Heli Club

A renegade group in Whistler organizes one-way heli drops, giving skiers affordable access to big terrain.

There's an invite-only club in Whistler that's organizing one-way heli drops for as cheap as $85. PHOTO: Andrew Strain

There’s an invite-only club in Whistler that’s organizing one-way heli drops for as cheap as $85. PHOTO: Andrew Strain

Words: Eliel Hindert

The first rule of the Heli Club is you don’t invite weakness to the Heli Club. The second rule of the Heli Club is you don’t invite weakness to the Heli Club. So begins the Fight Club-inspired mantra of the Whistler-based Heli Club. With helicopter drops for as little as $85 accessing some of the biggest terrain in North America, these are rules you don’t want to break.

The basic concept behind the operation is neither new nor complex. Heli companies need a half hour to warm up the machine before the real paying customers show up. If you know a pilot and can convince them that your group is capable and proficient in advanced backcountry travel then you can split the cost of a one-way drop during that warm-up period.

Let’s do some simple math. Strip away the guides, the employees, the cooks, the management, the lodge, and what’s left? The helicopter and the pilot. At about $1,500 an hour, you can get 0.3 hours for $500, and split five ways that puts you in a helicopter for $100. From there it’s a one-way drop to any destination you can sell the pilot on.

The thing is, most of us don’t know a heli pilot. What’s more, most of us wouldn’t be able to convince them that we had guide-level backcountry experience and could coordinate a group of four friends at the same level. Let alone navigate a drop up to 30 miles away from any road and navigate multiple ridges, glaciers, and peaks just to arrive on a rural road in the dark and stick your thumb out for a ride. That’s where the Heli Club comes in.

heli pull quote

They are an invite-only group of skiers, snowboarders, dishwashers, bartenders, and software engineers that have used collective knowledge and experience to streamline the process of heli drops. Last year alone, they ran 37 drops in the Whistler area. They negotiate the price, select from a library of routes and destinations, and represent some of the strongest backcountry partners one could ask for.

The self-proclaimed Tyler Durden of the club is Nova Scotia-native Shaun Gillis. He’s not an employee since it isn’t a business. He’s not a director since nobody gets paid—in fact nobody even gets free rides. And he isn’t a guide since there are no clients. Gillis is a facilitator, the mediator between the needs of the local heli operations and the wants of a pool of die-hard shred bums.

Gillis didn’t introduce the concept of group buys on heli time but rather fell into it while working at a restaurant in Whistler in 2008. “I overheard the dishwasher say on the telephone. ‘No I don’t want to do a heli drop.’ I told him to call whoever he just said no to and tell them I am in,” says Gillis.

At that point there was no club, rather one-off events where individuals would negotiate with heli pilots on a case-by-case basis to get one-way drops in the area. It was up to the management to decide if the group was equipped enough to go and that was it. With the invite-only system of the club, you only get a spot in the bird if one of the existing members vouches for your knowledge and ability, thus putting both of you up to be dropped from the club roster.

The idea is that strong partners, collective experiences, and most recently extensive group practices throughout the year provide an environment where set guides are not necessary while still allowing for ‘rookies’ to approach the system.

Still the operation hasn’t come without its critics. Longtime locals and users of the heli-drop option cite that brute force, like cornice cutting, is often used to negotiate more technical lines and roping into hyper-exposed lines puts some members into situations far beyond their ability. Last spring, a heli club skier cut a cornice that caused an avalanche to propagate near another touring party below. The slide ran several hundred meters away from the party so no one was hurt, but it did incite a flurry of criticism for the operation’s methods and overall existence.

An invitation to the Heli Club gets you this. PHOTO: Andrew Strain

An invitation to the Heli Club gets you this. PHOTO: Andrew Strain

Additionally while the core members are well equipped to deal with the day’s events, there are occasionally last-second replacements in the bird, which means people who are mentally and physically under-prepared end up in the heli. Riders getting a one-way drop to such remote locations have to be ready to do anything from rappelling into a 2500m couloir to spending the night in a backcountry snow cave if need be.

“Something is going to go wrong,” says Dave Gheriani, a Whistler local and longtime user of the heli drop option before the club existed. “The loose confederation of riders Gillis has created is designed to fill the bird every time. It creates a strange dynamic, where last-second changes to the crew can leave users operating beyond their experience level and underprepared for the situations they put themselves in. Someone is going to get hurt or die, and we’re not going to be able to do drops.”

Out of the 300-plus drops that Gillis has coordinated, there have only been three search-and-rescue calls, two of which Gillis says were unwarranted and the third involving a non-life threatening injury that required air evacuation. Those are admirable statistics given the inherent danger that exists any time you take something as complex as backcountry travel and add a helicopter into the equation. Despite the lack of major accidents, Gillis states that, “If someone dies, I will stop dropping.”

Agree or disagree with the concept, the camaraderie in the club and the opportunities it has opened up for working locals and pros alike is unique. The heli club gives riders another tool to their backcountry quiver, helping them travel just a bit further, and experience that much more. Nobody is in the heli because of his or her wallet; they’re flying because of the connections they’ve made and the way they carry themselves.

“At the end of the day, all I want is a hug from my partners from the awesome day and to do it again,” says Gillis. “Shit, this shit is the shit. I love it.”

Add a comment

  • Andy F

    This sounds like something I have been looking forward to for a while. I don’t have a group of friends who likes to do hard, technical stuff like backcountry or heli drops. I however enjoy it immensely. This would help people similar to me in finding a way to do what I enjoy and what I am capable of doing.

  • Shaun Keller Gillis

    I shaun gillis challenge dave gheriani to four beacon search racr and crevasse scenario race. This means you have to have your own gear dave. This will be filmed and results will be posted. Not going to talk about you dave i think your skills will prove themselves. Wooo hooo bring it dave

    • kye petersen

      Its just about who’s getting brought out there. we dont want to see this privilege be ruined because someones taking random people out to sacred lines. If u have a crew of parteners and u do a drop its different than renegade guiding people u hardly know. there are plenty of guides and long time local big mountain skiers that dont wanna see this club ruin it for everyone whos doin it. just go with friends u know not random people that dont know what there doing out there.

      • Shaun Keller Gillis

        Yep and people I meet and have a good feel for. I do not offer drops to everyone I meet. Have not had a issue of skiing ability on the sacred lines. Friends of friends that I trust know who to bring along. I do not want this to ever end for everyone that uses drops they are rad.

        • wernie

          not what i’ve heard…

          • Shaun Keller Gillis

            Then come and see what we are about

          • wernie

            no thanks. you sound like a cornice-dropping gong show. don’t need to pay for your free flight and dont want to be first person you kill. let someone else do the honors

          • Shaun Keller Gillis

            I wasnt inviting u in the heli just to practice

          • Sean

            yeah jeez id love to try this out though i need some experience in back country first being a Martock boarder myself

          • Shaun Keller Gillis

            Ski mattock
            Mattock ski
            If in whistler Lots of ways to get experience alpine guides bureau take ast great intro. Get a split but first beacon probe shovel. If price is a issue these are the first things you get. Where ever you are the are courses crevasse rescue.

        • noname

          absolutely not true.

  • Shaun Keller Gillis

    If you had read my quote carefully you would realize that I never said that you were unsafe. I disagree with the premise of the club but never personally attacked you. I’ve known you for years and never had anything personal against you. This is a disagreement of principles, that’s it. Personally I don’t think the article should ever have happened as it draws attention to something that doesn’t at all need to be under the microscope. That’s it. This is directly from dave after the challenge was set. So as soon as slills are put in place he backs down even offered to have some of our members against his skills and he still said no. Oh the internet so easy to be powerfful when there is no consequences

    • Dave Gheriani

      Maybe I was being conciliatory and have better things to do than spend a day with people that I’d never in a million years spend time in the backcountry with? At the end of the day I disagree entirely with the whole premise of your club. Drops have long been available to those who knew who to call and were the domain of small groups of experienced friends. This grey area that you operate in between guided and self-quided trips is totally unnecessary. Like Kye said, it should be about getting drops with your friends, not filling helos.

      • Shaun Keller Gillis

        It is with friend but unlike kye i was not born into ski royalty so my partners are not pros but hard working good people that i practice with and people that they trust.

      • 917

        what exactly defines who is experienced enough to be out there? seems like a gray area to me.

        • Shaun Keller Gillis

          Those who come to practice and there ate the drills but if i have four trusted friend why not inteoduce someone that is learning. They are not given any responsivilities and ride in the middle of the pack. Not loose and since this came out only going to get more strict

  • Shaun Keller Gillis

    as for the cornice drop they said on Wayne flans avalanche blog that the slide was 20 minutes away from them. Average touring speed on flat glacier 3-5 kn per hour. 20/60=.33x 3-5= 1- 1.65 km. I measured 1.5 and we were aware of the group the entire time

  • Hi Brooks

    In the end, the people who live for the search will be on the mountain with or without a heli or many times even a shovel shuttling out of bounds in the thousands off chair lifts with so-called side country access at resorts. The debate is not new and it wil never end. 25 years ago heli’s shuttled picnic groups over our heads at Robson, organized flyers in Whistler are always seeking more terrain and the rest of us with skins and sausage and cheese in our packs without sleds or sponsors pray for just one untracked line over the col…well maybe two…and that our partner is there to grab our backs when we cut a slab and not one turn away when we batrel into a tree well. If you can get there, be prepared, be stoked, and high five at the trailhead before the 7k bushwack back out (ya, they didn’t mention that part).

    and…I’d have Shaun on my rope in a minute.

    Powder to the people.
    Hi Speed

  • noname

    What a joke. I would really like to know (although I’m pretty sure I do) who the heli operator is. It DOES NOT take 30 minutes to “warm up” the helicopter before “real paying guests” arrive. That is 100% false. Also, you may be paying for a 0.3 of flight time, but the helicopter is flying a 0.6. That doesn’t make anyone ask any questions??? Think about it people! and to top it off $1500/hr for a long ranger is dirt cheap. anyway, all that crap aside… Something WILL go wrong. and yes somebody WILL get hurt or worse. OOOH 3 SAR calls in 300 drops…. Thats horrible! There are heli-ski operations in Canada that do 300 drops a day… Incident free… know why? because they are professionals! It will be interesting to see who gets hung to dry when the lawyers get involved after someone is hurt. Give your heads a shake.

    • Shaun Keller Gillis

      3 sar calls first one by leo zuckermans mother in Montreal even though we completed our mission 8 hours before we said we were going to be out. 2nd morgan hall ditched the group and skied out ahead but a splitboarder broke his binding And couldnt switch to touring so we boot packed out me and hicks king still got out at 6 pm just after the sun went down. Now norgan andl leo are no longer members. The third was on rethel with andrew nark we are still good friends and it was a twisted ankle that broke not a avalanche or crazy terrain we actually had backed down from the original mission and were on a 30-35 slope. Unfortunate but not unreasonable. So .33% of trips to actual emergencies and andrew paid for his bill through his insurance and me and my wife had a fund rainser at our wedding last may for sar in which we raised 750

    • Skiing Royalty

      Blackcomb heli drops these punters off. Just show up with a biner hanging off your harness, a GoPro and ABS pack and your good as gold. Oh and you won’t have to pay for your bird time. let your buds pay for you

    • noname

      heliski operations in canada that do 300 drops a day? you are on crack. mike weigile in blue river is probably the single biggest operation running multiple groups in Bell 212′s but rest assured they aren’t doing 300 drops a day. perhaps you mean 300 drops collectively all over BC in a day. maybe I might buy that.
      secdonly, helicopters companies always charge there time. perhaps these guys have dovetails arranged. i dont’ know. but what I do know is that you don’t know as much as you proclaim to know!

      • noname

        First … its their time, not there time.
        Second… its Wiegele, not weigile
        Thirdly…They are NOT the biggest heli-ski operation in Canada.

        If as stated in the article is true, “0.3 one way” then the company IS NOT charging the entire 0.6 of actual flight time. Oh, and I forgot to mention, I certainly am not on crack… I do however have 20+ years flying the things.

        • noname

          as a single operation, yes they are. cmh has multiple operations spread out all over BC. Blue River Mike’s is the biggest singular operation out there. and they don’t do 300 drops a day.

          • noname

            Well, CMH comes close to it in the busy season…yes, because of multiple lodges. Regardless, since you’re splitting hairs here… please explain how the extra 0.3 is accounted for that you originally disagreed with. Also, please tell us how you know so much.

          • noname

            As far as what will happen if there is an accident – by all accounts as the industry insider that you are, you should know about this history here and the recent cases 1) there has already been a heli-drop death in this region – nothing changed, althought the heli company got out of town 2) lets see the outcome of the tree well incident and the ski buddy. So far, in Canada, we haven’t really seen negligent friends go to jail. As far as gross negligence, there is going to have to be more than than backcountry skiing with a heli club with non professionals in the group to say anything that anyone is doing in that group is grossly negligent. As far as I can tell, they are pretty much doing what every other bro in whistler is doing in the backcountry, including going with people they barely know.
            As far as the time, my guess is the writer made a mistake. There is not some crazy conspiracy as you seem to think. You tell me what the issue is.
            I know so much because I fly in helicopters all the time, for work. As far as the word touch down, so sorry, I commonspeak too much. I live in the country.

          • imwright

            PS as for the fly time. there has always been pre-set prices for drops around whislter. rainbow mtn etc. the article did not say it was 0.3 one way. 0.3 for the hour – many of the drops are super close. yes, usually heli’s charge 0.2 for any touch down so maybe they are giving them a small break because it was already arranged. still doubt your 20 years of flying if you couldn’t have figured that out!

          • noname

            um… did you actually read the third paragraph?

          • noname

            and who says “touch down”… I doubt your… um… ANY, ya that’s the word, I doubt you have ANY experience!

    • Sean

      um did you even read this, it said 300+ drops “Out of the 300-plus drops
      that Gillis has coordinated, there have only been three
      search-and-rescue calls” that’s not 300+ a day, that’s 300+ total over
      all drops

  • Roger

    Do the heli pilots have a permit to go where the club members are being dropped?

    • Shaun Keller Gillis

      Of course

      • noname

        What kind of permit? Because a permit to drop skiers/boarders off with the intent of skiing is called a tenure…

  • BS

    why was this article even written? so we all know that Shaun Gillis is a attention-seeking douchebag?

    • don’t hate

      1) commercial operations (such as heliski companies) require tenure. Renegade Heli club is not a commercial operation so would not need tenure to land on crown land.
      2) this arguement is inane. “I don’t want Renegade Heli to do drops because it’s going to ruin it for ME”. So really, it’s about you and your friends really. Sorry sounds like priveledged, pretententious crap to me.
      3) Yup, there are some inexperienced people who go out on the heli drops. Um, wake up everyone, there always has been. This is not a new thing even before renegade heli. The mass of skiers around Whistler are predominately alpine skiers…this isn’t La Grave. In whistler if you ski the Aussie your considered an experienced ski mountaineer anyways.
      I am certain that the some people love to hate the renegde crew is because it has allowed the regular person, those who aren’t sponsored or semi sponsered or want to be sponsored atheletes on heli drops where only the elite, connected bros have gone.

      • noname

        Some good points!, however… They are flying in a commercial helicopter, owned and operated by a commercial operator… so yes, it IS a commercial operation. Technically, anyone flying for “reward” (money) is a commercial operation according to transport Canada. So, being a commercial operation leads to two things, 1. a tenure IS required to drop skiers off. 2. There is a different type of insurance that the operator is required to have for heli-skiing. Which I’m sure Blackcomb has, as they do “actual” heli-skiing. You know… the kind that people do after they’ve warmed up the machine for 30 mins.

        • donthate

          By commercial operation I am referring to a commercial heliski operation which has tenure over crown land. You are incorrect however. When Mike King flies me into the Tiedmann Glacier with my skis or my rock climbing gear he does not have to have tenure up there. Helicopter pilots would not make any money if they had to have tenure for every single place they drop people off. I hire helicopters all the time to fly in different areas where I get dropped off and picked up, no way they have tenure. Multiple picks up – different story, that is a grey area. I don’t know about the insurance side of it.

          • donthate

            multiple picks up with skiing I mean, my bad. where it is technically heli-skiing, companies that are doing that are def breaking rules and should probably have tenure. single drop off, no way.

    • BSS

      curious – is everyone who gets media attention a douche-bag? because half of whistler is trying to get published because they are rad. just saying.

  • runningclouds

    Where exactly is this 2500 m couloir? ;) I have been backcountry skiing for 20 years and I have not found a couloir like this. The Y on Mt. Currie might be 2000 if you count vertical between the river and the peak but I would never call that a 2000 m couloir, let’s be honest here.

    Lot of inaccuracies here, starting with the 30 minute warm up and that you have to know the pilot etc. And I really don’t see reason to publicize this unless looking for “fame”.

    At some point Mike Wiegele might have done 300 drops a day. First time I was there we did 15, 12 and 14 runs in three days. This was Bell 212 that was shared by three groups and there were three 212s flying. So 3 x 15 x 3 = 135 plus 3 or 4 private and semi-private A-Stars. I am sure with them the daily drop was pretty close to 200. And this was after the 2008 crash when hell-skiing visits dropped off sharply. Add CMH and the rest of the operators and the daily drops per day in high season must be over 500. Of course if you count skier drops (as opposed to hell landings) the number skyrockets.

  • Morgan Hall

    Since Shaun has decided to call me out by name as one of the three ‘unnecessary’ SAR calls, I guess I should tell my version. I went heli skiing with Shaun and another guy a year ago on Cloudburst Mountain near Squamish. He was looking to exit towards the Squamish valley but the heli pilot told him we should exit towards hwy 99 on a logging road. Well at around 2pm we started to make our exit, Shaun had me leading because I was on skis. At some point he told me to stop and head fall line. I did, and I waited and called out for a while. Then I called both of their cell phones. One guy had turned his off and Shaun had left his in his car. Now I’m not one to rely on cell phones in the back country, but I do know that they serve as a great tool when they work and there was perfect coverage in that area. So after waiting and receiving no call/text back, I thought that maybe they headed down without me. I didn’t know these guys very well so I reluctantly headed down alone. Or as he puts it “ditched” the group.

    As soon as I made it to the clearing I waited again, just burning sunlight hoping that they would call back to me. I trudged on alone, forced to make my exit in some sketchy creek because this logging road doesn’t ever show itself. I crossed over to the powder mtn road and made my exit. I found Shaun’s truck where he left his phone and his dog and waited for them. The sun set and I waited. Then I called SAR. It was a tough decision because I know the sensitivity of the group but I always err on the side of caution. In the past I’ve left messages for SAR for friends who don’t make it back after darkness falls and SAR calls me back the next day to check in. No big deal. It’s different for the renegade heli club because of the sensitivity of the operations.

    Instead of handling the situation by talking it out, he sent incoherent but obviously very angry messages to me the next day and months later. If I had known this about him, or that he doesn’t want his group members to call SAR when they don’t make it out after dark, or that he leaves his cellphone in his truck, I would have never got in that heli with him that day. Honestly, I think this group and what he does is really cool but perhaps he should tone down his cavalier attitude and carry his operations with a lot less ambiguity.

    • Shaun Keller Gillis

      All you had to do was stop when you couldn’t see us and regroup. I turn my phone off in the backcountry due to interference with beacon

      • Shaun Keller Gillis

        Not call sar

    • Shaun Keller Gillis

      Never call sar if we don’t make it out by dark this is why we have head lamps. And only call sar in emergency I was the first to pull out the phone when Andrew was hurt and I didn’t leave my dog there the truck was driopped there at the end of day as the pilot explained a exit that would bring us closer to whistler so yes I changed plans. If your in the lead stop skiing and you will meet up w your group

    • Shaun Keller Gillis

      And you skied with us all day hick king was his name I’m sure he remembers you bolting on us

    • Shaun Keller Gillis

      You chose the sketchy creek that was not forced upon you that was your choice but I followed it to make sure that you were not in it somewhere In fact me and hicks followed your and only your track the whole way out so I can’t understand how you were leading there are no tracks ahead of you. The terrain has now become uphill still no others tracks anywhere. Err in the side of caution I find that hard to believe

    • Shaun Keller Gillis

      Do u know whats better than cell phones staying within ear shot on the exit.

    • jeremey

      this is brutal. I would be pretty pissed if someone I was skiing didn’t stop or start skinning back up if they couldn’t find there group. that’s inexperience.

  • Shaun Keller Gillis

    Another 56 safe drops this year.

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