Venture deep into Idaho’s Smoky Mountains with Sun Valley Heli Ski for pristine pow and spectacular scnerery (plus microbrews and smoked ribs).
Mr. Luxury Ski
Eye on the bird, arm over face. An icy blast and liftoff. The helicopter hovers, turns, dips its beak below the ridge and swoops off on a current. The roar fades bringing into focus endless white caps cutting into a blue morning.
“Welcome to Paradise Peak,” says our guide Pat Deal. We’re perched on top of a ridge above a powder field that cascades down the northeast corridor. “Stay left of my tracks, stay out of my tracks” Deal tells our party of three—two skiers and me on a snowboard. “We only ski fresh snow out here.”
These mountains are the birthplace of American heli-skiing, first discovered by Sun Valley Heli Ski (SVHS) in 1966 when backcountry pioneer Bill Janss hired a two-passenger helicopter to drop him off on remote mountains that had never before been skied. Today, book a heli-ski trip with SVHS and they'll pick you up from Sun Valley Resort's Bald Mountain in a slick Eurocopter A-Star and whisk you off to shred untouched powder. Harnessing 50 years of experience in this 750,000-acre permit area, SVHS's collection of ex-pro skiers and veteran guides deliver exceptional skiing and riding for levels intermediate and up on steep chutes, expansive alpine bowls and everything in between.
Like myself, many skiers and snowboarders may find boarding and exiting the helicopter on makeshift mountain helipads to be the most intimidating part of a backcountry trip. Don't fear the whirlybird. Take-offs and landings are surgical with Deal directing every move. The flight is exhilarating and seemingly defies the laws of physics, dipping over ridgelines, zipping above forested ravines and hovering over rocky ledges. Set aside the whump, whump, whumping of the blades overhead, and boarding and exiting the A-Star isn't so different from getting in and out of a minivan thanks to a sliding door (which you're not to touch).
The A-star provides access to these peaks, but it's Deal's expertise—honed over decades guiding in Alaska and Idaho—that unlocks this powder for our pleasure. Before every run Deal digs an avalanche pit to evaluate conditions, analyzing each layer of snow dating back to the season's first storm to make sure it's safe for us to ride. "I spend most my days digging," he explains.
His excavations reveal a different winter at each stop; accumulation, temperature swings, and wind loading vary from aspect to aspect. Sticking with northern and eastern faces, Deal delivers a sweet sampling of Idaho snow on this late February day: cold blower, crust-and-dust, creamed corn, and just enough mashed potatoes to keep it real.
It’s not all silly snow slang and wahoos; Deal pulls the plug on one run – a steep eastern precipice on Pyramid Peak—when his avalanche pit reveals unstable windload. Backcountry skiing and snowboarding includes inherent risks, and our party of four is equipped with Mammut avalanche transceivers in case of a slide. We’re also strapped into SVHS-issued Mammut backpacks loaded with standard shovel and probe, and relatively new airbag technology. If you’re in a slide, pull the cable on the left shoulder strap to deploy an airbag above the head for float in the debris field and an air pocket if buried. Airbags are an important addition to the snowrider’s backcountry toolbox, but nothing replaces experience in the mountains and understanding of snow conditions. After updating us on his diagnosis and radioing the pilot, Deal leads us on a traverse of a high saddle to a knob where the heli scoops us up to find safer snow.
Standing atop Paradise my heart is pounding. I pop off the peak landing on a snowy pillow. My Wagner Custom snowboard bobs and carves down the fall line, moving with the mountain and responding to my slightest shift with smooth precision. After a dozen or so turns the pitch steepens and in a breath I'm flying down a 1,500 vertical foot face with an irrepressible "Wahoooooooooooo!"—one of many belted out during a day in the dazzling Idaho backcountry. The descent ends in a hanging meadow where pilot Chris Templeton has set the bird down and unloaded a picnic lunch of beef stew, turkey sammies and chocolate chip cookies. Stunning vistas of the snow-capped mountains stretch out in every direction.
At 4 pm, it's après-ski time. Can it be a coincidence that SVHS's office is next to one of Ski Country's best bars? Apple's Bar & Grill is a sticky dive cherished by the valley's ski royalty. The place pours an impressive selection of microbrews, grills a juicy burger, and the special smoked ribs are out-of-this-world.
On this Thursday our heli-party is fortunate to stomp in on a fundraiser for Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation hosted by ski legend Mike Hattrup. He's screening Greg Stump's "The Blizzard of Aahhh's," the 1988 ski film that launched his career and made "extreme skiing" a thing. "Filming in Chamonix, France, in the late 1980s opened my eyes to big mountains," Hattrup tells the gathering. "I was blown away." After my backcountry adventure in Idaho's mountain wilderness, I know exactly what he means.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in Jetsetter.