Powderhounds Review

Harris Mountains Wanaka Heli Skiing Review The Harris Mountains Heli Ski terrain is a dreamy place where there are rooster tails flying and powder hound tails wagging.

We’ve been out with Harris Mountains from Wanaka a handful of times (including once on a 3 run package as a heli skiing virgin and a 9 run max vertical odyssey), and have been suitably impressed all times! The max vertical day was up there as the best skiing day we’ve ever had. The powder wasn’t the most amazing we’ve ever experienced, and the terrain wasn’t the best terrain we’ve ever skied, but the combination together was superb.

On the max vertical day we went out with fellow guest Stuart who was proudly wearing his new HMH 1 million vertical feet jacket. The day before another fella had clocked up 2 million feet with Harris Mountains. Blimey! That sort of record for repeat clientele business speaks volumes about the quality of HMH’s operation.

Of course even though Harris Mountains Heliski is a very reputable company, no heli skiing company is perfect for everyone. Our review covers different aspects of their operation so that you can determine if HMH is likely to match up with your priorities. It is worthwhile noting that many of the New Zealand heli skiing operations are very similar, and the Queenstown and Wanaka heli skiing operators in particular are difficult to differentiate. Nevertheless HMH comes up trumps and we’ve rated Harris Mountains Heliski as the overall best heli skiing New Zealand operation.

As a guide to the ratings, a 5/5 equates to absolutely phenomenal, 4/5 is excellent, whilst 3/5 is still a very good score.

Pros:

  • Harris Mountains Heli Ski is a very experienced operator and you can be assured of a high level of quality and service. HMH have a great reputation.
  • HMH are probably the biggest NZ heli ski operation and have the capacity to take out heaps of guests each day. The advantage this provides is that they can really cater for different ability levels and group guests accordingly. The chances are much less of being stuck with people that are way above or below your ability level or desire for speed. 
  • HMH is a great all-rounder when it comes to the terrain. HMH rates highly for the intermediate, advanced and expert terrain.
  • They have huge terrain so they have a good chance of finding reasonable (or even fantastic) snow conditions. If they have to go further into the backcountry to find the good snow, they won’t be stingy on heli flying time.
  • The guides are great and have plenty of charisma to make the day even more fun. Of course they’re professional too!
  • The staff in the Wanaka and Queenstown offices will not provide exaggerated reports of the likely snow conditions. Rather they will provide frank information so you can choose whether you want to go or not.
  • As with all NZ heli skiing, the rates are a fraction of what you’d pay in other countries.
Cons:
  • Like any heli ski operation, there is no guarantee of knee deep powder. However compared to the reasonably reliable snowfall in places such as Canada and Utah, the NZ snow conditions are very variable. On the plus side as outlined above, the staff won’t pretend there is thigh deep powder when there isn’t.
  • As with all Queenstown / Wanaka heli skiing operators, the ski vertical is somewhat limited (approximately 600m to 760m on average). That being said, we managed to score many thigh burningly long runs of about 1,000 metres of vertical, and one killer was even 1,300 metres.
Powder Snow
The snow conditions within the NZ mountain ranges can vary significantly from beautiful knee deep powder, to crud or spring corn. It’s all part of the magical mystery tour of New Zealand heli skiing!

We were suitably impressed with the snow conditions considering that the snow at the nearby ski resorts was crap. We went to terrain with cooler temps at high elevation and with glacial surrounds. The snow was delightfully creamy and was sometimes dry shin-deep powder. Occasionally there was some crust, but the guide quickly changed tack to find better snow.

We’ve even scored one amazing powder day where the temps were cold and we wondered whether we were possibly in Japan?!
Overall Terrain
Harris Mountains Heli Ski has some impressive terrain within their vast tenure. HMH were the first heli ski company in the Queenstown/Wanaka area and staked their claim on the best terrain.

We’ve done some superb heli-skiing out of Wanaka in the Buchanan Ranges, but it pales into insignificance in comparison to some of the terrain near Mt Amsted, the Headlong Glacier and Tyndall Glacier. Their website states that “several of our best skiing /riding locations are deep in the backcountry; we make the extra effort to get you to the best and deepest snow” and this is absolutely the truth!

Their terrain elevations are higher than that of Southern Lakes and Alpine Heliski, and as such their average run lengths are a little longer. As outlined above we were lucky enough to do several runs of about 3,000 vertical feet and did one that continued for 4,000 feet.

Many of the runs provide fall line skiing and boarding that is to-die-for. The terrain also has interesting lips and huckable rocks as well as spectacular glacial features such as ceracs and crevasses.
Alpine Terrain
Other NZ heli skiing operators tend to cater very well to strong intermediates or experienced backcountry riders, but HMH is a great all-rounder.

Tree Skiing
zero
This isn’t Canada or the lower 48 of the USA.
Strong Intermediate Terrain

Harris Mountains Heli Ski caters really well to intermediate riders, even if they’re not strong intermediates. This is partly due a wide choice of appropriate terrain but also because of large guest numbers and the high likelihood of intermediates being grouped together. In addition to this, the guides are extremely patient and encouraging.
Advanced Terrain
The terrain is perfect for advanced skiers and boarders (except that there’s only alpine terrain and no trees).
Expert & Extreme Terrain
If experts can wait until the avalanche risk is low then there is an abundance of steep pitches to tackle. There are also plenty of lips and rocks to huck, and the guides are only too happy to point these out (and watch and laugh if needs be!).

We were impressed with the steeps right from the first run of our max vert day. The helicopter teetered on a razor edge ridge and we dropped into our warm-up run on a fantastic steep slope. We knew we were in for a good day!
Guiding
Many of the HMH guides have been in the business for 20-plus years and it shows (not because of their crinkly eyes but because of their ability of course!). They also have plenty of personality!

They have lots of dedicated experienced guides but also have on-call guides for busy days. The latter may not necessarily know the terrain as well as the old-hands. The guide to guest ratio is usually 1:4 so the service is very attentive.

We’ve had two trips with the legendary Whitney, a veteran of backcountry guiding. He did a great job of modifying his guiding depending on the situation. There was minimal or no re-grouping on mellow runs yet his guiding became very specific around hazards such as crevasses and cliffs, and his ability to pick the supremo snow was superb.

We’ve also been out with Roger whose expertise was equally impressive, and it was easy to feel very comfortable that he had the safety aspects well covered.
Heli
HMH use the same helicopters as their competitors, which are very well suited to heli skiing.
Avalanche Mitigation Strategies
HMH monitors weather conditions and uses information sharing mechanisms to analyse snowpack stability. In the field, slope selection and snowpack load minimisation was somewhat evident. The avalanche risk was low on both occasions so understandably the implementation of risk minimisation strategies was not really apparent.

Like their counterparts, their website and safety briefings don’t demonstrate a really strong emphasis on avalanche safety.
Safety Briefing
As is very typical with New Zealand heli skiing, the safety briefings regarding avalanche beacons and helicopters were very cursory. The briefings haven’t included what to do in an avalanche (other than use a beacon) or shovel and probe use.
Frills
The frills are very similar across the Queenstown and Wanaka heli skiing operators. They provide accommodation pick-ups and drop-offs, rental equipment pick-ups and drop-offs, as well as a lovely backcountry lunch with awesome vistas. Lunch included soup and cold items such as sausage rolls (ours were rock hard!), gourmet bread with meats, cheeses, and a few other condiments. Hot and cold beverages were provided at lunch time, but you’ll need to BYO water if you think you’ll need hydration during other parts of the day.

Powder skis can be rented at Racers Edge in Wanaka (next door to their office) or at Outdoor Sports in Queenstown.

As is standard with most NZ heli operators, there’s no après session or finale for high-fiving.

On request Harris Mountains Heli Ski can provide a video service whereby one of the guides will ski with the group and capture some of your rooster tails and face plants! A copy of the video can be purchased on a no-obligation basis.
Value for Money
As with most NZ heli skiing the rates are an absolute baaa…..gain especially when you consider the strength of the New Zealand peso. The rates across the operators are very similar (see our NZ heli ski comparison for more information) and HMH impressively hasn’t increased their prices in the last couple of years.

As with all NZ operators, powder ski or snowboard rental is not included in the package.

Notes Regarding Review The review 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 all the terrain 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 ratings are from our perspective only and we encourage you to contribute to the overall review of the operation by adding a review.

Check out our heli ski ratings to see how Harris Mountains Heliski fares against other heli skiing operations around the world.

The photos and video are not captured using professional riders. They aim to show an example of a “standard” experience.

More Information If you would like to enquire about a date or you would like to get more information directly from Harris Mountains Heliski click here.

What to Take on a Heli-ski Day There is minimal space inside the chopper so you can’t pack a suitcase for the day. Multiple groups will use the one chopper so it’s also difficult to store anything in there whilst you’re out skiing. You’ll need to have a jacket with big pockets! Transceivers are provided by HMH, and it’s not necessary to take other safety equipment.

Definitely take sunscreen (heavy duty) as there’s a high probably of plenty of rays reflecting off the snow. You may wish to take some water. The guides provide some juice and hot water at lunch time, but you’ll need to take responsibility for any other hydration requirements throughout the rest of the day.

It’s recommended that you leave any shyness behind. There’s a porta-loo at the staging area, but once you’re up in the mountains you’ll find it hard to have a moment to yourself. You may wish to take a little toilet paper.