Heliboarding in Italy: Dropped from blades of glory to powder heaven
Matt Barr turns his back on the crowded French slopes of Chamonix to try heliboarding just across the border on the fresh snow of the Aosta Valley
Sunday 25 November 2012
My first visit to Italy's scenic Aosta Valley was an act of desperation. I'd been spending the season in the French resort of Chamonix, just on the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel. By February, the poor snow coverage and prospect of queuing for more than an hour to get on most ski lifts had tested my patience to the limit.
Happily, a solution was close by. A Chamonix season pass covers several days' skiing in surrounding Mont Blanc Massif resorts, including Courmayeur, across the border in Italy, in the Aosta Valley. After a short drive through the tunnel, I popped out in Italy and was greeted by a refreshingly different picture. Just an hour from Chamonix, here were uncrowded lifts and excellent snow conditions that tired our group out after just two hours.
Heading to the nearest mountain restaurant, we holed up for an afternoon's fine eating and drinking. Accustomed to the extortionate prices of French on-hill dining, the bewilderingly cheap and delicious gnocchi, pizza and polenta, followed by local grappa and a cup of thick and delicious hot chocolate, marked the start of a nascent love affair. Clearly, I'd have to come back to this place.
So, two years later, I'm back in the Aosta Valley, standing on the top of Mont Ouille, high above the resort of La Thuile. A helicopter has just dropped me off, and my guide is dropping into an expanse of fluffy white powder with a satisfied grin on his face. Clearly, this is a man who loves his job.
La Thuile is a short drive up the Petit St-Bernard pass from Courmayeur. It may be less well known, but as a resort it has two distinct trump cards. The first is that it is part of the Espace San Bernardo ski area, linking it with its French counterpart of La Rosière, to offer 160km of pistes serviced by 40 lifts. In practice, this means that the resort offers the not-inconsequential thrill of allowing you to ski in two countries in one day. Naturally, I spend my first day traversing from Italy to France and back again, posing for photos at the border sign at the top.
It's brilliant fun, which adds cosmopolitan spice to what could be just another day of snowboarding, but I'm really here for the second of La Thuile's USPs: heliboarding.
This high-octane snowsport involves using a helicopter to access long, powder-filled off-piste runs. In France, the activity is all but banned. Italy doesn't suffer from such restrictions; here it is popular and – relatively speaking – affordable.
It's also exhilarating. We're up early to meet our guide, Paolo, who issues us with an avalanche transceiver and a harness. We make our way to the gondola and on the way up he briefs us on the safety procedures. Then we're out and on to another long chairlift from where we get a great overview of the resort. He points out an imposing peak in the distance off to our right: Mont Ouille, the destination for today's drop. How often, I ask, does he do heli-drops like this? "Oh, two or three times a week," he replies, with a grin that tells me that he doesn't get tired of it.
At the pick-up zone we are heavily buffeted by wind, and it's quite difficult to keep upright. As Paolo ties our skis together, I'm relieved to learn that Mont Ouille has mellower terrain and a safer aspect. Despite this, as the helicopter approaches I begin to feel distinctly uneasy – the noise and the down-draught from the rotor blades are fierce, but in under a minute we're all inside, our equipment stowed away in the basket, and the helicopter gently lifts into the air.
I'm surprised how quickly the flight is over. At the top, we take a moment to admire the view, where we can see several peaks of more than 4,000m. It's breathtaking.
After a precarious scramble over a steep and rocky pitch right at the top, we're treated to several kilometres of mellow, rolling terrain covered with relatively untouched powder. The going is difficult, but even so the descent is exhilarating. In a little over 90 minutes we're back in La Thuile, lamenting the fact that the wind has got up too much to have another drop.
Later, winding down with a beer, I find myself reflecting on the variety that Italy has to offer skiers and snowboarders. Perhaps people choose France simply through habit. For me, that's a habit that's about to change.
Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) offers a week's half-board at the four-star Hotel Planibel from £535 per person with flights from Gatwick to Turin and transfers. A week's half-board at four-star Hotel Miramonti with the same flights costs from £639 per person.
Heliskiing is possible in La Thuile from 9 January to 8 May. Each group of four skiers is accompanied by a guide, who also provides the safety equipment. Group departures take place from Les Suches and the Petit St-Bernard Pass, which can be reached with the La Thuile lift facilities. Price per person: one ascent from €160 (£129), two ascents from €260.
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