For most people, heli-skiing is the type of thing you put on your Bucket List.
It’s right up there with stuff like surfing in Hawaii, mountain biking in B.C. or casting for permit in the Seychelles.
Or, if you’re Austin Powers, it goes somewhere between “Save the World from Certain Doom” and a “Threesome with Japanese Twins.”
But to be totally honest, even though I love to ski, snowboard and explore the backcountry, heli-skiing wasn’t actually on my list (although some of the aforementioned items were, yeah baby!).
So when recently I was offered a heli ski trip in the mountains of Idaho in exchange for writing a blog, I happily, but nervously accepted. You see, for some odd reason ever since I went sky diving one summer in Maine, I haven’t really been a fan of heights. Sure, I survived sky diving, but it wasn’t what you’d call an enjoyable experience, unless you find practically soiling yourself enjoyable.
That’s why the idea of a getting into an inverted and over-sized weed-whacker attached to something the size of VW Beetle stuffed full of grown men I’ve never met before wasn’t really as exciting as it sounded.
Nonetheless, I showed up for the pre-ski safety meeting at the Warm Springs base of Baldy Mountain early, and immediately asked where the bathroom was.
Founded in 1966, Sun Valley Heli Ski (SVHS) was the first helicopter ski company in the country and still holds the largest permit in the lower 48, covering over 750,000 acres of pristine Northern Rockies backcountry.
As is the case with all such potentially dangerous activities like sky-diving, swimming with sharks or getting married, before you go heli-skiing you’ve got to go through a pretty detailed safety meeting (no, not that type of meeting, Stoney). It includes the basics information like using the “buddy system,” knowing how to use your avalanche beacon and airbag backpack, and remembering not to get decapitated by the helicopter blades. As we all know, nothing ruins a day faster than losing your head over something stupid.
While the safety stuff was all well and good, it did have me a little concerned when they kept referring towards our mode of transport for the day as the “ship.” I started wondering if were going to be using a helicopter, a boat or the Millennium Falcon. Soon enough, thankfully, we were trucked over the launch pad and stuffed into the “ship” and, as a steady wind gusted, we teetered off like a drunken hummingbird towards the snow-covered Idaho wilderness.
SVHS has three ranges in its terrain (the Pioneer, Smoky and Boulder mountains), which allows them plenty of options to search for good snow. We headed northeast out of Sun Valley, up the Trail Creek drainage, where two of the ranges meet. Within just a few minutes of taking off, we “landed.”
As the whirlybird touched down on a ridge so narrow that the front landing forks hung precariously over the edge, I thought to myself, “Are you (expletive deleted) kidding me? … I think the pilot is using some kind of spider sense and knows how nervousness I am and is purposely screwing with me!”
In a blustery flash, the chopper was gone, and the five of us were left looking down upon thousands of feet of un-touched snow. While I hopped along the ridge on my snowboard, a father and his two twenty-something sons from Washington shuffled their skis behind our guide, Reggie Crist.
Now Reggie Crist should need no introduction to most ski bums, but my fellow heli-skiers didn’t know who he was. They weren’t aware that Reggie was not only a former Olympian, but was on the U.S. Ski Team for a decade and is the only two-time X Games gold medalist in skier cross history. And even in his 40s, the dude can still shred with the best of them.
So my nerves quickly turned into excitement as we dropped in and followed Reggie down for some freshies across an open face. But I must admit my excitement about following behind the Big Mountain ski film movie star began to wane a tad—and my Woo Hooing took on a higher pitch— after he lead us through a dense stretch of forest back to the pick-up spot and I took a couple tree limbs to the family jewels.
Still, I faired better than the dad, who came out with a bloody nose. While we waited for our next ride and mended the minor wounds, I was thankful for all the years I’d spent skiing and riding in the tight glades of places like Killington, Mad River Glenn, Taos and Mammoth, where I nearly perfected the art of bouncing off objects like evergreens, fallen logs, rocks, small mammals, fellow skiers, etc.
While I thought our next couple of runs were even better, and I quickly got used to getting carried around by the “ship,” my three fellow passengers weren’t as impressed. Granted, they did have close to a hundred days of combined heli-skiing experience. Still, their complaining like kids wearing wet diapers rekindled my nerves. It just seemed like whining about the lack of perfection while you’re enjoying an experience most people only dream of is the type of thing the ski gods Ullr and Skadi would get pissed off about.
So I gave the group plenty of space before dropping into our next run. It was the sweetest one of the day. The bowl was perfectly pithed with just enough fresh snow to link turns with a near effortless joy. When I reached the group at the bottom my throat was a bit hoarse from hooting and hollering—a trait I picked up from skiing with my four-year-old. Meanwhile, the Pacific Northwesterners were frowning and ready to call it a day. That’s when the life lesson for the adventure—as all good adventures have—kicked in: Attitude is everything. And if you can’t enjoy making runs like that one, and don’t want to spend time making laps upon it, then it’s definitely time to check your attitude and priorities in life, or at least take up Nordic skiing or maybe bowling, cricket, dodge ball, dominoes, anything besides skiing.
The moral of this story is that heli-skiing should be on any true skier or boarder’s Bucket List, just make sure you go out there with people who will appreciate it, and always wear quick dry underpants.
-Mike McKenna has contributed to The Sheet since 2003. He currently lives in Hailey, Idaho and is still celebrating the Patriots’ Super Bowl triumph.