Images: Mark Clinton
Words: Liz Carlson
The mid-winter’s day dawned clear, crisp and bright in Wanaka, as I peered out of my curtains getting a glimpse of sunrise. The lake was as still as glass and my favorite mountains were slowly turning red.
When I’m home in New Zealand, I don’t usually get up so early in winter, preferring to stay cozy and tucked away nice and warm under several duvets, only emerging when my need for coffee outweighs my comfort; today was an exception to the rule.
Today I was going heli skiing.
If you had asked me three years ago if I could have imagined I would could fly to the top of a mountain in a helicopter and snowboard down, I would have likely laughed awkwardly and brushed you off. Um, yeah right.
My journey learning to snowboard as an adult was a long and laborious one, marked by mini milestones and personal achievements that have brought me great joy and a bit of whiplash on more than one occasion.
It took many many days on the mountains, including my local hill Cardrona this season, to build my confidence on a board and to get to the point of being a perfectly intermediate snowboarder, which by happy chance, is the ability you need to be able to heli ski in Wanaka, New Zealand, where I live with Southern Lakes Heliski.
To be honest I never thought I would be good enough to be able to heli ski. Don’t you have to be an expert?
While I had heard my friends rave about it for years here, they all seemed to be much better than me, with seasons and seasons of experience under their belts. I wrote it off as a far-away dream.
But it turns out, I couldn’t be more wrong.
The beauty of heli-skiing in Wanaka with Southern Lakes is that they have access to dozens of surrounding mountain ranges with terrain for various experience levels, including intermediate. You don’t have to be a pro at all or have backcountry or powder experience.
If you can ski/snowboard and link turns on blue/intermediate runs, then you can heli ski.
With butterflies in my stomach and coffee in my hand, I pulled on my thermals and newly purchased and very expensive bib pants (no more snow down my pants, thank you!) and piled into my car to go pick up my friends.
I couldn’t go on this incredible adventure alone.
With some of my closest girlfriends in Wanaka, jittering with excitement we made our way out to the staging site where we would catch our ride up to the mountains – a helicopter.
Who needs chairlifts when you’ve got one of these to take you to the top of a mountain?
Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear
One of the beautiful thing about winter’s in New Zealand, is that at ground level in Wanaka, it rarely snows. So we were standing in a grassy paddock, with sheep bah-ing around us as we listened to thorough safety briefings.
I can’t imagine there are many places in the world that you wear your ski boots in the grass and a few minutes later you can be standing up to your knees in powder on top of a mountain.
The guides are experts and snow safety is the most important thing. We were given avalanche transceivers to wear along with being briefed and practicing how to use them, though the guides are super on top of the snow conditions to keep us safe.
Oh, our guide for the day was none other than legendary Lydia Bradey. Our squad of women was now complete.
The year I was born, Lydia stood on top of the world.
She was the first women to climb Everest without using bottled oxygen. And has claimed seven first ascents by a woman on Yosemite’s big walls. Like, no big deal right?
One of the most badass women I’ve ever met, she’s a Wanaka local and killer guide, still guiding people on Everest and charging on various expeditions around the world with Adventure Consultants. And ski guides too. What a leader for our girls trip, right?
There is something powerful about having adventures with just women.
I’ve found the dynamic completely changes when you’re only with other ladies, my innate self-consciousness is stripped away, and I feel myself slipping subconsciously into a more relaxed state of mind.
To fulfill my dream of heli skiing, with some of my closest girlfriends and to be guided by one of the most badass women I’ve ever met, was a day I’ll never forget. To be in such an environment, tackling an adventure that seems to be dominated by dudes and pros with just us girls, was a boost to my confidence I didn’t know I needed.
Packed into the back of the helicopter like sardines, we were off!
Soaring over my favorite valley, the Matukituki, our destination for the day was none other than Black Peak, an iconic pointy mountain that dominates our Wanaka skyline across the lake. How cool that this would be where our adventure would begin?!
One of the amazing things about heli skiing is that everyone is absolutely frothing and excited to have a good time! You know even before you get into the helicopter than you’re in for an epic adventure.
Climbing out, everyone kneels down over the skis and boards, holding onto them as the helicopter takes back off. Snow billows all around you, sparkling like glitter in the sunshine, that generates a buzz among the group that can’t help but make you even more excited, if that is even possible.
But the best part is when the helicopter disappears around a mountain, and you are left utterly alone on top of the world, enveloped by silence.
It’s truly a special moment, that only last for a few seconds before the adrenaline kicks in and you’re absolutely itching to ride back down. And do it again, and again, and again.
My first run was all over the place as I figured out how to ride powder (lean on back, Liz) and learned to navigate ungroomed, varied terrain. The best part of faceplanting in powder is that it doesn’t hurt and you become more confident and unafraid to fall since it doesn’t hurt.
Near the bottom I wasn’t paying attention and caked it on the one flat bit, and let me tell you, trying to stand up after falling over in powder is really hard.
But I got back up, determined to get the hang of it, and get the hang of it I did. After that it was absolute magic as I really felt like I understood the terrain and it all just clicked for me. It was if my body finally understood how to ride this stuff, and released a big exhale and just relaxed.
Suddenly I was fearless, flying down the mountain, cutting my own fresh tracks, marking beautiful “s”s in the glimmering snow and feeling a rush of euphoria I didn’t know I was capable of.
It’s hard for me to put into words to you guys, but seriously, it was the best feeling in the world.
A completely still winter’s day, it was actually warm by lunch time as we all stopped and regrouped together after a few runs and tucked into to an incredible meal. I’m pretty sure the brownies made me ride all the better afterwards. Right? RIGHT?
We lapped Black Peak all afternoon, getting more relaxed and stronger on each run. Honestly, one day heli skiing Wanaka did more for my confidence and ability than I could have ever imagined.
The snow was great, soft powder for the most part, it didn’t hurt when you fell (and fall we did).
Lydia made us feel comfortable and safe, giving us tips and tricks (especially me, the snowboarder) to navigate the lay of the land, and by the time our 4th run was over, we couldn’t bear to say goodbye, so we added on a fifth!
For me, the best adventures have always been the challenging ones. The ones where you’re not quite sure you can make it, you doubt your courage. Do you have what it takes? Are you strong enough?
Then once you’ve finished, accomplished something you weren’t sure you could, the victory is all the sweeter and the reward all the more special. That’s what heli skiing was for me. It was so much more than a day snowboarding in the mountains, it was a life-changing experience.
I had to dig deep and truly believe in myself (I swear snowboarding is 90% mental) lean forward and go, go, go. Once it clicked, it was the best feeling in the world and the closest I’ve ever felt to flying! What joy!
As my friend Mark Clinton (who took all these incredible photos) remarked at the bar afterwards where we all reconvened over beers to dissect the day, congratulate each other and chat about how amazing it was, annoying everyone around us, once you’ve been heli skiing, it’s like you’re part of a club or something.
We can look at each other now, smile and raise our eyebrows and just know that, yes, she gets it.
The only downside is how are we supposed to return to groomed piste and chairlift queues now that we’ve had a taste for the sweeter side of life?
Are you a skier or snowboarder? Would you be down to go heli skiing in Wanaka? Is this your kind of adventure? Share!
Many thanks to Southern Lakes Heliski for hosting me and my friends in Wanaka – like always I’m keeping it real, all opinions are my own, like you could expect less from me!