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Skiing from the Sky

For Skiers Tired of Following Other People's Tracks, Heli-Skiing Takes Them Away from It All
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 2)

Mike Wiegele awards million-foot skiers with a silver belt buckle to mark their accomplishment, while CMH presents those who attain that level a custom-made ski suit valued at more than $1,000. To date, more than 1,300 skiers have joined CMH's elite fraternity; the record is 17 million-plus feet, held by a gentleman named Ned Damon, whose wife, Carolyn, has tallied 14 million feet. Von Neudegg proudly notes, "We were the first organization in the world to recognize 'frequent fliers', way before the airlines. We were doing it in the '60s. To reach a million feet means you've skied with us eight to 10 weeks."

Heli-skiing in the United States is a very different proposition. Operators are almost exclusively geared towards day trips, which affords an excellent opportunity to experience heli-skiing without the expense, planning or time commitment that the destination package requires. Most operators are based at major ski resorts, where skiers seek to augment their vacation with a different experience. Heli-skiing outfits can be found in Telluride, Colorado; Sun Valley, Idaho; Snowbird, Utah; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. An outfit called Triple Crown of Colorado uses helicopters to shuttle guests for a day each of conventional skiing at Aspen and Vail and a day of heli-skiing at Telluride (guests also have the option of skiing at just one site). Resort-based day operators can also be found at the Panorama ski area near Banff and at Whistler resort, both in British Columbia.

These one-day packages typically include three to five guided runs, lunch and transfers to and from the helicopter. Prices range from $325 to $625 per day, making this a cost-effective way to sample the sport. By comparison, the destination are as in Canada typically offer at least twice as much skiing in a day, but they are able to take advantage of an earlier start and a later finish, since guests are already there, as well as higher mountains. One advantage of skiing with day outfitters is that they generally use smaller helicopters and therefore have fewer skiers with each guide, while CMH generally has 11 skiers per guide and Wiegele has 10 skiers with two guides.

One exception to the American mold is Ruby Mountain Heli-Skiing in Lamoille, Nevada, the country's only destination heli-ski area. Ruby Mountain offers three-day packages in the northeastern corner of the state, amid 500 square miles of high-elevation powder. Each three-day excursion is limited to 16 guests, housed in a luxurious ranch.

"American heli-skiing is mostly done in much smaller helicopters, and the hot one right now is the A-Star 350 B2 model, which carries four skiers and a guide," says Joe Royer, the owner of Ruby Mountain. "While Canadian heli-skiing is primarily a destination thing, in America it's mostly day skiing associated with ski areas, except for us. Our runs are a bit shorter, but other than that it's pretty much the same. For people who have not tried it, the source of uphill transportation is radically different from a lift. When those helicopters start up in the morning, it doesn't matter how long you've been doing this, or how much longer you're going to be doing this; it's very exciting." Heli-skiing season in western Canada generally runs from late December until the beginning of May, while Royer's season starts in mid-January and lasts until mid-April. Three-day packages run about $2,500.

Snowboarders are also welcome at heli-skiing destinations, and the deep powder of heli-skiing may be even better suited to snowboards than to the so-called fat skis, which, being wider than traditional skis, supply more flotation in deep powder and are the choice of most heli-skiers today. For skiers and boarders, companies urge guests to carry their boots onto the plane, as no rentals are available at the remote lodges, and lost luggage could ruin your vacation.

All the destination operators in Canada and the United States include the rentals of fat skis in their packages, and encourage guests to leave their "skinny" skis at home. Most of the day operators also offer the option of renting these skis; much of the recent popularity of the sport can be attributed to them. "Fat skis have totally revolutionized heli-skiing," claims von Neudegg. "No one brings their skis anymore. Fat skis are the tool for the job, and 99 percent of our skiers, including our guides, use them. Even the very best skiers use them, and they find that they've never skied faster or had more fun in their lives."

"They came out about seven years ago," says Leslie Woit. "Before that, heli-skiing was the domain of fit, younger males. You needed really good technique, strong thighs and a good heart. Fat skis have made the sport more forgiving. A few diehards still come with their skinny skis, but I've yet to see anyone make it beyond Tuesday without giving fat skis a chance, and then they stick with them. You can ski longer days and get less tired."

Even such longtime skiers as Epstein, who began heli-skiing well before the advent of fat skis, have made the leap. "It's like having power steering versus manual," he says. First-timer Keating, an expert skier, is more blunt: "I tried my own skis the first morning and I got my ass kicked. I switched to their fat skis and it made a world of difference. They make it easier--there's less effort and it's easier to turn, so it's easier to look good."

Turning is the essence of heli-skiing. Many expert conventional skiers are surprised to learn that heli-skiing terrain has no bumps or moguls. It consists of hundreds of linked turns through deep powder, which can be tiring, especially on regular skis. Guides instruct skiers through the number of turns, scheduling stops to regroup at "that stand of trees 200 turns down." Typically, the guide will go over the terrain with the skiers, explaining any peculiarities, such as crevasses on a glacier, and then lay out a game plan and rules, including the spacing between skiers, whether they should go single file and other details. He also usually skis one side of the run and insists that everyone in the group stay to the left or right of his tracks. No one ever skies or stops below the guide.

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