Helitrax and the ‘Prime Directive’
by Peter Shelton
Apr 08, 2009 | 1653 views | 9 9 comments | 33 33 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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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.
Comments
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SledHater
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April 14, 2009
Steve,

I don't really like the meth, I just use it as a fuel to skin up and ski. So no thanks on the tow, I don't need it.
Steve Foster
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April 14, 2009
Sled, you should let me know who you are in case I see you skinning up on the hill. I wouldn't want to insult you by stopping to offer you a quick tow up and I'm sorry you like meth and neon coverall suits, whatever floats your boat though. Take care SledHater.
SledHater
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April 14, 2009
Steve,

Thanks for the pep talk. I feel better already. I am going to go out and buy one of those neon coverall suits and get on a sled as soon as possible...that is, just after I free base some meth. Now that's a high five I can live with

Steve Foster
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April 13, 2009
Sledhater, hate suppresses the immune system. Try hating less and you'll feel better about yourself and appear more desirable to potential mates. You probably know that though.

"We need snowmachines to have fun." Who's "we?" Do you have a mouse in your pocket? I know I don't need a sled for fun. But utilizing one to break up the monotony of ALWAYS hiking for my turns is nice (and fun), kinda like occasionally flying somewhere far away because walking would take too long.

I agree, hater, it is rewarding to ski a perfect bowl that I skinned to. I wonder how you would know which is more rewarding though. Have you tried more methods? Try getting towed behind a sled or tow someone else and you'll find that it's equally gratifying, just in a different way. Killer workout too, just different. Sometimes it's nice to mix it up to avoid becoming pig-headed and narrow-minded.

So don't be bitter that you don't have a sled, just befriend someone who does and throw that chip on your shoulder in the trash, you don't need it cause you're AWESOME! High five yourself!
SledHater
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April 11, 2009
Skiier,

No, I don't condone heli-skiing. The problem with our society today is that we are to damn lazy. We need need a helicopter to go skiing. We need snowmachines to have fun. Skiing a perfect bowl that you have skinned up to is so much more rewarding than flying to the top.

How many trips do I take overseas? None. I haven't the money to do such things. But I do fly to vegas every other week - so there is a feather in your cap.
Skiier
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April 11, 2009
So sledhater, back to the point, do you condone heli-skiing at the same time you bash sleds? How many trips do you take overseas? Lets be reasonable, eh?
SledHater
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April 11, 2009
Snowmobiles are ridiculous machines and should be outlawed everywhere except Siberia. That seems to be a good place to put Sled Heads.
Steve Foster
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April 10, 2009
Yes that is a nice article.

What makes me scratch my head is Mr. Shelton's diatribe against snowmobiles a few years back. To this day every time I see the name "Peter Shelton" I think of how unfair his anti-sled article was. I wish I could find the article because reading that hateful anti-sled rant and this article back to back would leave one wondering, "Hey, I guess helicopters are OK if you get a ride in one but don't you dare use a snowmobile to get your turns because that indicates you're an inconsiderate, lazy motorhead out to ruin the world."

Many sled skiers do it all depending on conditions: some days you sledski, some days you leave it at home and skin up, some days you ride lifts. Variety is the spice of life.

One heli day probably burns more fuel than I burn in my sled in a month or more. I hope Peter has changed his tune a bit because not all sledskiers are simply out of shape, lazy rednecks.

I don't care if you heliski, just please don't turn around the next day when you are sans heli, "earning" your turns and tell me that my sled is annoying you and that sleds need to be banned from Red Mountain Pass. Trust me, I'm "earning" my turns as well, regardless of how I'm doing it for the day.

whooping Mike from C
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April 09, 2009
Peter - nice article and it was great skiing with you....