One of the best parts of a recent helicopter ski day was the reaction Charity Banker had every time the helicopter took off.
Five of us crammed into the back seats of the Bell 407, careful to follow the deliberate protocols outlined first thing in the morning. Make every move around the helicopter precise, mindful; never rush. The noise is fierce; no verbal communication will be heard. The wind of the rotors is fierce. It’s like a crystalline sandstorm; anything loose – gloves, candy wrappers, unzipped clothing – will go flying. Step over the skid and lift yourself ass-first into the cabin. Never ever knock snow off your boots by kicking the skid or, god forbid, the delicate aluminum skin of the helicopter itself. Move to the farthest seat and clip into the seatbelt. Help each other with the seatbelts as behind-the-back contortions become trickier the more crowded the space. Give the guide a thumbs-up when everyone is settled in.
Only then would the pilot pull back on his stick and lift the machine into the air, turn it and dive off across the treetops. That’s when Charity, every time, let go a yelp of pure pleasure to go with eyes wide and smiling, her back straight with excitement as if she were flying herself, helping the bird along.
It is impossible to be blasé about helicopter skiing. Our guide on this late-March day, Speed “Brian” Miller, has been doing this for 27 years. He is one of Helitrax’s original core going back to 1982, and he isn’t tired of it yet. This day he was tickled about the two feet of new snow from a couple of recent storms. The way the snow completely coated the alpine terrain above Hope Lake south of Telluride. The nearly psychedelic line where the white of the ridgelines met the deep blue of the sky. The fact that he had a group of good skiers who could handle the deep and occasionally wind-rippled snow.
Everyone but one, that is. The fifth member of our load – I’ll call him Scout – was a polite Floridian who no doubt did fine on the prepared pistes of the ski area. But this, this bottomless stuff was something else. “I had no idea,” he panted midway down the first run, “that powder skiing would be like this.”
Speed had a couple of suggestions to make Scout more comfortable in the three-dimensional, marshmallow snow. Everyone contributed a hint or two, and Scout managed better, but the enterprise essentially overwhelmed him, his two-dimensional turning skills fighting for oxygen with his sea-level lungs.
Still, Scout remained cheerful even as he sat out four of our six runs. He sat on the lunch box at our landing zone and commented every time we came around how beautiful it was, and how quiet (once the helicopter left), and how glad he was just to be out there in that intense, blinding blue-and-white quiet.
That’s the spirit Helitrax hopes to evoke in all its customers. That’s the “prime directive,” as Speed would say, along with finding the best powder turns the day has to offer, keeping everybody safe in the avalanche-prone San Juans, and stopping long enough and often enough to appreciate the miracle of where you are.
One such stop was on the shoulder of San Miguel Peak, at 13,200 feet the highest heli-skiing LZ in North America. We clambered out of the helicopter, watched it fall away like a green-and-white peregrine, and just stood there as the last remnants of storm clouds tore themselves on the peaks, like patches of Kashmir wool on Himalayan berry bushes.
“The perception of the extreme, that’s our biggest problem,” says Helitrax Director Aaron Rodriguez. “All the movies of heli-skiing in Alaska. The perception that it’s so radical, that you have to be an extreme skier to do it. You know what question we’re asked more than any other? This is true: ‘Do we have to jump out of the helicopter? At night?’
“How do we let people know that we’re about moderate-angle powder skiing? That’s part of Speed’s prime directive, too.” One of the people in our group, a fellow named Mike from Chicago, said he keeps trying to get his wife to come, but “she’s intimidated. And she’s a better skier than I am.” Mike let go a special whoop of his own at the beginning of each pitch as he felt the creamy give of the snow beneath his skis.
It was almost as infectious as Charity’s. Both were pure expressions of amazement and appreciation, nice qualities in a person. And key components of the prime directive.