TELLURIDE – The jagged spires of San Sophia Ridge loom ahead, like teeth cutting into the horizon. Their geologic unruliness is even more impressive up close, hulking pinnacles built of hard angles and jutting corners, spindrift swirling between them.
But it’s not my bird’s eye view from the helicopter window of San Sophia’s wild crags that sends me to the edge of my seat. It’s the milky expanse of snow that stretches out beyond the ridge, rollicking across this high alpine landscape of steep slopes and gentle benches like a motionless ocean that sends my heart rate into overdrive.
We soar over the ridge, and my three companions and I get our first unobstructed view of Governor Basin; or, as the teenager next to me appears to be thinking as he gives his dad a spirited high-five, our own personal ski playground for the day. “We’ll land right there,” shouts our guide, Telluride Helitrax’s Bill Allen, above the deafening throb of the helicopter, pointing to a flat spot high in the basin.
Within minutes I’m crouching in the snow, curled over my skis, watching through gusts of kicked-up powder as the Bell 407 helicopter ascends. Soon it’s nothing more than a whirring fly, swallowed by the crystalline sky and white-capped tips of Mendota Peak and Mt. Emma as it zips back towards the Telluride Ski Area and another group of skiers waiting for pickup outside the Peaks Hotel.
The ricochet of whirring helicopter blades is replaced with the thud-thud-thud of my pulse, as I see, through the light film of melting snow crystals coating my goggles, the terrain that lies ahead. Wide, rolling fields of low-angle powder, nestled amid the steeper slopes of the surrounding peaks – the immaculate tablet upon which we’ll carve our names this brilliant early spring day.
Only Allen can break the spell, as he shoulders his pack.
“We can gear up over there,” he says, smiling. And thus we begin our day of heli-skiing with Telluride Helitrax.
Flying the Skies of Telluride Since 1982
Helitrax has been flying skiers and snowboarders to winter adventures in the high country around Telluride for as long as I’ve been a skier; the company opened for its first season in 1982, under the leadership of longtime Telluride locals Mike Friedman, Dave Bush, Brian “Speed” Miller, and Mark Frankmann (Miller and Frankmann still guide on occasion.) They sold to Telluride entrepreneur Todd Herrick in 1996, and until just a few seasons ago (when nearby Silverton Mountain opened its own heli-ski operation), Telluride’s Helitrax was the only heli-skiing outfit in Colorado.
For the last 29 years, the company has followed a pretty basic business tenet: Show people extraordinary skiing, extraordinarily safely.
“You’re going to land at 13,200 feet in the San Juans and look at a run that isn’t going to have a single track on it. There isn’t a whole lift line of people charging down your back, so your pace can be as lax as you want. It’s the combination of the skiing, plus flying in the helicopter and getting to see terrain you never would see in the winter, that really makes the whole experience,” says Joe Shults. He’s Helitrax’ new program director (like many of Helitrax’ employees, he’s been a part of the Helitrax family for quite awhile). He’s been guiding with Helitrax since 1998. During a two-year hiatus from Telluride, while he and his family lived in New Zealand, he guided with heli-skiing outfit Southern Lakes Heli-skiing near Queenstown. Now, Shults is back with the company and ready to continue the Helitrax tradition.
“We’re never really keeping snow for another day,” he says, in reference to some companies’ policy of “hoarding” powder for future groups. “The bottom line is that we’re going to deliver the best snow and terrain we can on any given day.”
Delivering on the promise of fabulous snow can seem somewhat tenuous here in the San Juans, a mountain range known within the ski industry as extremely prone to avalanches. It’s no accident, however, that Helitrax has been in business for nearly 30 years, and still boasts a nearly immaculate safety record. Although its all-star cast of guides comes from a wide spectrum of backgrounds (from professional ski patrollers to mountain guides, a North Face-sponsored athlete and a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center), they all share the common thread of boasting a deep knowledge of the San Juans’ terrain and its notoriously unstable snowpack.
When he isn’t guiding trips on Denali or in Antarctica with his Ophir-based guiding company, Mountain Trip, our guide, Bill Allen, can be found guiding ski trips with Helitrax. He’s soft-spoken and easygoing, quite the opposite of the gruff and crusty mountain guides one might expect to be leading helicopter ski trips in Telluride. On this day, he’s joined by chipper tail-guide Sonja Nelson – a ski patroller at the Telluride Ski Area, who happens to be his wife. Although they carry themselves with the manner of people who have spent enough time in the mountains to seem completely at ease in avalanche country, when it’s time to ski Allen and Nelson are scrupulous about following avalanche terrain protocol: They describe each route we’ll take in detail, they’re clear about where everyone will regroup, and we ski most slopes one at a time.
And while Allen and Nelson are serious about safety, their grins are still as wide as mine following our first run, a long, low-angle cruiser that follows the undulating curvature of Governor Basin, where from the completely unblemished look of it, no person seems to have set foot (or ski) since the last snowfall.
That’s the beauty of a longstanding heli-ski company like Helitrax, Shults tells me later. As long as the weather is amenable for flying, clients are almost guaranteed to find good snow on any given day, somewhere in Helitrax’s range. Helitrax utilizes three main areas around Telluride: The south circuit, including terrain above Hope Lake and Waterfall Canyon; the eastern route, comprised of such renowned terrain as Paradise Bowl, found east of Ophir; and the northern zone, beyond San Sophia ridge and into places like Governor and Yankee Boy Basins. All told, the company has at its disposal nearly 200 square miles of terrain. And unlike a lodge-based heli-ski operation, where no-one skis when the helicopter is grounded, if the weather’s too stormy for Helitrax to fly, clients always have the option of weathering the storm on the Telluride Ski Area’s slopes.
Shults adds that the company can also help facilitate even more “out there” adventures for savvy backcountry skiers, arranging tours into backcountry areas they wouldn’t normally be able to explore without the help of a helicopter.
Gliding on Light Colorado Powder
After six blissful powder runs beneath the hulking mass of Mt. Sneffles, I climb into the helicopter for one last flight: back to the Peaks and the comfort of my sneakers; back to après-ski with my heli-skiing compatriots; back to just talking about skiing powder in wild places, instead of actually doing it. As the helicopter buzzes towards San Sophia Ridge, I steal one last look back at the pristine terrain we’d spent the day exploring. I catch a glimpse of a ribbon of tracks cascading out of a tucked-away couloir and into a wide apron. My tracks.
Later, I ask Shults to recall for me his best day of heli-skiing with Helitrax. He can’t single one out. “It doesn’t really matter what the day is like,” he says, “because, generally, it’s always going to be a good day.”
I think of the unmatched sensation of light Colorado powder gliding like silk beneath my skis, and that heady feeling of being so totally immersed in the moment that nothing matters besides those powder turns stretching out before me.
And I’m pretty sure I know what Shults means when he says any day spent heli-skiing is a good day.
Helitrax has a new home this winter, operating out of a spacious new location in the Peaks hotel. For more information about Helitrax trips or to make a reservation, visit their website at www.helitrax.com.