Four decades spreading over two millenniums: it's safe to say Harris Mountains Heli-Ski has been around for a while, in fact – which we’re sure you’ve heard - this year we're celebrating our 40th anniversary and we think it's the perfect opportunity to take a wee look down memory lane. A lot has happened and while some stories are common knowledge in the world of heli-skiing, some might not be so familiar to our followers. So, here’s a few stories of up’s and down’s we experienced that you might not know about…
Let's begin with our founder Paul Scaife, who was a real visionary, a brave adventurer whose spirit still lives on in our day-to-day operations. Although, not so well known is his nickname amongst his fellow guides…
“We called him ‘Captain Chaos" remembers former Chief Guide Dean Staples.
“Back in the late 80s, when a lot of Japanese tourists came to New Zealand to go heli-skiing, we would sometimes have seven loads per helicopter. It took almost all night to organise the load sheets. In the morning, Paul would come into the ops room and change everything, putting new people on the sheets and creating chaos. Surprisingly, it always worked out in the end.”
The chaos continued and succeeded to bring us right up to our 40 years of Heli-Skiing. So, if you hear the term used when out on a trip - now you know your history!
With the increasing number of guests in the late 80s and early 90s, HMH had to change its way of operating. Everything became bigger and busier within the space of one or two seasons. Instead of flying with 10 to 20 guests per day, a daily operation in August could suddenly involve more than 100 skiers... We even needed to charter two 40 seater buses to bring clients to the staging area and each helicopter catered for up to seven groups at once… it was manic but great!
We had a chat with Wanaka operations manager, Roger Kingston to find out how he remembers his first days as a guide 30 years ago:
“Everything was a bit more chaotic than nowadays. With seven loads per helicopter, the pilot had to keep track of a lot of different groups. It was in my first or second year as a guide that they forgot about me and my group. We waited at the bottom of our last run for two hours before I decided to hike up the mountain to get reception for my radio. Two hours later we got picked up. This has never happened again, so it is definitely a unique story to remember and one for the books!”
Phew, first and the last time this happened… don’t worry we make sure no one gets left behind!
In the first years of operation, guests would sometimes get picked up at Pembroke Park in the centre of Wanaka or even at the house of the main pilot who used to operate from his own lawn... Not entirely sure how his neighbours liked that on a busy day but that was just how it went.
At the beginning we used two different helicopter models, the Jet Ranger and the Hughes 500. In the mid 90's we changed models and upgraded to the twin engine Squirrel, a helicopter capable of accommodating up to five passengers. Since 2012 we have been using the B2 which is a more powerful and lighter single-engine helicopter, but even these engines weren’t strong enough for a group of All Blacks that came to the Southern Lakes area for some heli-skiing.
Our experienced pilot Nigel remembers:
“They were such big guys that we could only have three of them per helicopter load instead of four or even five people which is the norm."
So there you have it… pack light when the All Blacks are on board!
Our success story would've been impossible without the amazing work of our guides. Every single one of them has heaps of experience in guiding and keeping guests safe in the challenging mountainous environment... Not to mention that basically all of them are amazing athletes, with or without their HMH guide jacket on.
A prime example is our chief guide Mark Sedon... Last year he went on a successful expedition to climb one of the most remote mountains on earth; Mt Spectre in Antartica. He and two other adventurers spent 60 days on the icy continent, travelling over 1,700 km and using kites to access the mountains. It is thought to be the first time anyone has done this style of expedition in Antarctica.
Another superstar is our senior guide Whitney Thurlow, who is an Ex World Champion in Telemark, winning the World Championship Telemark GS 1990 and is a four times winner of the North American Telemark Championship.
Not to be missed is our former chief guide Dean Staples, who has summited Mount Everest 9 times – wow – and who is the first Kiwi to climb it from both the North and South. He and his partner Lydia Bradley, who was the first woman in the world to climb Mount Everest without oxygen are occasionally still guiding for Harris Mountains Heli-Ski.
So now you know some of our favourite memories you’ll know that we’re more than a company that just takes guests heli-skiing in the beautiful Southern Alps – we are a living breathing machine of amazing people delivering epic experiences to our customers. It is a melting pot of brave mountaineers, talented pilots and amazing skiers who find immense pleasure in leading people into their world. It is a world of wonders, of powder snow and high summits, deep gulley’s and secret valleys, only accessible thanks to our versatile helicopters.
We incorporate a lifestyle that has become rare in our modern world. Natural conditions and weather determine what’s possible and we can only adjust and be thankful for the opportunity to work in one of the wildest and most beautiful areas of this planet.
Our past was extraordinary, exciting and unique and we can't wait to show you!