After decades of heli-futility, a skier finally strikes paydirt close to home in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains.
Complaining that your heli skiing experiences have sucked is sort of like berating the butler for serving lukewarm caviar. But there you have it. I’m a snow pig, a shamelessly addicted skiing slut, who would do just about anything for a day on skis.
As a journalist, I’ve tended to couch my blind love for skiing as part of my profession, squeezing in snow days whenever and wherever I could on the job. But I’d never stood accountable before my heli fantasies and anted up, which is why—karmically, I believe—my quest for a great day of flying had failed every time. Until last spring.
The skiing at Nevada’s Ruby Mountain Heli Skiing was so good that I finally stepped out of the closet and paid. A base analogy might be the live-in girlfriend: Why “pay up” and marry her, when you can get what you want for free? Well, I finally got down on one knee and professed my love, and that’s when the magic happened. (Full disclosure: Much of my trip was paid for—unsolicited, I should add—in exchange for press coverage, but it didn’t get exquisitely good until I paid for extra runs.)
A former boss and editor once observed me preparing breakfast in the office kitchen after a morning of hiking for fresh turns and wryly commented, “Outside magazine: For some it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” If he only knew. After college I had ski patrolled winters and lead Outward Bound courses summers, in order to spend five months a year on skis daily. My cabin was snowbound and inaccessible by car, so I even had to commute on skis and developed a reverse-elitist, hike-for-your-turns, telemark phase that lasted many years. My eventual transition to journalism—and full-bore heli lust—was (in part) to enable my life in the mountains. Not very romantic, but there you have it.
I blame my mother. A globe-trotting one-time fashion model, she went heli skiing in the Caribous in the late 70s and came home raving about it. Flying and skiing!? I was in shock and dreamed of it as the ultimate indulgence ever since. But I grew up to be a dirtbag and never made enough money to pay for it.
Divorced dad showed me the potential on a sad one-up near Mammoth with Grease Monkey Heli Tours-R-Us on crusty, boney snow that my brothers and I barely survived.
A magazine assignment brought me to arctic Scandinavia to cover a skiing competition decades later, and the promise of air-borne powder Valhalla awaited. Rain, sleet and fog grounded me on the appointed day. Strike two. Vacationing in the same region several years after that, I scored a bro-deal, but that run turned into a bastard combination of the first two experiences: foggy, sleety flying and slushy, crusty skiing. Strike three.
Now I was obsessed. I harangued every editor that I knew and had many near misses (Turkey, Russia, Nepal, Colorado). But no one trusted me or my ideas enough to pull the trigger. I finally sold Elevation Outdoors on the idea of coming clean and making good on my lifelong quest. My conclusion? Block out your calendar in deep winter, then go. You need to be ruthless—with yourself and your pocketbook. Remember the no-friends-on-a-powder-day maxim?
Apply it here on a much larger scale.
Helicopter skiing in the Lower 48 is arguably not as pucker-inducing or stupidly bottomless as operations in Alaska or British Columbia, where the maritime climate aggregates snow and heli and snowcat operations like a spring dump (over 30 combined, at last count). But the Mountain West is also easier to get to, effectively as challenging, and just as untracked as any remote coastal wilderness. Simply put, everything about Ruby Mountain Heli Skiing near Elko, Nevada, was immensely satisfying. A quick flight to Salt Lake City and a puddle jumper (or a three-hour drive) to Elko, and you’re on skis. And the remarkable thing about the Rubies in spring is hiiting absolutely pristine corn snow and powder on the same trip. By late March, the air remains so dry and cold that by following—or avoiding—the sun we could milk the mountain for our pleasure. During my four-day stay, we maxed out the 39,000-foot total by early afternoon of the third day.
I won’t bore you with a gush of adjectives, but suffice to say, the terrain was steep and the runs long. Home run! And the flying conditions were so good that on day three, we landed on 11,387-foot Ruby Dome, something our guide had never done in five years of employment there. The ensuing 2,500-foot run on smooth corn snow across the undulating slope was a high-speed leg-burner, the snow just grippy enough for hard-banking, aggressive GS turns. Dips into the shadows down the other side of the range produced mid-winter-like, cold-snow conditions and the post-run jubilation of tracing your solitary tracks down thousands of feet.
Co-owner Joe Royer started the company in 1977, and he and his wife Francy have been operating Ruby Mountain Heli Skiing from a local ranch for 15 years. Red’s is a 96-acre property in Lamoille, a ranching community just East of Elko. Black and white pinto horses mill about, and herds of deer winter by the creek. The buildings are surrounded by humble cattle ranches, and the 10,000-square-foot lodge of rough timber and cathedral ceilings fits right in.
Navajo rugs, cowboy tack and mounted game adorn the walls. The requisite stone fireplace compliments the glass doors and picture windows facing the mountains.
Joe grew up on the water in Belvedere in Marin County, Calif., but had always spent time in mountains. He gravitated to Snowbird, Utah “for the powder,” and by 27 years old, he was already a seasoned ski patroller responsible for shooting Snowbird’s avalanche guns. On his endless drives on I-80 (then two-lanes) across the Western deserts, Joe would find himself staring at the white Ruby Mountains by Elko.
“I’d worked a little with Wasatch Powder Guides,” says Joe about the Utah-based helicopter skiing operation, the first anywhere in the U.S. “And the Rubies were just sitting there waiting for someone to come in.”
The Rubies are the wettest range in Nevada, with about 300 inches of snowfall per year. “You have to be good at working in small amounts of snow,” Joe admits. “It’s never perfect, so you make it perfect.” The company has access to 200,000 acres of skiable terrain. And when the weather socks in, they move operations up the canyon to a set of yurts, and do laps in three snow cats. Sometimes conditions dictate that they shuttle over to the Independence Range 60 miles north.
“We flew 25 days in a row in two stretches this year,” says Joe, who claims he’s never been skunked.
“This is just a way for us to continue doing what we love to do,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle that everyone envies. You’re on vacation, but you pay for it in other ways.” The financial juggling act, lack of privacy, and unpredictable nature of seasonal work that lives or dies by the whether can wear on some people.
“It’s a tradeoff,” says Joe, who is also a professional photographer. (Joe shot the November 2009 cover of SKI—Robbie Hilliard spraying in the Ruby Mountains.)
“We’ve been incredibly lucky.” Judging from his quick smile and his wife’s sprightly attitude and their son Michael’s easy-going ways, it’s a tradeoff that works for the Royers. After my visit, Joe and Francy take off for Indonesia to thaw out and go surfing for six weeks.
The guides are a motley crew of former ski racers, world travelers and climbing guides—lifers in the realm of low-pay, large-fun seasonal work. “It’s the hardest job to get here. We must know you really well,” says Joe, whose guides typically serve a one-year apprenticeship. “The focus is on the client.”
The operation has a total of about 30 employees (10 guides, five housekeepers, two or three pilots/mechanics and a dispatcher) and can accommodate 16 guests per four-day visit. The helicopter they use is a powerful, French-made A-Star on lease from Classic Aviation in Salt Lake City, which seats five passengers—one guide and four guests. Joe’s efficient shuttling system ensures that we hardly ever waited to ski.
Cocktail hour in the afternoons is a lively affair, with boisterous storytelling and live music. On our visit, Joe had recently turned 65 and proudly wore a smoking jacket made of velvety Crown Royal bags that some long-time clients had presented him with.
“Thank you for coming to ski with us,” he toasts genuinely during a speech. The retired Pentagon official, Canadian investment bankers and flush business owners cheer generously.
My moment of truth comes on day three after having maxed out our vertical for the four-day package. The co-owners of a California insurance company that I’m partnered with are eager to keep flying and pay extra for the privilege.
A crossroads lay at my feet: Ski over to the group flying out, or veer to the executives and start charging—the credit card. Whenever I’m faced with the option to ski more, I ski more. And in this situation, at least, the choice cleanses my soul.
The air temperatures are significantly cooler by late afternoon and have wicked all traces of moisture from the shadow-protected snow. We make two more runs through blower powder, dropping chutes and mashing pillows, finally cresting above a frozen lake with a glacier-blue waterfall. Time stops. Joy.
That night, I look up at the huge mirror above the lodge’s pool table. It has an inlayed frame that proclaims a typical cowboy sentiment: “Ride tall—he’s always watching.” The inscription gets me thinking of the first time I felt the adult-like euphoria of freedom. Turned loose on Squaw Valley for the day, ten-year-old me made lap after lap and didn’t want to stop. It came on skis, of course. I’ve been chasing that sensation ever since and have earned my turns with sweat, paying my dues, and, now, by paying through the nose.
You get what you give. Finally, I feel like I’m riding tall. •
Philip Armour is the editor-in-chief of American Cowboy magazine and the former editor-in-chief of Outside Sweden. He’s a better skier than bullrider.
If you’re in the area January 24–29, 2011, make sure to visit the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada (775-738-7508; westernfolklife.org). Besides rodeo, cowboys are known for telling great stories and strumming guitars around the campfire, and this annual event attracts the most talented performers in the U.S. Cowboy culture may seem like an oxymoron to the uninitiated, but Western folk life is rich with tradition and history, and besides a chuck wagon cookout, it doesn’t get more authentic than Elko in January.
To book a trip
Contact Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing (775-753-6867; helicopterskiing.com) $4,250 for four-day packages (39,000-feet guaranteed), December–April
LOWER 48 WHIRLYBIRDS
These four heliskiing operations also run trips
in the U.S. outside of Alaska:
High Mountain Heli Skiing, Jackson Hole, WY
Telluride Heli Trax, Telluride, CO
Silverton Mountain Heli Skiing, Silverton, CO
Wasatch Powderbird Guides, Snowbird, UT