Best Helicopter Skiing in the World

Oct 23, 1999 (Updated Mar 14, 2000)

This is a long one...2100 word story.

This is the simple story of nine days, six heli-ski guides, four skiers, three helicopters, and more than a 100,000 vertical feet

“It’s my birthday, and my Dad says I can have whatever I want, and I want your bicycle.”—Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

I am a sinner. Some days I am guilty of all seven deadly sins before I get out of bed–those are the good days. But on this trip, I was assigned only one: greed. Luckily it’s one of my favorites.

Two days into my exercise in greed I found myself atop a no name peak in the Snake River Range of Wyoming, being hammered with the stinging nettles of propwash snow, as my ride, a Bell JetRanger, dropped for the valley floor like it was dodging ack ack fire. I cowered with Dave Peck, a lifelong friend, Darian Boyle, K2 Team rider, and Lee Cohen, walking flashback to the ‘70s and legendary ski photographer. After the heli cleared the LZ we scrambled to get our gear on with a manic energy that was reminiscent of Micah Abrams scrambling to get lucky in Vegas. Unlike Micah, we all got gear. Because contrary to our guides lectures—safety never takes a holiday—we would not be descending in a safe and responsible manner. It was every beater for himself and last person to the gunship…well that would be Lee, because he was toting the Angry Midget, a pack stuffed with honking big lenses that, from a Freudian point of view might suggest a lack elsewhere.

But I digress; descending is what we set about doing, and damn fast. The snow was six inches of crystal light, on top of perfect wind groomed pitches. With each turn the snow flitted up in light sprays, and it cut with the sound of tearing newspaper. It was the kind of smooth that challenges you to push for more speed, and I found just enough to duck in front of Dave and steal his line. After all, I’m a professional. Greed was my assignment and I was on the job 24/7. Darian worked us both ripping 100-yard turns across the tops of the bread loaf like hillocks, cutting back just before the edge and throwing up a jet ski spray. Darian is six foot of catwalk worthy model and a GMVS graduate—she waxed us without breaking a sweat and was first into the valley.

The Snake River area was as massive as ten Jackson Holes, from every peak you could see ridge after ridge of skiable backcountry, without another soul skiing—and it was all in High Mountain Heli Skiing’s permit area. Jagged peaks, massive bowls, and incredible winding drainages, it was a million-acre terrain park with only four kids in the pipe. The day became a series of fevered attempts to poach lines, rip down mountains, and cajole our guide, John Shick, into taking us to steeper and steeper terrain, to which he resisted with lines like: “Heli-skiing in the US is not extreme skiing. This isn’t Disneyland, there are no safety brakes on this ride.” Ummm…yeah, whatever, can we ski something steeper now?

[drop cap]

“Mummy, I want an everlasting Gobstopper, get it for me.” –Violet Beuaregard in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

When I was made editor of Powder I laughed, my friends laughed, and somewhere deep in the Earth, Satan laughed as well. It was like giving Charles Keating responsibility for Social Security. In the first editorial planning meeting of the year I looked around the large conference room table with as much sincerity as I could muster. I said, “it’s time we gave some coverage to the hardworking folks who are flying helicopters in the lower 48. It’s time to go back to the heartland because that’s where the best skiing really is. What we need to make this work is one big roadtrip through the West, nailing the crown jewels of US heli-skiing. To do it we’ll need a couple of fast cars, lots of money, a hot ski model, big fat skis and lots of heli-time.”

They looked at me like I was insane. But being editor is like being king and until someone takes your head off you get your way. So March 19th we hopped into two borrowed Volvo’s, both all-wheel-drive turbocharged wagons, one of them electric blue with 240 horsepower. The Volvo press guy was nervous, saying, “you know Road & Track gets that one next…it’s the only one of its kind in the US.” By which I think he meant, “please don’t flog this through the Bonneville Salt Flats at a buck fifty spraying mud like a man possessed.” Sorry.

There was a nagging feeling as we set out on the roadtrip. Sort of a, “I know I’m doing something wrong, but I sure hope I don’t get caught,” vibe. Quotes about greed kept running through my head, and the one I always ended on was Lamont Cranston from the old Shadow radio show, intoning, “The wages of sin are death.” But I rationalized, “I’m not really going into the full-time employ of sin, perhaps part-time wages are a really bad sunburn, or a terribly upset stomach. But the feeling was omnipresent, and my karmic bank was bound to take a beating. We headed straight for Jackson Hole, where the billionaires are driving out the millionaires.

We spent two days skiing with High Mountain Heli Skiing and staying in the lap of luxury at the Teton Pines, a country club and ski getaway. Anna Olsen, PR guru from Jackson Hole met us for an evening at the Teton’s restaurant. And like all good PR people she knew how to put a good spin on things, so several bottles of wine later, the chef brought every one of their fifteen desserts. We were greedy, and headed home just shy of gluttony.

Our two-bedroom condo at the Teton Pines came replete with five toilets, an amenity that told me the rich really are very different from you and me. We were just starting to kick it when the front desk rang with a message, “Wasatch Powderbirds will fly you as soon as you can get there.” Another night with not enough sleep, but one more day in a bird. It was a fair trade.

[drop cap]

I want a cheeseburger…no I want a grilled cheese…no I want two chili dogs….
You’ll get nothing and like it!” –Caddyshack.

There’s one downside to heli-skiing…same problem with fishing and hunting, to do it right you have to get after it at the crack of dawn, or at least nearer to the crack than I am comfortable. So with three solid hours of sleep under my belt and my legs moaning like a Kansas City call girl, I approached the start shack of the Wasatch Powderbird Guides. Only it’s no longer a rough log cabin stuck next to the highway. Now it’s a plush world war three bunker, replete with two landing pads, fueling system, and an incredibly comfortable Ledo deck. We went through the safety drills, cocky, because we had some days under our belts. But at the Powderbirds they take it all a little more seriously. Efficiency is everything with Greg Smith’s operation, and the guides worked like a crack SEAL team, strapping avi-beacons to guests chests, instructing skiers never to lift their skis with two hands, (see they can go into the blades, which is bad) and generally running us through some sensible training. At the Powderbirds they fly a sweet A-Star, powerful enough to operate safely in the 11,000 foot range, which conveniently was how high the mountains were around there.

When the sun cracked the valley rim we were airborne, heading past Snowbird into The Bush. Well, actually nobody calls it The Bush. We headed for regular ol’ Wasatch backcountry, perhaps the finest skiing this world has to offer. The day started with a buff corn run, but the corn hadn’t set up yet. Corn-soon-to-be, is much like ice, but the downside is that when you slide out in a frozen back bowl, it can quickly become a 2,000-foot ripper. Darian, always trying to please the camera, accidentally dislodged a 1,500 lb. tombstone rock that slid for a thousand feet throwing off a bow wave of snow. Oh yeah, we’re not in Disneyland.

After teasing us with this run, Oly, guide to the stars, took us into his private stash, and as is only the case in the Wasatch, two weeks after a storm and we were skiing thigh deep super light. This was helicopter skiing. Yet when we got to the ‘copter, we shut up about the snow. There were two groups waiting for lifts and we were all looking for the same snow. Oly, got on the radio and told the other guides, “we’re gonna work some photo shoot stuff for a while, you guys probably wouldn’t like it over here, but it has good light and that’s all that matters to this Powder Mag group. Suddenly Oly had become greed’s conspirator, so we hogged the pow filled trees all morning, lapping through the only powder left in Utah. At the end of the day I slipped Oly a shiny quarter as thanks for going the extra distance.

Darian continually offered to huck off every bump, rock, branch, and snowflake that could be found. I was all for it, “Yeah Digger, launch that cliff. See if you can break a hundred.” Lee, ace lensman, was not amused. Contrary to the image of photographers who send their skiers off impossible cliffs, he wouldn’t let anyone huck in the variable conditions. And when someone did launch something, invariably Lee had the lens cover on, or was changing film, or searching the Angry Midget for a snack. Dave tossed three or four forward flips for the camera, and you would think it was Lee’s first day with a Cannon Snappy from the way the shots came out. Two blurred shots of Dave’s bunger, and all he got out of it was a pronounced limp.

Toward the end of the day, my legs were toast, weakened from months of SoCal desk jockeying. So I urged more photo shoots, “Lee, let’s barbie here for a bit, send them ski models on a hike, we need distant silhouette shots to capture the grandeur of this place.” While they sweated out yesterday’s wine, I reclined in the Utah sun. Greed sometimes is a beautiful passive thing, but yes I bordered on stealing some of Sloth’s thunder.

We ended up in the White Pine area, hallowed ground for Utah backcountry skiers, but we didn’t see any hikers, no skintrails, and no gorp, just classic Utah descents. Long sustained runs through five centimeters of flawless corn, then carveable Styrofoam and at the bottom ugly ski sucking pine pitch covered mank. Some say corn skiing is better than powder skiing. They’re wrong, but they say it.

Our day ended as all days at the Powderbirds end, hitting their dining room and getting down with a serious buffet. I was catatonic after stuffing myself. But there was no rest for the weary, we had a helicopter waiting in Nevada at 7:00 a.m. and three casinos to hit between Utah and Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing.

Sunburnt, stuffed, and exhausted, we loaded the Volvo’s and soon were running flat out 139mph across the desert. Our wake was filled with the broken dreams of a V-8 Camaro owner who just got his ass kicked by an electric blue grocery-getter wagon. You’re not in Detroit anymore, Toto.

There are only about six roads in Nevada, so quite naturally that’s where the cops are. They tagged me blindly going 46 mph over the limit. $391 ticket, and the best thing that could be said for the experience is that the officer skipped the standard “better slow down” lecture. He knew my days of speeding weren’t over, I knew it, why waste both of our time. But it was a poor and bitter ski bum that arrived in the Ruby’s. I have driven through Nevada many times, and always it was a race to see how fast I could get across, usually en route to Tahoe or San Francisco. This was the first time that I slowed down, not by my own choice, and looked at the mountains. They are beautiful beyond words.

Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing fits in with its surroundings about as well as the Amish at a rave. Joe Royer’s operation is run out of a massive country ranch house with huge vaulted ceilings, 25-foot dining room table, and creature comforts wherever you turn. And on the front lawn sits a gleaming new A-Star. It’s what you imagine Ted Turner’s house must be like. Yet the surroundings are true breadbasket, hard working ranches, agriculture based communities, not the average setting for a high-end heli-ski gig.

We quickly fell into a pattern at Ruby Mountain. Get up, check the weather, ski our asses off, then at 2:30, hit the ranch house for Backgammon, where I was trying to win back some of my speeding ticket money from Lee. Unfortunately he used some kung-fu voodoo New York child chess prodigy stuff on me and soon I was $160 down. At 6:00 every evening Francy, Joe Royer’s partner, lays out dinner. It’s here that words fail me. I can only say that each dinner became the best food I had ever eaten, and the entry fee was worth it for the culinary experience alone. Joe and Francy create the most comfortable atmosphere in which to talk, dine, ‘gammon, and relax.

Later in the evenings, the bad guests, the greedy ones, would load into the Volvo for the 20 minute ride to the local casino. Four nights running I took The House to the cleaners. The laws of chance did not apply to me. Nevada was one big ATM, and I just kept punishing them for that speeding ticket. I ended up with so much money that I had nothing else to do but buy a shotgun at a pawn shop. God knows why, but when you win enough, when money is falling out of your pockets, and all your friends are losing, then you buy a shotgun to illustrate just how wealthy you have become and how little money means to you. Returning home from a ski trip with a fat wad of dead presidents and a 12 gauge was hard to explain to my fiancée, but now she thinks I am dangerous and no matter how loudly she yelled I knew that secretly chicks dig danger.

Flying into the rubies on our first day I was astounded. Royer has locked up the only ski operation in an area that is equivalent to the whole of the Wasatch. In four days we never saw another skier, or ski-track that didn’t belong to us. There were incredible peaks, ungodly steeps, huge bowls, and some of the best couloirs I have ever seen. One shot, The Come Line, is…umm…true to its name. 2,000 vertical feet of perfectly shaped couloir, descending as a straight steep white line amidst impenetrable rock faces. Every day Royer brought us to new ranges, new mountains, new bowls, and every day we sated ourselves with endless untracked. Even though it hadn’t snowed in a couple of weeks he was still able to find us fresh snow every run. And on the last day it snowed about eight inches, and the Ruby’s revealed themselves as paradise. We raced through boot top ego snow, on top of perfectly carveable base. Royer didn’t mess around, no matter how hard we matted it, invariably he was at the helicopter first with a small smile that said, “these are my mountains boys, don’t fool yourselves.” And we didn’t, after nine days of spazzing around the country as fast as we could, slurping heli-time like 12 steppers at a keg party, we finally calmed down. And for a moment we let go of greed, and appreciated the majesty of the mountains, the power of skiing, and how infinitely lucky we were. Then we fought like dogs to get in the ‘copter and do it all over again.

And that should be the end, but in my rush to get back to Southern California, a curious thought in itself, I offended a native Nevada law officer. I had been making good time, taking a back two-lane highway, and averaging somewhere north of a hundred for the better part of five hours. But coming into some podunk town, doing a measly 65, this guy clipped me. Blues going, I got the lecture I had missed days earlier and halfway through an 18 wheeler ripped to the side of the road with tires squealing and dust flying. And I thought, “there must be an accident. Maybe the cop will let me off.” The driver of the rig was red in the face and screaming before he hit the ground. “Thank God you nailed that crazy sumbitch. I’ll drive anywhere to testify, sign anything, spend the day in the courtroom as long as you lock that lunatic up.” He kept screaming, but now the cop was busy saving my life, and my defense that “perhaps it was a different electric blue Volvo wagon” seemed weak even to myself. I signed the ticket, and my much of my gambling money went straight back into Nevada coffers.

You can’t win at greed, but sometimes you can break even.

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