A complete review of what it’s like to go heli-skiing in Wanaka with Southern Lakes Heli.
As a diehard snowboarder, somebody who has chased deep powder and backcountry thrills for years, heli-skiing has always been an adventure sitting near the top of my bucket list.
The idea of jumping in a chopper and being whisked to the top of a peak, a wide-open untouched bowl beneath just waiting to be dropped into, is the ultimate dream for millions of snow-lovers.
When I lived in Canada, doing winter after winter, heli-skiing was unfortunately out of my budget.
As much as I wish I could have done jumped in a helicopter and flown off into the mountains, I just couldn’t make it happen.
Still, it never fell from my list of life goals, and when I had the opportunity to go in Wanaka, New Zealand, I just couldn’t say no.
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Heli-Skiing in Wanaka – The Best Day Ever
New Zealand has the best skiing and snowboarding in the Southern Hemisphere, and it has become more than just a place for pow-hungry Aussies to flock to every winter – Europeans, Americans and Canadians also make the jaunt across the ocean to come and fill their snow passion during their hotter months.
I was travelling around the South Island myself, hitting up some of the region’s top ski resorts, when I found myself in Wanaka for a few days.
I had ridden Cardrona and Treble Cone, and while I could see the potential in the terrain, unfortunately, it had been a lean start to the winter and there wasn’t much coverage on the ground.
It seemed as though the only way to get that legendary snow New Zealand was famous for was to head to higher altitudes and hit up the more remote places deep in the Southern Alps.
The best heli-skiing company in Wanaka is Southern Lakes Heli, so after being put in touch with them I started to see if I could coordinate a trip into the mountains.
For a few days, we monitored the weather, and a large storm front rolled in while I was in town.
That was great because it meant fresh snow, but it also meant the choppers couldn’t fly because of inversions and high winds.
It started to look like it wouldn’t happen. Alesha and I made plans to head to Christchurch, leaving behind my dreams of going heli-skiing.
That all changed though when on the morning of our departure, the phone rang. It was Southern Lakes Heli.
The clouds had lifted, winds had died down, and there was a weather window to get into the sky.
“Come on down to the office in 30 minutes, and let’s get you up there!”
I didn’t need to be told twice. The drive to Christchurch would have to wait.
I quickly collected all my snowboarding gear, picked up my new favourite outerwear, the Styper range by Kathmandu, and double- and triple-checked that I had everything.
And of course, grabbed my two GoPro HERO7 Black cameras to film the entire day.
Alesha drove me down to the Southern Lakes Heli office in Wanaka, located in the Outside Sports store downtown.
A few minutes later one of the guides for the day, Jim, picked me up in the van and we drove out to the airport.
Jim’s level of expertise was pretty insane. Besides being a qualified heli-skiing and mountain guide, he also worked for the Department of Conservation on their very elite mountain emergency rescue team.
I knew I’d be in good hands.
Once we got to Southern Lakes Heli’s office at the Wanaka airport I had a bit of time to chill while waiting for the other riders to come from Queenstown.
The other minivan soon arrived and two guys jumped out, buzzing with as much excitement as I was.
We started chatting, and were stoked to discover that we were pretty advanced snowboarders and skiers, and should mean we’d have a chance to get extra runs in.
Jim joined us, and together we went out to the helicopter for our safety briefing.
He explained exactly how we’d get in and out of the chopper when up in the mountains, how to behave inside the heli, and what dangers to look out for.
Then we went back inside and he gave us all our transceivers to be worn at all times.
These beacons are used for search rescue in case of an avalanche, and even though our entire group had experience using them before, Jim gave us a detailed rundown, then took us outside for a practical test to prove we knew how they worked.
At this point another guide, Mark, came and joined us. He would be our lead guide up on the mountain, and while Jim would also be with us in the field, he was tasked with digging snow pits to report on avalanche conditions after the fresh snow.
With all the briefings done on our end, it was just a few more minutes to wait while the pilot did his safety pre-checks on the helicopter, then it was time to load up!
Four of us slid into the back while Mark sat up the front with the pilot. The propellors started spinning, and soon enough we took off.
Flying over Lake Wanaka was incredibly stunning. Having had the chance to go on a scenic heli-flight in Queenstown I knew just how beautiful New Zealand’s Southern Alps are, and the Wanaka region was no exception.
The fact that you get a scenic flight thrown in with your heli-skiing trip is pretty damn epic, and all of our eyes were glued to the stunning landscape below.
After 10 minutes or so we started to fly over the snowy peaks of the Alps, passing by Treble Cone Ski Resort and eventually nearing a wide, open bowl that Mark thought looked suitable for our adventure.
The chopper circled around, giving Mark and Jim a chance to really check it out.
Satisfied, they gave our pilot the thumbs up, pointed to a ridge at the top of the mountain, and we touched down.
Mark and Jim hopped out first and checked the landing zone. Happy with the spot, they unloaded the skis and snowboards, then waved us out.
Excitedly yet carefully, we jumped out of the heli, hit the ground behind the guides, and watched as the heli took off.
Suddenly it was quiet, and it was the 5 of us standing on top of a mountain in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life.
Jim kitted up then started cutting across the face beneath us, testing the stability. Nothing slid, so he found a safe place and started digging a snow pit.
Mark gave us another briefing about how our runs would work.
First he would ski down, choosing the line for us to follow, then once he waved his ski poles in the air, one person would follow, keeping close to his tracks.
He stressed how important it was to keep a huge distance between each other, in case we triggered an avalanche, and to not venture too far from his tracks.
With the formalities out of the way, there was only one thing left to do…
Mark dropped into the face, taking long, fast and smooth turns as he charged towards a flat section at the bottom of the pitch.
Once he had cleared the steep face he waved his poles in the air, indicating it was safe for the next person to follow.
One by one the guys dropped in, their voices screaming in joy as they cut into the pow.
I was the last one to go, and after taking a long look around at the distant peaks, blue skies and fresh snow, I slid forward.
Dropping off a little 4-foot cornice, I landed straight and bombed it down the mountain, my board floating effortlessly in about 30cm of fresh, dry snow.
I picked up speed, then threw a slash, immediately getting a face shot and breaking through the white room.
I screamed out a loud “Yewwwwww” and started to straight-line as the pitch mellowed.
Covered in snow I made it to the group, and we all cheered in disbelief.
The run wasn’t done yet though, and Mark took us along a bit of a knuckle, where we’d play around taking small jumps and popping off of pillows.
A few minutes later the snow started to firm up and get a little thin. Mark stopped us all and called the chopper. Jim met up with us just before the helicopter landed.
Adrenaline was flowing through the veins, and we couldn’t wait to head back up.
The next few runs were just as epic. Each time the pilot would take us up, moving along the mountain another hundred metres or so, depending on Mark’s recommendations to avoid any potential avalanche danger.
Our group kept swapping around who would go first after Mark, ensuring we all had a chance to maximise our fresh tracks.
The difficulty of the runs didn’t change too much, and if they were on a ski resort they probably would have been classed red or blacks.
Once we’d get past the first initial steep face, Mark would try to find more pillows and drops for us to hit to keep the variety going.
After each run it’d only take a few minutes to get back to the top, and with the speed we were all riding at, the four runs passed by quickly.
Mark, Jim and the pilot were keeping an eye on the weather, and it looked like a front that was due to arrive late in the afternoon might get there earlier than expected.
Over the backside of the mountains looking west, some dense clouds started to roll in, eventually blocking the sun and giving off some flat light.
The pilot said we probably had about an hour of safe flying time left before he’d have to head back to Wanaka, so Mark asked if we wanted to stick around for a few more runs.
We managed to squeeze in two more fast-paced runs before Mark called it for lunch.
There was another chopper in the area from Southern Lakes Heli with a more beginner-friendly group, and while we were riding our 6th lap, they set up lunch in the snow at the bottom of the pitch.
We rode right up to the lunch spot, where the SLH guides had dug a table and laid out a large buffet spread with sandwiches, salads, soup, tea, coffee, brownie and cake.
The food was great, especially the soup and brownie, but as I was still buzzing from the six previous runs I wasn’t actually that hungry.
The other group had finished for the day, and they packed up lunch, loaded up into their chopper and took off, headed back to Wanaka.
There was still a bit of time left before the weather window closed, so we decided to just go for it and squeeze in two more runs.
My legs were seriously burning at this point, making it hard to keep the nose of the board up in the deep powder.
With the clouds rolling in too the light was getting quite flat, making it hard to see definition in the snow.
The 8th run was just as epic as the first, still completely untracked and deep, but as it had been years since I had a good solid powder session and I wasn’t conditioned, my body was just about done for the day.
The pilot picked us up for the final time, then whisked us back to town.
Back at the airport we handed in the avalanche gear, collected our stuff and shared a round of hugs.
Being able to share such an incredible day with other people who were as stoked on skiing and snowboarding as I am was something truly special.
Heli-skiing in Wanaka had been a dream come true, everything I had ever thought it would be, and I can’t wait to do it all again.
Tips for Heli-Skiing in New Zealand
To help you plan for your own epic Wanaka heli-skiing adventure, I’ve put together some tips and bits of advice.
Do I Need to Be an Expert Skiier/Snowboarder?
This is probably the most common concern people have when thinking about joining a heli-skiing trip.
People have preconceived ideas of what heli-skiing is after seeing ski videos made with professionals.
Jumping out of an airborne heli straight into a narrow, steep chute with mandatory 50-foot cliff drops and staggered pillow lines is entirely possible of course (except for the jumping out of the airborne heli-part), but the truth is that’s not what heli-skiing for 99% of people is like.
As long as you are a confident skier or snowboarder and can navigate blue runs, you can go heli-skiing.
I Don’t Have Backcountry Experience – Can I Still Go?
Absolutely! You will be loaned the required avalanche rescue equipment such as a transceiver, shovel and probe, and given training on how to use them in the rare case of an emergency.
You will also be with a very experienced guide at all times. They will monitor conditions, and choose the lines down the mountain for the riders to follow.
I Booked 4 Runs, But Want to Do More – Can I?
100% In fact it’s pretty common for people to book the minimum package, then upgrade once they’re up in the heli.
Unless you’re a very experienced and fit skier or snowboarder, you probably don’t know how your legs will hold up when riding deep, untouched powder.
4 runs might not be a lot on groomers at Cardrona, but I can promise you it’s an entirely different story when you’re carving fresh tracks.
If you’ve booked 4 runs, but feel like you have more in the engine, you can always add more on the spot with the guide and pilot.
They’ll simply take note of how many you end up doing, and will charge your credit card the extra once you’re back in town.
If you want to do more, but some people in your group are content with their 4 runs, that’s totally fine too.
They can hang out at the lunch spot in total safety while the heli takes you up for some extra laps.
The other thing is that while the initial cost of going heli-skiing is quite high, adding extra laps isn’t that much more expensive, as you’ve already paid for the chopper to get out to the tenure. Those extra runs don’t use up anywhere near as much fuel as flying for 15-20 minutes from Wanaka.
How Long Does the Day Last?
This entirely depends on the group and how many runs everybody does, but in general they tell you to expect to be back in Wanaka by 4pm at the latest.
That being said we managed to get 8 epic runs in, the most you can do in a day with Southern Lakes Heli, and I was back at my hotel in Wanaka by 2pm.
DISCLAIMER: My day heli-skiing in Wanaka with Southern Lakes Heli was made possible thanks to our partnership with Tourism New Zealand and Lake Wanaka Tourism. All thoughts, opinions and face shots are, as always, my own.