Heliskiing in the Aran Valley: get to paradise by helicopter and ski |  The Mountaineer |  Sports

Heliskiing in the Aran Valley: get to paradise by helicopter and ski | The Mountaineer | Sports

It is an escape, a desertion, an evasion. It lasts a few minutes, but it is as real and genuine as it is absorbing. All the mental clouds disappear, the wars on the planet, the concerns of daily life, the serious social problems, climate change, the herd-like stupidity of social networks… And everything is simplified until reaching a basic idea of ​​happiness. Everything seems as light and light as the powder snow on which ski boards float effortlessly.

They say that skiing on powder snow brings as much pleasure as the greatest pleasure imaginable, as if there is a direct connection between the loose snow crystals and the hormones in our brains that produce the chemistry of happiness. The sensation is not that of skiing, but that of floating. The lightness. And it seems crazy. It even creates an ethical problem. Some guilt. High mountain lovers are used to being in isolated places, mountain sites of moving beauty where not seeing a soul for hours is a frequent occurrence. But it is not usual to do it without effort, without spending hours of walking or climbing. Getting to paradise by helicopter was an option that seemed snobbish, artificial, superfluous, tricky, prohibitively expensive… not anymore.

Sergi Gasa is the head of the Pyrenees Heliski company and acknowledges that between January and Easter he loses hair. The stress of his business consumes him: not only does he have to satisfy the high expectations of the clients who have contracted his heliskiing service in the Aran Valley, but also minimize two major risks such as the danger of avalanches and the constant flight of the device itself. . His work season begins in mid-January and ends after Easter, unless there is an exceptional snowfall that allows the offer to stretch. He has been letting out a snort of relief since 2008 when he fires the last client: none of them, not even his workers, have ever been buried by an avalanche; Furthermore, the number of accidents (injuries from falls) is negligible. But there is an exhaustive and conscientious initial and daily work that explains why this business, so exclusive and rare in Europe, maintains its momentum.

The helicopter has just dropped the skiers off the mountain and is starting to take off.  The skiers deposit operation hardly lasts a minute.
The helicopter has just dropped the skiers off the mountain and is starting to take off. The skiers deposit operation hardly lasts a minute.

“Security care began the day we carried out a study to find out the viability of the land that exists in the Aran Valley to offer three to five days of heliskiing in a row. It gave a positive result and we got to work. The configuration of the Valle de Arán is also propitious because it observes a main valley with many perpendicular valleys that accommodate all orientations. Being on the north side of the Pyrenees we have a lot of quality snow and the terrain has characteristics to make heliskiing safe. Thus, we have a total of about 250 different descents with an average drop of 500 meters and with inclinations of less than 30 degrees in a space of about 400 square kilometers, which in itself guarantees enormous security with respect to the great problem of avalanches. . A problem that we face on a daily basis”, explains Sergi.

Each minute of flight costs 51 euros

A nivólogo works day in and day out, also conducting studies and tests on the ground and has a computer program called Powder Management, which exists in all the heliski bases on the planet and allows you to choose the safest descents every day. “And on the ground, with the clients, we have a leading guide who makes the last decisions that serve his group and the groups that come after him. And all this has to be compatible with the duration of the flights to be profitable”, summarizes Sergi.

At nine in the morning, at the heliport where the company has its facilities, almost in the center of Vielha, the day begins for the 16 clients and four guides with an hour of security explanations: how to get on and off the helicopter, how to use the ABS backpack (it has a handle that once activated inflates an airbag-type structure that comes out of the backpack and prevents the avalanche from burying you), how to use the Avalanche Victim Detector, how to follow the guide on each descent… The apparatus welcomes the pilot, the guide and four clients and manages all the collections and deposits. From the base to the first landing of the day, the flight time is seven minutes. Afterwards, barely two minutes elapse between collection and deposit, which makes it possible to chain descents at breakneck speed. Each minute of flight costs 51 euros. Customers who have paid 1,200 euros to enjoy a full day have the right to make six descents. If later they want to do some extra descent, each flight will cost them 110 euros per head.

“Heliskiing is not elitist,” he says. But to do an initiation day (three descents) you need at least 500 euros. “It is not necessary to be rich, everyone with a job can afford the whim. It is more expensive to have an iPhone than to try heliskiing. It is a unique and unforgettable experience. We don’t sell powder snow, because it can’t always be guaranteed, but we do sell illusion”, illustrates Sergi.

Skiers follow the Pyrenees Heliski guide drawing their own tracks on virgin snow.
Skiers follow the Pyrenees Heliski guide drawing their own tracks on virgin snow.

The B3+ is the indispensable helicopter model for these jobs: “It is the Ferrari of helicopters, and it is the one indicated for moving in hostile terrain, that is, where there is no heliport or airport. There are only three like this in Spain, and three pilots who can handle them throughout the country. The skill of the pilots and the ability to maneuver offered by the device are surprising: it lands in a square three meters wide and travels at a speed that will take your breath away. “We have a contract of almost three months that gives us a device and two pilots and a second emergency device in case the main one breaks down and we have to pick up people in the mountains. We pay a ski pass of 150,000 euros for three months, that is, about 1,000 euros per day, whether you fly or not,” Sergi clarifies.

The profile of the public is heterogeneous, but mountain skiers coexist with classic alpine skiers. There is a third type of customer: millionaires and billionaires, some ranked in the top 20 on the Forbes list. “The latter seek exclusivity. Close to the main European capitals, only we offer something like this. These clients almost always access the private program and have the helicopter just for them. And here the service is different: we pick you up at the airport, we explain the mountain conditions, we ask for your culinary references, we reserve restaurants for you, we take you to the best hotels in the valley. The client who blocks the helicopter for himself has to pay for it because it is as if one goes to the cinema and wants to be the only spectator: he pays for his own and all the tickets for the capacity. They can pay between 30,000 and 60,000 euros for a maximum of five days of skiing, ”he illustrates.

Environment Effect investigation

However, heliskiing is prohibited in the vast majority of European mountain areas, and the Aran Valley itself observes a peripheral area to which the helicopter does not travel. “Where there are no national or natural parks, they are areas that the valley is interested in exploiting through hunting, bicycle tourism, hiking, or heli-skiing, and more knowing that everything that surrounds this enclave has prohibited many of these activities (the French Pyrenees, the Posets-Maladeta National Park, the High Pyrenees Natural Park and the Aiguestortes National Park). In this sense, the Aran Valley is an island. There is an environmental impact study carried out by the General Council of the Aran Valley that takes the data of the helicopter’s emissions and based on it we cannot access certain places, especially forests, so as not to invade the habitat of the capercaillie or the white partridge. Without an environmental impact study and without the permission of all the landowners and the municipalities of the valley, we would not be able to carry out the activity and have the civil aviation permit”, Sergi points out.

All in all, Ecologistes en Acció considers that “the tourism sector in the Pyrenees must be reconverted to be respectful of the territory, people, biodiversity and climate. Any project that promotes a luxury activity that consumes fossil fuels is turning its back on the climate and ecological crisis”. Faced with this reality, Albert Marqués, general counselor of the Valle de Arán Council and mayor of Bossòst, recalls that the “valley’s economy depends 90% on the service sector, on tourism linked to snow. We live in a place that turns its back on the big capitals. Toulouse is the closest city of reference, and without the income from tourism there would be nothing left here, ”he recalls. In his opinion, all the necessary steps are still being taken to achieve a balance between business and respect for the environment.

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