Europe’s highest mountain, the 4,807-meter Mont Blanc, comes into view as the helicopter approaches the nearer peaks to finally land on a small spot on a snow-capped mountain top. The winter sports enthusiasts on board get out and watch closely as the ski guide unloads their ski gear from the helicopter’s bucket. Moments later, the helicopter is again airborne, heading towards a landing elsewhere in the Italian Alps to pick up new skiers.
Helicopters were used in Alaska and Europe to access remote areas from the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until April 1965 that Hans Gmoser got the idea from his ski guests to use the versatile rotary-wing machines to access remote ski runs in the Columbia Mountains. Heli-skiing was born and now an estimated 15,000 heli-ski flights take place every year in Switzerland, to about 42 landing sites.
In 2010, Switzerland's main environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, delivered an 15,000-signature petition to the Swiss government that was unsuccessful in its demand for a ban on heli-skiing. Heli-skiing is banned in Germany, however, and also banned in France since 1985. Austria allows just two landing sites but in Italy there are nine landing locations. Italy offers by far the most interesting options and locations for heli-skiing in the Alps. Guide Monterosa S.R.L. and Heli Guides Group have been present at the best Italian heli-skiing spots and in the Alps for decades, providing first-class service to many destinations. In recent decades, only the Heli Guides group has been present at all nine destinations in Italy, offering the greatest variety of programs in the Alps.
Some of the best places for heli-skiing in Italy are Valle d'Aosta, Piemonte and Lombardy, offering an unparalleled variety of heli-skiing and many winter sports enthusiasts compare the locations to those in Canada. The Italian Alps offer descents of up to 2,400 meters, locations to suit for all ski levels, beautiful alpine landscapes and of course lots of powder snow.
Sky Aviation Helicopter Services is based in the Italian village of Courmayeur at the foot of Mont Blanc. Little is as exciting as a descent on a slope of virgin powder snow and several landing sites for heli-skiing are accessible from Courmayeur, where daily heliski programs are on offer in the immediate vicinity of Mont Blanc.
A few minutes' flight reaches places of incomparable beauty where nature predominates and you can ski the highest mountain in Europe, experiencing spectacular descents through glaciers and pristine slopes. The company has offered heli-skiing flights since 2012, in collaboration with Heli Guides and Guide Monterosa S.R.L. Pilot and part-owner Carlo Cugnetto says that the current company structure was established in 2020, with the merger of Airstar Aviation and GMH Helicopter Services, both well-known certified operators with years of experience. Airstar was founded in 2005 by several partners, however all shares were later acquired by the Sappino family, which now represents one of the main shareholders of Sky Aviation. GMH Helicopter Services was founded in Valle d'Aosta in 2012 by Carlo Cugnetto, Alessandro Penco (one of the current CEOs), Martin Werner and Frank Henssler, and since then the activity in the region and in neighboring areas has grown continuously.
Sky Aviation has a strong presence throughout Piedmont and in Valle d'Aosta, as well as a base in Greece and its own helicopter flying school. The company is Part 145 certified and has its own technical service, Sky Tech SRL, which maintains its own aircraft and private helicopters. Alongside heli-skiing, Sky Aviation is active in passenger transport and a variety of aerial work, including sling-load cargo operations, supplementing shelters (including the Capanna Margherita, the highest refuge in Europe at 4,554m), concrete casting, stringing and mounting power lines, avalanche control, logging, aerial photographic and cinematographic shooting and paratrooper launch. In these mountainous areas, helicopters are essential to access areas difficult to reach by other means and are fundamental in supporting construction, hydrogeological monitoring, supply of alpine shelters and for civil defense operations. Sky Aviation operates generally in the Alps or to areas that are difficult to reach by land, especially with heavy vehicles. In these cases, the helicopter is the fastest and cheapest way to transport people or equipment.
Bigger is Better
The desire to create a larger, more flexible and coordinated commercial entity offering increasingly professional and specialized helicopter services throughout the territory and the belief that a single, more structured organization can better respond to current market needs led to the merger. The company now has 23 employees and personnel deployed during flights (pilots, technicians / maintenance personnel, ground personnel) have a high level of operational experience on the highest mountains in Europe, one of the most complex and competitive segments of the industry. Cugnetto has about 3,000 flight hours and is rated on the R22, R44, A109 and H125.
Cugnetto said that in 2020, the company saw a decrease of around 30% in annual turnover, almost entirely due to a drop-off in heli-skiing. He also expects a 20% reduction in 2021’s sales compared to the pre-covid period, due to international heli-ski clients being unable to reach the Valle d'Aosta region thanks to lock-downs and transportation restrictions.
The heli-ski season runs from the end of December to the middle of May, with the high season comprising February and March. Sky Aviation operates four Airbus H125s on heli-skiing operations and during the high season each of them logs approximately 150 hours, conducting between ten and fifty short flights each day, depending on the period, weather and snow conditions. The versatile H125 is extremely suitable for heli-skiing but to fulfil its full range of missions, Sky Aviation also fields an SA-315B Lama, a Robinson R22 and an R44. Cugnetto describes the H125 as currently the most suitable and best performing helicopter for many of the company’s operations, including heli-skiing, sling loading and mountain fire bucket operations. Typically, heli-skiing flights take no more than 250kg of fuel, to carry five passengers to the necessary altitude. DART Bearpaws are fitted on the skids and a DART Heli Utility Basket fulfils the winter sport’s cargo capacity needs. All H125s are usually on duty every day, other than machine downtime for maintenance, repair or bad weather. One pilot per helicopter is normally adequate for the task, but two crews per helicopter are sometimes deployed for long-term flight activity. All Sky Aviation pilots are trained in-house for sling work and heli-skiing operations. Although Sky Aviation has a local office and is active throughout Greece, and often conducts passenger flights or international transfers in France or neighboring countries, it only performs heli-skiing in the Italian Alps.
Italy also offers several other heli-ski areas. La Thuile is located on Petit St. Bernard and offers unique and rich heli-skiing opportunities. The Ruitor, at 3,480 m, can be reached from Valgrisenche and the landing site of Lechaux at over 3,000m is on the border of Courmayeur on the Mont Blanc massif, which forms a special backdrop. Livigno, the duty-free zone near St. Moritz, has become a very popular heli-ski area due to its proximity to Innsbruck and Munich. The multitude of heli-skiing options, landing areas and slopes plays a major role in Livigno’s success.
The mountain area of Bernina offers a unique alpine panorama, while Madesimo, located on the Italian-Swiss border in Lombardy, is the least known and newest heli-skiing paradise in the Lombardy region, known for the heavy snowfall that makes the area a powder paradise.. The star-shaped heli-skiing possibilities around Madesimo are diverse and offer an almost unlimited choice of slopes. A day trip to St. Moritz from Madesimo is also easily accomplished as pick-up is only 40 minutes away by car. Valgrisenche is one of the oldest heli-skiing areas in Italy, popular since the 80s and 90s, and offers skiing and snowboarding in fantastic terrain, a beautiful high mountain landscape and endless powder snow that give the region its special charm.
Val Formazza is a little heli-ski jewel. Located in the far north of Piedmont, guests often refer to it as ‘little Canada’ in the Alps. A maximum of four or five groups per day and its innate tranquility give Val Formazza an exclusive character and a very relaxed atmosphere. Heli-skiing in Val Formazza means countless descent possibilities and lots of powder. Located at the southern foot of Bernina, Val Malenco is known for its heli-skiing quality and great variety. Heli-ski areas around Chiesa Val Malenco offer skiers and snowboarders descents of all types and levels and the neighboring Val Masino offers the potential for increasing heli-skiing options.
The sport of heli-skiing really is for anyone, be they young or old, advanced or beginner - as even a beginner can join a heli-ski tour. However, while you don't have to be an expert, you should at least be an intermediate level skier or boarder to enjoy your holiday safely, as you can face the challenges of deep snow, helicopter transport and no man's land descents. There are runs of all difficulty levels, but overall it is less difficult than it looks and the difficulty level depends greatly on the quality of the snow at the time. Heli-skiing may be more expensive than other winter sports in the Alps, with an average day costing between 300 and 1,000 euros depending on the number of runs you ski in a day, so cost is a factor to be considered. It is also not without risk, as it is practiced in uncontrolled no man’s land and avalanche risk is an important safety concern.
A minority of operations use beams to minimize avalanche risk, while others mainly use slope avoidance techniques. The important thing to remember is not that heli-skiing is unusually hard, but that the frequency of skiing is probably much higher than if you were at a resort. Depending on the area visited, you can count on several descents per day and up to about 50,000 vertical meters in a week. For any winter sports enthusiast, heli-skiing is well worth trying and something that should definitely be on the to-do list.