Powderhounds Review

Powderhounds Review

Tenjindaira Backcountry Tours

The Powderhounds have reviewed the Powderbird Heli Skiing in Utah on two occasions. The first time we scored 2 feet of fresh which was absolutely divine, but due to avalanche risk we mainly stayed on low angle terrain. The 2nd trip was during a dry spell where it hadn’t snowed for at least a couple of weeks and only a mini reset had occurred. We still had a heli ski of a great time and were able to check out more of the Powderbird terrain.

Powderbird (formerly Wasatch Powderbird Guides) is an outstanding outfit, yet no heli skiing company is ideal for everyone. Our review covers different features of the operation so you can establish if Powderbird is the right heli skiing for you. As a guide to the ratings below, a 5/5 equates to truly phenomenal, 4/5 is excellent, and 3/5 is very good. You can check out our heli ski ratings to see how this Utah heli skiing fares against other operations.

Pros

  • The Powderbird Utah heli skiing terrain is home to the “greatest snow on earth” with 500 inches of annual snowfall that is renowned for its reliably low moisture content (especially compared to Sierra Cement).
  • The terrain for advanced riders is divine.
  • The easy access from Snowbird Ski Resort (or Alta) or Canyons is a major bonus so that your vacation can combine heli skiing with riding at ski resorts that are amongst the best in the US. Proximity to the Salt Lake City Airport also adds to the convenience.

Cons

  • Particularly during peak season, the Powderbird heli skiing is pricey and you don't get much vertical for your money.
  • The terrain is shared with avid Wasatch backcountry tourers, and it can be a challenge for the guides to find completely untracked slopes if it hasn’t snowed in a while.

 

Powder Snow
Whilst perhaps not the volumes of snow found in Alaska and northern BC, the Powderbird terrain receives more snowfall than other continental USA heli ski outfits. As for the quality, well that can be “to die for”, especially when the lake effect storms come through.
Overall Terrain
The terrain size may seem large at 100,000 acres when you compare it to the largest ski resort in the USA (Park City Mountain Resort/Canyons), which is about 1/13th the size of Powderbird. And Powderbird is very large, however when you compare it to the average for USA heli skiing, which is 8.5 times the size, it becomes a little dwarfed. Even the continental USA heli skiing average is 2.5 times the size.

The size generally wouldn’t be a problem but the heli ski terrain is shared with lots of backcountry skiers and boarders. You wouldn’t think that backcountry tourers could make a dent in terrain that size, but the Wasatch backcountry is legendary and the terrain between the Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons in particular, is reasonably accessible. Tracked snow can be a little problem if it hasn’t snowed in a little while, and this was our experience on one occasion.
Alpine Terrain
The alpine is the mainstay of the Powderbird terrain, and there’s plenty of variety with respect to pitch as well as features to launch off.
Tree Skiing
Powderbird has some tree skiing but it tends to either be in the sub-alpine and very very widely spaced, or down low where the pitch has mellowed out. There are some patches with tight low angle aspens, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of steep tight tree skiing for high avy risk days when experts are still looking for a challenge.
Strong Intermediate Terrain
There are plenty of wide-open gentle slopes in the Powderbird terrain, but access to it is likely to be via a steep-ish drop-in. If you booked a private charter, Powderbird could probably cater to your needs, but as part of a premium adventure (ie group heli skiing) you’d risk being flown back to base at your expense. 
Advanced Terrain
Phenomenal really – this is what Powderbird Heli Skiing is all about! With steepish alpine bowls where you can turn where you like, quintessential runs like Cardiac Ridge where you wonder if you’ll have a heart attack on the way down, smatterings of tree skiing, and awesome powder to boost the ego, this is a fully equipped playground for advanced riders.
Expert & Extreme Terrain

There are plenty of chutes, steeps and rock features to huck off, but firstly it may depend on avalanche conditions as to whether you can access this terrain. This isn’t Alaska where the snow sticks to steep faces, so if you want super fresh deep, you might not also score the steep. Also Powderbird tends to attract mostly advanced riders, so unless everyone in the group of 8 is an expert, you might not get the treats you’re after. Of course there’s always private heli skiing to satiate your hunger!
Guiding
On both occasions the guides were fantastic. They made us feel at ease that they had our backs with respect to safety, they provided really clear instructions, and they were fun!

The jury is still out on whether I like this business of skiing in a pack of 8 (2 groups of 4). A huge pro is the safety consideration whereby there are two guides; a lead and tail. One con is that it feels like a fair bit of waiting for the other group either at the top or the bottom of each run. The other con is that it reduces the likelihood of a homogenous ability level in the group, although it sounds as though the guides occasionally break up into separate groups when the ability disparity is too great.
Heli
The A-star “bird” of Powderbird was small and agile, and able to access some tricky terrain even in reasonably windy conditions. The helicopter was able to seat five big passengers reasonably comfortably. There are no ridiculous big Huey choppers at Powderbird, only Huey the Snow God, blessing the terrain with lovely powder!
Avalanche Mitigation Strategies
Safety is a top priority for Powderbird, but as is rather common with USA mechanized backcountry outfits, it seems as though they don’t want to scare people about the risk. Avalanche mitigation strategies weren’t talked about much with guests. Even on the day of very high risk, it was only discussed a little when one guest asked why we weren’t hitting the steeps.
Safety Briefing
Also typical to the US (and very different to cat and heli skiing in Canada), the safety briefing was very “brief”. Safety around the helicopter was very well covered, but a briefing regarding avalanches, other backcountry hazards, beacon use, shovels and probes etc was almost non-existent.
Frills
The trappings included in the heli skiing package are very good. The major highlight is the culinary delights on offer. The day starts with a large gourmet breakfast. Not just muffins or cookies with a coffee, but a full-on cooked affair! And because lunch isn’t held out in the field, it’s equally grand! Lunch sort of doubles as après-ski festivities, and with some beers on offer and plenty of high-fiving, it makes for a really upbeat end to the heli day.

A great addition to their frills since the first time we visited is the offer of powder ski rentals on-site.
Value for Money

The stated average vertical per day is 11,000 to 16,000 feet, which is comparable to other continental USA heli outfits (ie not Alaska). We only skied rather short runs on our 2nd day out with them. We would have been lucky to get to 9,000 feet, and as with many day operators there’s no minimum vert guarantee, so you take your chances regarding how much value you get.

During peak season, Powderbird has the 2nd highest day rate of the USA heli ski operators (and powder skis are not included), and a higher rate than the Canada day heli ski operators (assuming 1:1 currency exchange). So you have to pay a pretty penny for the privilege of riding the “Greatest Snow on Earth”.

Notes Regarding Review

The review of Powderbird is largely based on our experiences, but also on discussions with staff, former guests, and information available on their website. Our review has some limitations as it’s not possible to ski every run and in all possible snow and weather conditions. Every guide is somewhat different and we acknowledge that everyone’s experience will be slightly different.

The still images are not filmed using professional riders, but rather aim to show an example of a real experience.
150