Imagine broad expanses of untracked mountains, teeming with fresh snow that’s every skier and snowboarder’s dream. You go up by chopper, lay down some sweet turns and then head down for a well deserved dinner of authentic Greek food.
Sorry, what’s that? Greek?
Yes, that’s right. Some of the planet’s best skiing is in Greece. This almost unknown strip of mountains is “the world’s best kept secret”, according to Craig Calonica of Himalayan Heliski Guides. “The drops are perfect, they’re so easy,” says Craig. “Olympus could be one of the biggest ski areas in Europe. You can get in so many run – more so that any other place I’ve been.”
Listen to our interview with Craig below and hear what’s making for the very best in skiing in Nepal, Greece and Chile.
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Here is the transcript of our interview:
Speaker 1: Hey, Craig. It’s really nice to have you here and a real pleasure. I’m glad you could join us.
Craig: Yes, nice to be here.
Speaker 1: Craig, tell me how did you get started in this business.
Craig: First time I really ever did any heli-skiing was in Squaw somewhere in the ’80s. Then I was on Everest trying to ski it from the summit is my third attempt three years in a row. I was just thinking, “Well, if I had a helicopter, I could ski all these runs after breakfast. Have lunch and go and ski all those runs. Now, I’m going to sit here for the next two months again for the third time trying to just get one run in.”
Speaker 1: Let’s fast forward to today where you’ve got some pretty interesting destinations. Obviously, Nepal, Kathmandu sound like magical places. Tell us a bit about those destinations first.
Craig: We’re operating in Tierra del Fuego in Chile down at Puerto Williams, which is basically the bottom of the world. It’s the last stop before Antarctica. It’s along the Beagle Channel and it’s the polar twin, polar opposite twin of Southeast Alaska. They have the glaciers going down into the sea. Except in this area, there’s penguins and right across from where we’re at is Ushuaia and Cerro Castor, which is Argentina. The Cerro Castor ski area is a ski area where a lot of the European alpine teams train in the winter. The French team has been there for around 10 years now, so they’re not going to a place where it doesn’t snow. The season is a bit longer than the areas up north in the Portillo and La Parva region.
Speaker 1: Can you describe … Obviously you’ve got some beautiful resorts that you put your guests into. Can you describe to me perhaps one of the finer destinations and the resorts that you pair up with the heli-ski operation and the adventure on the mountains?
Craig: In Nepal, we stayed at a really nice resort in Kathmandu. It’s out of the city a bit which is nice because Kathmandu is pretty noisy and smoggy. It’s up on a hill. Then it’s a beautiful 18 hole golf course. It’s quiet. You don’t know Kathmandu is out there five minutes driving. It’s really, really nice. It’s beautiful up there. There’s a lot of monkeys, spotted deer. Then out in the forest, there are a few leopards but they’re not bothering the people.
In Pokhara, we’re in another resort. It’s a long lake. There’s a really nice lake in Pokhara, Lake Phewa. This whole area has just got beautiful views of the entire Annapurna range. It’s a really nice spot. At 780 meters, we get up in the morning really early. We’re flying by 6:15, 6:30 because we have to start early in the morning and our days are cut short by the incoming cumulus cloud buildup which normally is between 11 and 12, but the good thing about it is we’ll have thundershowers that afternoon and evening. Go back the next morning boot top, knee-deep, fresh powder and blue skies. It’s almost like having a powder making machine.
Speaker 1: It sounds terrible.
Craig: We’re skiing the same amount. We’re skiing from 7 until 11 or 12. Then we go back to Pokhara. Everybody has lunch and can see some of Nepal the rest of the days. They can go boating. They’re out on the lake, mountain biking, swimming. They can rent these old Enfield motorcycles and cruise all over the country out in there, paragliding. There’s just a lot of things.
One of the world’s hardest golf course is right there. It’s like 16 holes. It’s just unreal. It starts on top of this big huge gorge kind of like a Grand Canyon type thing, and it just goes down to these shelves all the way down until you get to the river at the bottom. Then you’re shooting across the river and going back and forth. There’s a little island out in one spot. There’s tennis courts, clay courts.
The village itself is one of the nicest villages in Nepal and right along the lake, it’s just filled with really good restaurants and bars all over. Nice colorful shops with full Nepali, Tibetan goods. It’s a lively village or town. In the evening, there’s a lot of really good bands. When you’re walking by, you would think it was The Stones or any of the great rock and roll groups.
Speaker 1: It sounds like a great way to end a hard day of skiing.
Craig: You’re up there skiing between 5,200 meters down to 3,700, which is a 15 minute flight from Pokhara and to the mountain range in the Annapurna region. On the way out, it’s 12 minutes, a little bit faster. You’d go from right in the heart of the Annapurna to this full tropical region. There’s elephants every now and then. There’s banana trees, monkeys and a couple … Maybe five minutes further from there is a full on jungle best with the flying with the helicopter. There’s bengal tigers, leopards, rhinoceros, alligators, crocodiles. It’s a full on jungle. Wild elephants. This whole thing is just 20 minute flight form the heart of the Himalayas. Heli-skiing in Nepal is not just heli-skiing. It’s a full on adventure. Just going to Nepal by itself is a really great trip. It’s something that you’ll remember all your life. Going there and getting to ski on top of it is … It’s just something that you only dream about but it’s the reality. We’ve been doing it. This is our 13th year.
Speaker 1: I do want to chat a little bit about Chile and Greece, especially Greece.
Craig: Greece is like California in that regard. It’s a very mountainous country. Mount Olympus rises 10,000 feet straight up from the Aegean Sea, straight up from the Aegean Sea. It has 52 summits. It snows at sea level there from time to time. It just snowed at sea level there a few days ago. At 10,000 foot vertical rise is the Himalayan scale peak. Everest is like that. Mount Blanca is like that. It’s a big mountain. Then about a 20 minute flight from there is the Pindus mountain range. It’s 40 kilometers wide, 160 kilometers long of just perfect mountains as far as you can see just loaded with snow. This place gets snow from the north which is what hits the alps, and they get these storms from Northern Africa that come across through there. Then they get the storms that come in from the Cocos. It’s getting hit three different times.
When we were out there this one time, we had a two meter base. Went back to Chamonix where it was -40 for the next three weeks. In that time, it snowed three meters in Greece. It’s amazing. Nobody understands it. There’s about 15 11 small ski areas in this country. They’re just tiny but I can tell you right now Olympus could be one of the biggest ski areas in Europe if they wanted to try and develop the place. It’s huge. It’s probably one of the friendliest heli-ski areas I’ve ever seen in my life because the drops are so … They’re perfect. They’re so easy and you can get in so many runs much more than you can almost anywhere I’ve ever been. We made 13 runs in an hour and a half one time and people couldn’t ski anymore. There’s just so much. They’re just going up and down, and up and down and up and down.
Speaker 1: You’re saying really nice drops so would this be good for, let’s say, an intermediate type skier or an advanced, this Mount Olympus?
Craig: Oh, well. There’s a little bit for everybody. There are some stuff that even the boys that think they’re good hardcore skiers if they got on their legs would be shaking. Then there is a huge amount of moderate terrain that is perfect for just skiing. Nothing that if you fell you would continue going. I think once everybody sees what’s there, it’ll probably end up being one of the most sought after hel-ski destinations just because it’s so unique.
Speaker 1: Let’s go over to Chile. Quickly tell me a little bit more about Chile and the same sort of thing, terrain, maybe even some of the combinations as well.
Craig: The terrain in Chile is pretty wide open and, like Greece, none of this stuff that we’re skiing has ever been skied before. One of the reasons why is because you have thick brush and forests. It’s like Alaska from the shoreline up for the first 3, 4, 500 feet, right? You couldn’t even get up through there. The only real access is how we’re doing it with helicopters. It’s really cool. You’re just around all these fjords. Then there’s [inaudible 00:09:48] cordillera in this region and it’s just massive. The whole place is unbelievable. Big glaciers all over and pretty good peaks. It’s a really, really scenic area and it’s a really special area. You know you’re down at the bottom of the world when you’re in this place. There’s not much down there. It’s pretty quiet.
There is in the Calvi, it’s a famous boat that’s stuck in the mud there at this one harbor and it’s on angle. It’s where all the … Well, not where all, but a lot of the sellers that are doing the selling around the world pop in to to get a little bit of rest from the direct passage in the Cape Horn. It’s funny because you feel like you’ve been drinking the minute you walk in because it’s tilted, right?
Speaker 1: Yup.
Craig: The boat is on an angle.
Speaker 1: That’s a cheap drunk.
Craig: You don’t have to drink too much to feel like you already have had a few. That’s a good side to it.
Speaker 1: How would you describe the snow in Chile on those mountains and the grades?
Craig: It’s almost like anywhere. You have to be there at the right time. There will be some winds so you can get in unbelievable perfectly windblown snow conditions in some of the areas. Then you’ll be able to find some areas where it’s just perfect powder so you can get both combinations in the same day. Windblown is great snow. It’s like spring snow but still cold, fresh snow.
Speaker 1: What is it about windblown that makes it so great?
Craig: It’s ego snow. You can’t do anything wrong in it. You’ll make the best turns ever made in your life. It’s like spring skiing when you get on the perfect spring snow. If you can’t ski those two conditions, you should hang it up. It doesn’t come any easier than that.
Speaker 1: Take up needlepoint.
Craig: And, it’s fun. It’s really fun skiing. It’s one of my favorite type of conditions. Good powder is great but on this stuff it feels really nice windblown top to bottom. Man, it’s some of the best skiing going.
Speaker 1: I just want to thank you very much for this interview and it’s a real pleasure to have you with us.
Craig: All right.