Up near Schweitzer Mountain Resort in the Idaho Panhandle, Smilin Jack
the Long Ranger pilot had a grand scheme for a heliski business. Many years
before, he flew an EMT helicopter there during the Sundance Fire. The fire burned
at 2,200 degrees and toasted the soil two feet deep. Grass is still the only
plant to grow there, among the stark tree trunks.
"I decided then that sometime I'm coming back to this valley," said Smilin Jack. "It's a natural for here. I got to know the people, and I brought the helicopter over."
Eager snow riders awaiting pickup for the next descent.
The sky looks good. The snow does not - let's go higher.
So a few years ago, off we went on a shakedown trip and did some product testing somewhere in the Selkirks north of Sandpoint. I was the media. The Bell Long Ranger III, with Smilin' Jack at the controls, glided easily up the valleys and around the peaks. We're were looking for a primo cirque to try, and pretty soon we land on a shoulder in a riot of blowing powder.
Guidin' Glenn is the only person allowed to load and unload the gear. He says to start the day calm and slow, that accidents are caused by a rush attitude.
We've got a few guys on Head skis (the promotional product), two guys on snowboards and me on my old Volant FX-2s. Our slope is 1,600 feet of vertical from a 7,000-foot peak. I take off first to assume the cameraman's position, and whoa! Crash!
|"What IS this stuff?" I yell. "My Volants can't handle it." I'm told that this is February, and that the rains of January dissolved 40 inches of snow, leaving a collapsible crust on top. I collapsed six more times on that run, and noticed that the Head skiers had no problem. They were probably better skiers.|
Riding the breakable crust after days of rain.
But it's still true that a bad day of heliskiing is still better than a day of work. It was more fun yet to hang out the Bell and take slides with my Olympus. Guidin' Glenn's full-body harness clipped to two safety belts did the job.
Thats how the morning went. Later we and the helicopter were due in Wenatchee, Washington, 180 miles west, for some product promotion at Asplunds Outdoor Recreational Sports
There wasn't much smilin' during the Bell flight from Sandpoint to Asplund's parking lot in Wenatchee. It was snowing pretty good, and for the first time since we met Smilin' Jack, he swore. He swore pretty good a few times as he descended low enough below the clouds to read the highway signs to Wenatchee.
When one road we were following dead-ended, I thought sure we were going to land in a farmer's field and ask for directions.
But Frownin Jack didn't run rescue helicopters in national parks every summer for nothing. He said he's even plucked guys off Yosemite's Half Dome Face.
We just followed the Wenatchee River into town and set down at Asplund's, right
Coming in for a landing to Asplunds Outdoor Recreational Sports (now closed) in Wenatchee, Wash.
Asplund's always gave good display.
"This is the first time a helicopter has landed in the city of Wenatchee
at a business," said Bill Asplund. He had to ask the mayor, who in turn
sent out a helicopter pilot to check out the landing site at Asplund's Outdoor
Recreational Sports. The pilot said. "No problem."
Asplund spent $900 on promotion and figured, "If you guys are bringing over a helicopter, I better get some promotion, do my share."
During the promotion, radio station KKVR broadcast live for several hours. People came by Asplund's to enter the special contest. The winner would win two nights lodging for two at Schweitzer's Green Gables and one day of skiing, or one day of heliskiing for two in the North Idaho Panhandle.
Now, a few years later, heres a head count of whos left and who isnt after the first year: Head itself is left, after some, uh, restructuring, but the sales rep is selling cars. Schweitzer Mountain Resort sold under some duress, and Smilin Jack didnt show up for client pickups.
By contrast, here are some Idaho snow operations that have been around awhile and know what theyre doing:
PEAK ADVENTURES; Cataldo, Idaho; 208-682-3200; http://www.peaksnowcats.com/
Peak Adventures is a thriving snowcat skiing business owned and operated by snowboarders, but everybodys welcome. For $299.75 per day, you can expect eight solid runs even in the shortened daylight of early winter. Spring riding will net you 12,000-20,000 vertical feet per day.
Now THAT's some 4WD. Too bad I never thought to tread-up MY rig
For an outfit run by snowboarders, Peak Adventures sure attracts a lot of happy skiers.
Photos courtesy Peak Adventures Snowcat Skiing
Cataldo is just off Interstate 90, 26 miles east of Coeur dAlene, Idaho, which itself is about 35 miles east of Spokane, Washington (and Spokane is 300 miles east of Seattle). Peaks 15,000 acres are located in the St. Joe Mountains. The runs vary among open bowls, big glades and untouched powder fields, each run between 1,000-2,200 vertical feet on 25-40-degree slopes.
If the weather turns unsafe, Peak will reschedule or cancel, depending on the
Ahhh, this is how it is in the St. Joe Mountains of northern Idaho
Photos courtesy Peak Adventures Snowcat Skiing
Peaks mountain experiences are so good that some groups decide to stay over in the companys yurt. Its 24 feet in diameter and contains a wood stove, kitchen and large bunk beds. Overnight yurt trips cost $757.55 per person for two days of skiing or snowboarding, with lodging for one night and all meals. Peak Adventures does have a few three-day trips throughout the season with two nights in the yurt at $1215.35. Trips book up early, so the earlier your reservation, the better.
SUN VALLEY HELI SKI; 800-872-3108; www.svheli-ski.com
Sun Valley Heli Ski guides pick the days runs according to the groups wishes and abilities.
The guide/guest ratio is 1 to 4. Groups meet at 7:30 or 8 a.m. for a continental breakfast before shuttling to the Bell 407 for the flight into the thousand square miles of backcountry around Sun Valley.
For a one-day heliski, the company suggests you leave a window of 3 days in the middle of your Sun Valley vacation in case flights get weathered out. Its also helpful to form your own group of four skiers to be sure youll ski with people of your ability. One-day cost is $925 per person for 6 runs, averaging 12,000 vertical feet per day. Additional runs cost $90 each.
One luxury package offers 2 nights lodging with 3 days of riding. Guests stay at the Smoky Mountain Lodge, the only fly-in heli-ski lodge in the Lower 48. Cost is $4500 per person.
BRUNDAGE MOUNTAIN SNOW CAT ADVENTURES, McCall, Idaho; 800 888-7544; http://www.brundage.com/the-mountain/snow-cat-adventures.aspx
One snow cat ride and one little hike put you right on top.
Awesome lines in the Payette National Forest.
Photo courtesy Brundage Mountain Snow Cat Adventures
Brundage Mountain is quite a good ski area in its own right, but you cant beat the 19,000-acre backcountry of the Payette National Forest. Snow Cat Adventures takes advanced and expert skiers up to the hundreds of acres of steep chutes and big open bowls.
A full day of catskiing costs $279 plus tax per person including skis. Half-days
are $189 plus tax. The Overnight CatSki Adventure costs $689 plus tax per person
includes skis. It includes two full days of skiing plus an overnight stay in
a mountainside yurt warmed by a wood fire. The guides cook dinner.