It's the best time of the year for thrill-seekers and lovers of everything snow, but what is one supposed to do when regular old skiing and snowboarding just become too tame? Well, why not try your hand at something a bit more extreme? Welcome to the world of heli-skiing, one of the most expensive, elite and dangerous sports in the world.
If you are in Turkey, or the Kaçkar Mountains in northern Rize province to be exact, you are in luck because it is the only place in Turkey where you can practice the extreme sport. The heli-skiing season officially kicks off on Jan. 25 and lasts until about mid-March.
Stretching 130 kilometers along the coast of the Black Sea and standing at an almighty 3,900 meters, the Kaçkar Mountains offer some serious off-piste skiing and an unforgettable experience on untouched snow. With over 150 summits, the mountain range has hundreds of drop points.
Haşim Ali Haşimoğlu, who has been in charge of all the organizational work for heli-skiing activities in Rize, said many athletes from across the globe have shown great interest this year.
"Our helicopter has just arrived. Our first customer arrives on Jan. 25 and we hope to kick start the season then. There will be national and international athletes participating. We've had quite a few early bookings, and now are fully booked every day for seven weeks."
Heli-skiing has been a popular activity in dozens of countries, especially in the U.S., Canada and the Alps, for over 50 years. Turkey is newer to the sport, only becoming a part of the heli-skiing scene 15 years ago. However, despite its late addition, the country has quickly become one of the top 10 countries for heli-skiing.
Over 300 athletes from different countries, primarily Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, the U.S. and Russia, come to experience adrenaline-filled moments on the steep, rugged slopes of the Kaçkars every year, cashing out about $10,000 per person for a seven-day mountain skiing extravaganza. Over 3,500 people are estimated to have come to Rize in the last 10 years, purely to get a taste of heli-skiing on unexplored territories.
What is Heli-skiing exactly?
Heli-skiing is exactly what it sounds like – challenging and full of adrenaline – but it's not like those action movies where spies jump out from choppers and land perfectly on the near-vertical slopes of mountains to evade the bad guys. Sorry to burst your bubble, but there is no dangerous jumping whatsoever, instead helicopters become the cable cars that lift you to safety.
As a type of off-piste free-riding, heli-skiing helps adventurous skiers access remote areas of virgin powder snow and avoid all those long queues, packed slopes and tracks where everyone goes. Heli-skiers describe the feeling of hitting that untapped terrain in the wilderness and floating through bottomless snow as breathtaking, a rush that leaves them with an abundance of self-satisfaction.
Security is tight
Contrary to what it looks like from the outside, heli-skiing isn't as carefree as it seems. People do not literally throw themselves into the unknown. Heli-skiing requires careful planning and preparation, and companies have to go through a serious multi-step security and permission process to conduct such activities. Before the choppers take off, flight routes have to be determined and necessary permits have to be issued by the General Directorate of Civil Aviation. Pilots have to undergo special training, as do heli-skiers, who are given winter survival training. The athletes have to be equipped with radios, satellite phones, GPRS transmitters and maps to locate them easily on the track. They also have airbag backpacks in case of an avalanche.