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Skiing Way Off The Trail
For an elite band of thrill-seekers, heli-skiing is the ultimate adrenaline rush.
"We change people's lives," said Mike Olson, one of the three owners of Wasatch Powderbirds (www.powderbird.com), one of the nation's premier heli-skiing tour operators. "Anyone who does this has a sense of adventure that we respect."
Every December 15 through April 15, Powderbirds, based at the Snowbird Resort outside Salt Lake City, takes 1,500 to 2,000 adventurers to places most skiers have never even contemplated--11,000 feet up the pristine backcountry of Utah's Cottonwood canyons. Powderbirds' clients include everyone from Hollywood glitterati to Denver dishwashers, who are each willing to part with $990 for up to six hours of unforgettable thrills. (Clients also can charter an entire helicopter for $4,500 per hour with a two-hour minimum.)
On a typical day, a skier will make seven runs with vertical drops of 1,500 to 3,000 feet each. An average run takes about 30 minutes. Most heli-skiers stay at area resorts but some fly in for the day in private jets. Powderbirds will pick up one to five skiers at Salt Lake Executive for a flat $2,000.
Customers begin arriving at 8 a.m. to be fitted with rental skis and a transponder that emits a homing beacon. (The transponder helps to locate skiers if the unthinkable happens--an avalanche.) Then it's off to the mandatory safety briefing.
By 9 a.m., the first load of skiers is in the air. The guide on the first load has a small shovel and makes a landing pad in the snow about the size of the helicopter's skis. But even then, pilot James Brown said, it isn't uncommon for the helicopter, a Eurocopter AS 350B3 AStar, to sink down to its belly. Power must be maintained at all times. "If you land on a corniche, it can crack," explained Brown. "That makes things interesting."
The first load waits for the arrival of the second at the drop zone and then one guide leads, followed by eight skiers and a second guide. Guides synchronize their skiing speed and technique with those of customers; however, most heli-skiers have at least intermediate skills.
"You don't need to be an expert skier," Olson said, "but you need to be strong and accomplished. You want to ski through terrain quickly. Dawdling in big glacial bowls is not what you want to do" because of the potential for avalanches.
Guides communicate with one another and the pilot with portable radios and hand signals at the drop and pickup zones. The interplay between pilots and guides reflects shared knowledge and respect, said Olson. "Our pilots are very accommodating, but guides have to be smart enough to not ask them to go somewhere they shouldn't. For example, there are certain places you can go only when the helicopter is light on fuel." Rusty Dassing, Powderbird's president, added that guides also "need to know as much as the pilot about wind and weather."
One helicopter supports 24 skiers and six guides per day. That means pilot Brown must take off or land every four minutes and make two quick refueling stops per five- or six-hour day.
Skiers don't break for lunch but are provided with water and snacks between runs. "If you stop to have lunch, you miss out on a couple of runs," Olson explained. "Also, after people eat, they get tired, the blood goes to their stomachs, and they don't want to ski. Then you've lost your rhythm."
At the end of the day, skiers are treated to gourmet fare back at Powderbird's terminal. "We like to come back here and have a little party," Olson said.