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Arctic Heliskiing, Iceland, April 19, 2018

PostPosted: Sun Apr 22, 2018 6:20 am
by Tony Crocker
With our Val d’Isere trip being later in the season than we are likely to be skiing the Alps in the future, I could not resist adding on a return to Iceland with Arctic Heliskiing. We were very impressed with the operation in March 2015, when we were there in conjunction with a solar eclipse tour. Arctic’s high season by reputation and bookings seems to be late April/early May. Iceland’s weather is quite volatile, and our April 19-22 time slot has 2+ hours extra daylight vs. the 2015 trip for more potential ski opportunities.

Of course climate is what you expect and weather is what you get. Unlike 2015, there’s not so much volatility this time. Day 1 on Thursday April 19 was bluebird all day but the next two days were nonstop low clouds, fog, occasional drizzle and no-fly. It was snowing above 2,000 feet Saturday and at the lodge below 1,000 feet by Sunday morning. So there will be powder for some groups after us, but not very soon. The snow is supposed to continue for 3 more days and it’s unknown when it will be clear enough to fly after that.

The expectation for this trip was for good spring skiing in Val d’Isere and some powder in Iceland, but the reality was the opposite. Iceland has not had a great snow year; snow is quite patchy around the lodge. There was no significant snow in the two weeks before we arrived and there had been some light rain. The result was that most of the snow between 1,500 and 4,000 feet Thursday was smooth and skied as excellent corn if timed right. The overnight freeze was not that hard, so corn was very good but not quite as consistent as at Mt. Bailey in 2000 or Points North in 2012, the other times I’ve had corn snow skiing at a cat/heli operation.

April 19 was our first day so we had orientation and a transceiver drill. It was thus after 11AM before we flew out with our guide Pete, and a couple Joe and Florence from NYC. We flew first to the mountains south of the lodge. Our first run faced SE into the morning sun and was closer to being too soft than too firm.

At our second drop point, we had this view north down the valley past the Klaengsholl Lodge base towards Dalvik and the ocean.

Mountains to our south from the same spot:

We skied east facing this time. The first rollover had some punchy snow but the corn was excellent below that.

View from third landing:

More east facing skiing around 1PM:


Lower down the pitch steepened so some turns kicked off a few rollers.

Liz stopped here because one of them hit her.

We stopped for lunch and saw guide Steph leading another group on the west face on the opposite side.

Steph said the snow was still a bit firm on that side.

We resumed skiing around 2PM, this time on a long and gradual north facing bowl, which was a bit firm at the top but easy corn for the lower ¾ of the run.


On the next heli flight I was in the first-in last-out window seat so got a couple of scenic shots from the air.


View from top of 5th run:

During our 5th run the heli is flying Steph’s group up while we ski below.

Middle of 5th run:

Near the bottom the snow is getting patchy but what we are skiing on is still good corn.

This run was 3,900 vertical.

More flight pics from that window seat:


Liz remarked that the Troll Peninsula mountains have a mesa-like appearance like many areas of the American Southwest.

We are now skiing west facing around 3:30PM, snow a bit thick and wind affected on this first pitch.

But below that it was corn perfection.

Only Liz and I are with Pete on this run, so we posed for this picture.

Two skiers in Steph’s group were on their last day and had to leave to catch their flight. Florence moved into Steph’s group while Joe was tired and sat out a couple of runs.

We moved north and east of the lodge, and thus had this ocean view at our 8th run dropoff.

Steph’s group is in the background.

Another long run in the corn, almost 4:30 now:

Liz was getting tired (she skied just over 20K vertical), so they flew Joe and her back to the lodge, leaving me, Florence and 2 Germans Axel and Michi with Steph.

Liz took this picture of the heli taking off with the Klaengsholl Lodge base in the background.

Michi and Florence on 9th run:

On our last flight we have a view of another group skiing below us.

Top of our last run:

We kicked off some rollers here but there was enough room to stay out of their way.

Wide open middle section:

Here Steph found a strip that allowed us to ski to within 100 feet of the lodge.

There were some narrow spots but snow was good corn to the end.

I skied 10 runs and 28,100 vertical. Runs were generally longer than in 2015 because snow below 2,000 feet was rain/frozen then but corn this time in the stronger sun despite thinner coverage. After spending 16 days in Iceland in 2015 I was surprised how warm this day was. I was skiing ventilated and without a hat all day. My guess is that this weather might be more typical in mid to late May, which is still a popular and worthwhile time slot with Arctic Heliskiing.

But here’s the weather the next morning April 20.

In retrospect we should have kept going as light was excellent past 7:30PM and sunset was about 9:15. But in the island environment the Arctic guides have little confidence in weather forecasts more than 24 hours in advance, so no one knew we were possibly done with heli skiing after one day.

Re: Arctic Heliskiing, Iceland, April 19, 2018

PostPosted: Sun Apr 22, 2018 12:01 pm
by jamesdeluxe
Some nice scenics, especially this one:

Sorry for the naive question as I've never heli-skied -- what happens money-wise when they can't fly and don't have cat-skiing backup? Do they just charge you for lodging and meals while you wait it out?

Re: Arctic Heliskiing, Iceland, April 19, 2018

PostPosted: Sun Apr 22, 2018 4:26 pm
by Tony Crocker
Policy for excess or shortfalls in heli time varies by operator. Arctic refunds at the same rate under 4 hours flight time as it charges for excess beyond that. Of course that is a marginal rate probably based upon fuel and maintenance. I know from last time that the fixed cost to lease the helicopters for 3+ months is high in Iceland. So our refund will be 23% of our bill even though we only got 1.5 out of the 4 hours flight time. One of the employees told Liz that was the first time there had been 3 consecutive down days this season.

Arctic’s policy is relatively liberal. Points North only gives you half credit for a shortfall in heli hours, and not as a refund, only as a credit on a future trip.

More often there is a minimum below which credit is given and a maximum beyond which you are charged, those being 16K and 20K vertical per day at Chugach Powder Guides. CMH is similar but on a weekly basis. And a few like Wiegele are totally fixed price, so you win big if you rack up a lot of vertical. Major shortfalls are rare in Canada because tree skiing is available at most places. Average down days in Canada are 1/2 day per week. I have had 2 down days out of 19 in Canada, 8 out of 15 in Alaska and 4 out of 8 in Iceland. By word of mouth and weather observations on the 2015 trip, down time in Iceland is most likely to be partial rather than full days.

In the long run I favor the consistency of cat skiing. I now have 31 days in the heli and 75 in the snowcat. But I think Iceland is a unique place in terms of culture and scenery and Arctic is a first class operation. The caveat is that Iceland is an expensive place to do business for most tourist activities, not just skiing.

Re: Arctic Heliskiing, Iceland, April 19, 2018

PostPosted: Sun Apr 22, 2018 8:29 pm
by Sbooker
At 46 years of age is too late for me ditch my current job and go back to school to become an actuary?

Seriously - great photos as per usual.
I'd take the days on the French hills over those heli days though.

Re: Arctic Heliskiing, Iceland, April 19, 2018

PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2018 7:36 pm
by Tony Crocker
The refund rate is less than the surcharge rate, so our refund will be about 16%. As noted above this is still better than most places. Some only offer credits for a future trip not refunds, and some offer refunds only below a lower threshold than the level above which there is a surcharge.

sbooker wrote:I'd take the days on the French hills over those heli days though.

Iceland presents obvious risks as a ski destination. It's a marine environment with a lot of fog, rain and wind potential and no trees. The Troll Peninsula is unquestionably the best part of the country though, opposite side of the island from prevailing winds, lots of mountains (not volcanoes like much of Iceland) in the 4,500 foot range. On the 2015 trip they said there was good corn snow in the spring, even though to my Mammoth-trained eye it seemed hard to believe it would get warm enough until late spring. I was wrong about that; the snow was nearly all smooth this time and most of it was corn if you picked the right time of day. I'm a fan of good corn snow, so not disappointed by that at all.

I've been way short on heli hours on my last 4 trips, the two in Iceland and the two in 2012 and 2014 with Points North in Alaska. We all hear a lot of these stories about Alaska; I think we were quite unlucky this time in Iceland for weather. We have spent 25 days in Iceland on the two trips combined, and 3 consecutive days with no weather breaks seems unusual. Nonetheless this is a very expensive way to be rolling the dice about how much skiing you will actually get. And Arctic is 50% more expensive than Points North. Iceland is an expensive country for everything: hotels, food, other tourist activities, $8 per gallon for gas.

A big part of both trips were the other tourist attractions. There were places we heard about last time and arranged to see this time. I will eventually post some reports on those. One testimony to Iceland's tourist attractions is that Patrick took his family there despite the expense, and not even during ski season!

Re: Arctic Heliskiing, Iceland, April 19, 2018

PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 10:46 am
by ChrisC
I have been up to Alaska in 2015 and 2016 at a couple of operations: Anchorage: Chugach Powder / Alyeska and Valdez: Black Ops, H20 Guides and Valdez Heli Ski Guides.

In 2015, we got snowed out 50% of the time due to 20" dumps. So powder was epic when you could fly.

However, the Valdez Heli Ski (Black Ops and H2O) companies require you to buy travel insurance (mostly through Travelex). This was my first experience with travel insurance. However, we got about 50% of our money back - within 1 month after me filing claims for everyone about a 1 month after the trip.

Enough we did it again the following year - adding Chugach/Alyeska, Black Ops and a random night at Tsaina Lodge/Valdez Heli.

In 2016, we only had 1.5 days down out of 7. We over-skied. It was awesome, extreme and scary as hell - but my group of 3 filled a heli with guide and tail guide. Black Ops was pretty liberal with us.

For heli-skiing, I am now pretty adamant about getting insurance if the company's policy is not 50/50 fair. I want a refund on everything I did not ski.

This helped in BC Canada in 2017 at places in Golden and Revelstoke.

I will have to post about my heli day in Italy at Courmayeur/Mont Blanc. The Italians - OMG. We did not pay until after we skied.

But again - Travelex offers a very good heli-ski insurance package - that I did not know existed.

Re: Arctic Heliskiing, Iceland, April 19, 2018

PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2018 11:53 am
by Tony Crocker
ChrisC wrote:But again - Travelex offers a very good heli-ski insurance package - that I did not know existed.

I am unable to find this online. I'm sure you have to call and get a customized quote.
1) Travelex Select Policies are in the ballpark of 10% of tour price.
2) Heliskiing is explicitly excluded unless you get an "Adventure Sports" rider, cost unknown.

What really puzzles me is how much the insurance would pay for weather shutdowns. More observations:
1) You say you were snowed out 50% of the time in 2015. My observation is that in Alaska the guarantee (whether in vertical, run count or heli hours) is roughly equivalent to 3 full days of skiing on a 5 or 6 day package. So skiing half the time in Alaska gets you about 80% of the guarantee by my experience.
2) I get that there are fixed costs in running a heli operation, which in Iceland includes high cost just to lease the helicopters for 3+ months. So price adjustments at a marginal rate seem fair. The objectionable part was that the refund rate was lower than the surcharge or credit rate.
4) So even if you only skied 50% of your guarantee time/vertical, a 50% refund seems quite generous. Given that I used to work for an insurance company and have lots of experience with mountain weather, such a provision seems like either a very expensive policy or a money loser for the insurance company. I fiddled with Travelex' online form and got this:
Effective Sep 10, 2015, Travelex and their underwriters have made a business decision to no longer accept enrollments and confirm coverage for trips using H20 Guides Inc.

Insurance companies are not in the business of losing money. Liz and I have an annual worldwide travel medical/evacuation policy from AMEX. about $160/year. This is a good deal considering how much and where we travel, and more importantly covers the potential six figure costs of a major medical emergency.

If as a consumer you insure every $5,000 trip cost at 5-10% of the price, in the long run you are going to lose money. The exception is if you know something the insurance company does not. One obvious case was a friend whose elderly mother was in poor health when they planned an extended trip to Brazil. The mother died two days into the trip so they went home and were of course reimbursed for the covered cause of the cancellation.

In the case of heliski weather in Alaska, it's not a big secret so I'm amazed that anyone would insure that with generous terms at a reasonable price. And I'm not surprised that someone who insured it in 2015 no longer does so.

I am interested in the details:
1) What was the price of the policy as a percentage of H2O's package price, which usually includes food and lodging as well as skiing? Maybe in Valdez those costs are separated? Cordova and Iceland are more remote so costs must be packaged.
2) What was the guarantee in terms of vertical/runs/helitime and how much of that did you actually ski?
3) Was refund of "50% of our money" 50% of the ski guarantee in #2 above or 50% of total land package including food and lodging?

Day operations are probably different. If you are only reserving one day of skiing and not lodging, ancillary costs, I don't think anyone would be charged if weather cancels the skiing that day.

ChrisC wrote:This helped in BC Canada in 2017 at places in Golden and Revelstoke.

I would not insure heliskiing at most Canadian ops.
Tony Crocker wrote:Average down days in Canada are 1/2 day per week. I have had 2 down days out of 19 in Canada.

Most Canadian ops have enough tree skiing to get out unless weather is unusually severe. The skiing may not be what you expected but you will be skiing. Of course my view remains that in Canada cat skiing is the better value.

In the places with no trees (Alaska, Iceland, New Zealand) insurance is an attractive proposition depending upon provisions and price. But I'm skeptical for reasons detailed above.