Chopperholics

Heliskiing is just one of the options for the adventurous skier with a big budget. By Chris Gill
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The Independent Travel
Imagine that tonight's lottery has come up with the goods. Coutts is pestering you to open an account, and your skiing plans are no longer limited by money worries. All you have to do now is decide what kind of skiing you'd really like to indulge in. In case you're short of them, here are some ideas.

For those with a taste for adventurous skiing and with no interest in apres-ski indulgence, there is no question about what comes top of the agenda: heli- skiing in the Canadian rockies. Canadian heliskiing has three key components: helicopters to provide uplift, huge quantities of powder snow, and deserted mountain ranges on which the snow can fall and on which the helicopters can land. This simple recipe produces the closest thing to paradise for a competent skier.

Note that I do not say expert or athletic skier. Heliskiing need not involve steep slopes and, thanks to the recently introduced "fat" skis, does not even need the level of skill that you would normally associate with off-piste skiing in the Alps. If it did, it would not attract nearly so many well-heeled middle-aged skiers.

The companies that run these heli operations have their own lodges deep in the Rockies, where you are billeted in comfort but not luxury for the duration of your stay. Each day, the chopper ferries your group of around 10 people up to a remote slope of virgin snow, retrieving you at the end of the run and depositing you at the top of another. And so on, until you use up your allotted "vertical" - at which point you reach for your credit card and start buying more uplift.

At least, that's the theory. It is possible, of course, to encounter a week's blizzards in which the choppers are grounded, and you get a great opportunity to improve your backgammon skills or write the first couple of chapters of your novel. You just have to hope that you don't.

Canadian heliskiing is dominated by two outfits, both with UK agents. CMH operates from eight lodges, mostly in remote settings. Each accommodates 44 skiers - rather like a large catered chalet in the Alps, with open fires to reinforce the mountain lodge atmosphere and comforting extras such as a sauna, Jacuzzi and in-house masseur. Mike Weigele operates from a bigger central base at Blue River. Right now, Canadian heliskiing is a bit of a bargain because of the weak dollar. Reckon on pounds 2,500 to pounds 3,500 a week - more if you do a lot of extra vertical.

Heliskiing is all very well, but it does put the emphasis very much on the activity of skiing, and not at all on the pampering that can go with it when the budget allows. For a sharp contrast - the sharpest there is - the top-flight hotels of Switzerland take some beating. Opposite this page you'll find a beginners' guide to the smartest hotels in St Moritz - the greatest concentration of upmarket lodging in the known universe. What these hotels offer is not so much luxurious variations on the usual Alpine accommodation as a kind of complete insulation from the harsh winter world outside. Apart from the stunning views from the windows, once inside you could be almost anywhere.

You don't even need to go to the trouble of booking such hotels yourself. Get hold of the Inghams brochure and you'll find not only the three central five-stars in St Moritz, but also some equally swanky alternatives in other Swiss resorts - notably Zermatt's Grand Hotel Zermatterhoff - and further afield. Even the favoured Alpine retreat of the Princess of Hearts, for example - the Arlberg in Lech. Half-board high-season one-week packages run from pounds 1,400 to pounds 2,150.

Smart hotels mean conforming - to the expectations of fellow guests if not to the rules of the establishment. Privacy is the key to real self- indulgence, and that means private lodgings with servants attached. And lodgings don't come any more private than Trapper's Cabin, high on the ski slopes near Vail and reachable only by ski or snowcat. The idea here is that you get to spend the night in complete (and splendidly luxurious) isolation, but don't have the chore of self-catering: the chef skis away after dinner. The place sleeps 10, and costs $550 per person per night.

There is skiing beyond the horizons of Europe and North America, and some of it is very worthwhile. Your newly enlarged budget will not prevent you exploring the intensive resorts of Japan, the high and scenic ski areas of South America, and the heliskiing potential of New Zealand - the last two coming on stream during our summer, of course. This sort of expedition makes most sense if you combine it with some regular tourism or visits to long-lost relatives, and could easily soak up several thousands of those spare pounds.

Wherever you decide to blow your winnings, you'll want to look the part. Chain-store clothing won't do. For your heli outing you'll want the toughest "technical" kit in order to look the part - perhaps pounds 550 for an outer shell from The North Face and pounds 300 for fleecy layers. For posing in St Moritz, a Bogner one-piece can cost you anything up to pounds 1400.

Heliskiing: CMH - contact Powder Skiing in North America 0171-736 8191; Mike Wiegele - contact Fresh Tracks 0181-875 9818 or Ski Scott Dunn 0181- 767 0202. For an Inghams brochure call 0181-780 4450. More details about Trapper's Cabin near Vail on 00 1 970 845 5788. For kit information start with Snow + Rock's catalogue - call 01932 569569

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