusive locations, Mt Nicholas Station, where the wool comes from for the famous Icebreaker clothing brandthe wool keeps you warm. This can't get any better, I thought as we flew over snow topped mountains and a crystal clear blue lake.
We head to the top of a ridge, and my head starts spinning, and my hands are all sweaty as the helicopter's skids touch down. My heart is pumping as I tell myself to remember the drill - duck down, clear the blades and do as directed. We all huddle together and wait until we get the signal. Tim and Elliot empty the ski pod of our gear and signal all clear to the pilot I, Nick. I look around at the panoramic alpine beauty as the helicopter lifts off, up and away; I have have never felt a rush quite like this before. My pulse is racing, and a smile is plastered across my windswept face – I have made it this far! We are alone; there is barely a bird in the piercing blue sky, and all around is silence.
I am so used to the ever-present din of the chaotic commercial slopes that the peace seems surreal. I am left astounded by the emptiness and beauty.
Okay, here is the truth, the rush of the ride fades, and my fear of being up to the heliski thing is starting to take over again – I am petrified. I calm myself and prepare to ski. As I glance around, the terrain is much more genteel than I expected. The slopes of Mt Nicholas are lovely rolling wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. The run we are about to do ("Twice as Nice") looks out of this world - wow, this is going to be epic!
Tim calls out "follow one at a time" as he slips into his first turn, the soft, mid-morning snow spraying out beneath his fat skis – thankfully I had rented a pair of these (sound advice from my guides).
My group exchange a few nervous nods and arrange ourselves into a punctuated line with Elliot bringing up the rear. I slot in about halfway, not wanting to be too close to the front or too near the back. I make my first few turns carefully, getting a feel for the new season snow. I hear Tim's words echoing in my mind "heliskiing is for everyone". My ski legs come back; I start to relax into the slope and cruise over the white crests, finding my way down the valley. I begin to realise heliskiing is about more than discovering insanely gnarly pow pow – (a boys' day out) – it's about the experience as a whole; the preparation, the lift, the drop, the silence, the isolation, then the descent – in reality more calm than crazy.
It takes us just under an hour to reach the bottom of the valley where we await our lift. The helicopter is heard before seen then within 30 seconds it lands. I pick up my skis and move towards it, but Elliott gestures me back. The chopper’s blades slow before chugging to a stop, and Tim reaches in and brings out a hamper – our lunch.
Tim and Elliot prepare a snow table for our picnic lunch of hot pies, rolls and sandwiches with soup. I can’t believe I am having a picnic in such a remote and beautiful mountain setting. Soon we are ushered back into the helicopter to complete our two further runs of our three-run day, "Crystal Glide" and "Bottom Less" which turned out to be just as outstanding as "Twice as Nice".
Our return flight to Queenstown Airport and Alpine Heliski's base was a fitting end to an amazing day as we flew down the Von River Gorge, with serious canyons and fast flowing water emptying into the great lake Wakatipu. I am still grinning now, safe in the knowledge that my nerves had gotten a little carried away; heliskiing is not the brutal, cold-blooded monster of a hell trip I had let myself worry it was. There is a softer side just as exhilarating and frankly awesome without being terrifying. It is still a white-knuckle experience, but one for which the balance of anticipation can be firmly kept to childish excitement rather than blubbering fear.
You need not be in the top percentile of revered skiers or riders (half decent should do it). In short – the best birthday present I have ever had!