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Virgin Territory

Shaun Tolson

The A-Star B3’s rotors thumped rhythmically and whipped faint clouds of powdery snow around the group huddled close to the ground. For a moment the blustery peak was cloaked in a cacophony of mechanical whirring as the helicopter lifted off, but in an instant the B3 disappeared over the ridgeline and an enveloping silence quickly descended over those left behind. Only moments before, excited chatter had filled the helicopter’s cabin during the flight to this 11,000-foot peak. Now, there was only silence. However, it isn’t long before the skiers survey their surroundings and, marveling at the sprawling views of unmarked terrain and fresh powder all around them, they burst into a chorus of giddy laughter.

It’s the typical beginning to a heli-skiing charter offered by Wasatch Powderbird Guides (www.powderbird.com), a company based out of Snowbird, Utah. Now in its 39th year of operation, Powderbird boasts a heli-ski footprint of more than 300 named runs throughout 100,000 acres of the Wasatch Mountains, an area greater than all of Utah’s ski resorts combined. The Wasatch Range stretches about 160 miles south from the Utah-Idaho border through the central regions of the state and often is considered the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. It’s there that lead guides like Michael Olson bring skiers and snowboarders yearning for the chance to carve turns into fresh, untouched powder.

“You might be a good athlete, but not at 10,000 feet on the first day,” Olson tells the group in a pre-run orientation of protocols and safety procedures that will dictate the course of the trip. He covers everything from avalanche transceiver operation to wildlife interactions (Olson occasionally has encountered mountain lions and even bears while skiing backcountry runs). He alerts the group to the signs of concealed, unfilled mine shafts and stresses the importance of single-skier descents from one safety point to the next.  He even addresses proper breathing techniques. “Don’t ever become complacent around the helicopter and really, don’t ever become complacent in the field. We’ve left the resort and nothing’s written in stone in the backcountry.”

“We try to make people realize how serious it is, but [keep it] fun at the same time,” he later explains. “It’s a hard line.”

There are times when the 54-year-old can tell that the fear of the unknown has gotten the better of some skiers, and according to Luke Ratto, a backcountry ski guide with Ski Utah who has heli-skied with Powderbird in the past, it is understandable how that could happen. “You didn’t just ride up a ski lift and watch somebody ski what you’re going to ski,” he says. “You don’t know what to expect and really, the only way down is to ski it.”

In circumstances where a Powderbird client seems almost paralyzed with fear, Olson purposefully will perform a “yard sale”—a fall where he ends up losing his skis and gear—just to lighten the mood and prove that falling isn’t necessarily dangerous. “It’s kind of irritating when you’re pulling all this snow out of your ears,” he says. “But if it loosens the group a little bit so they can actually relax enough to ski, it’s just what you do.”

After preparing this group and surveying each skier’s confidence level, Olson knows he can stay vertical and pushes off the ridge, etching the day’s first trails into the slope. Soon, each skier in the group will follow his lead.

Powderbird may be approaching its 40th year in operation, but the company didn’t get to where it is today by resting on its laurels. In fact, Olson, who began leading Powderbird charters during the mid-1980s, will be the first to admit that the company’s previous day-to-day operations were far more rustic and rough around the edges than they are today.

“We had no running water and we landed the helicopter right off the road,” he says, pointing out the window of the company’s current heliport and down to a small, unassuming brown building that today is home to the Snowbird Resort ski team. “We had an old cowboy fence so nobody could come through it. In the old days, it was a little more cowboy.”

That’s not to say that the company didn’t take its operations seriously—quite the contrary—but it is a reflection of how far the heli-skiing experience has come and just how primitive the early pioneering expeditions were. Canadian Hans Gmoser introduced the concept of heli-skiing in 1965, two years after setting the North American record for the highest climb at Mount McKinley, and it’s innovators like Gmoser and Austrian Mike Wiegele that Olson credits for turning heli-skiing into a successful enterprise. “Those guys really opened the eyes of the people that started these [other] businesses to see that it was a possibility,” he says.

Advancements in ski and snowboard technology also have contributed greatly to a thriving heli-skiing industry, simply because that technology has opened up the experience to an audience that in years past would not have had the ability to conquer fresh, backcountry powder. But that doesn’t mean that novice skiers easily can tackle a run, nor should new Powderbird customers think they can convince one of the company’s lead guides into believing that they’re more advanced than they are. Aside from knowing every Wasatch off-piste run like the back of his hand, Olson, who’s been with Powderbird for 27 seasons, has developed a keen eye and an uncanny sense for reading new customers. How you walk in your ski boots, how you carry your skis, how you place your skis or snowboard on the rack—every action has components that convey your ability level, he says. And that’s not even accounting for customers’ self-evaluations and the gender-specific tendencies that typically define them. “We know that guys usually are going to lie to the upside and women are going to lie a little bit to the downside,” Olson says. “It’s just a typical gender thing.”

Client ability level is always important when determining appropriate locations to ski, and he says it’s all the more critical when determining appropriate groupings. But as long as novice skiers can be grouped together, there’s nothing stopping the relatively inexperienced powder skiers from enjoying a heli-ski charter. “If we can put a group together that’s all the same ability, we love taking you out and working with you,” Olson says. “My job isn’t to be an instructor but I do a lot of thatin the field, and really, if I can take a group of beginners out in the powder and they’re linking turns by the end of their day, it’s been a great success.

“We love the feeling of skiing powder, of course,” he continues, “but one of the biggest things we love is turning people on to something that they didn’t think they could do. Seeing the joy in their face, it’s unbelievable.”

However, varying ability levels are only a concern when booking a seat on one of the company’s public charters. Private charters operate by an entirely distinct set of rules, and it’s those charters that separate Powderbird from many other heli-ski operations.

Historically, Park City visitors looking for a memorable ski vacation faced an unavoidable compromise. If they wanted easy access to a bevy of restaurants, shops, spas, and nightlife, they stayed at or near the town’s three major ski resorts—Park City Mountain Resort, Canyons Resort, or Deer Valley—which offer neatly groomed trails. While those trails provide smooth, comfortable, consistent skiing, they don’t offer much in the way of intense, heart-pumping terrain. On the other hand, if skiers wanted easy access to more aggressive, challenging trails, they stayed at Alta or Snowbird Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon on the other side of the ridge; but doing so put Park City’s social scene an hour’s drive away.

This season is the first where such a compromise no longer is required, thanks to a new partnership between Powderbird and Resorts West (www.resortswest.com), a property management company that has provided luxury ski home rentals and private concierge services in Park City since 1999. The partnership has created a new heli-skiing offering—the Helicopter Dreams Package. Starting at $135,144 (or $16,893 per person based on an eight-person heli-skiing charter), the package includes a week’s stay at a six- or seven-bedroom ski-in/ski-out vacation home and a two-hour, private heli-skiing charter, which typically equates to between 20,000 and 28,000 vertical feet of backcountry skiing. (Four days of lift-served skiing for eight guests at the Canyons Resort with equipment rentals is also included in the package, while additional options include a private chef, personal trainer, and spa treatments, among others.)

“The private charter is a whole different deal,” Olson says. “If the customer wants to ski alone with two guides or three guides, that opportunity is there for him. A lot of times, in the private charters, the helicopter is waiting for us and turned off, so we just ski into it.”

Guests are assured luxuries from the accommodations standpoint, as well. The two Resorts West properties are located in the Colony, a private gated community within the Canyons Resort, and were chosen specifically for their ability to accommodate helicopter access. That means those looking to take advantage of the heli-skiing opportunity need only walk outside their front (or back) doors to climb aboard Powderbird’s A-Star B3. Depending on ability levels and available terrain, the day’s first backcountry run could be only a two-minute flight from the residences.

While both properties offer more than 11,000 square feet of living space and various accents including private fitness centers, home theaters, ski locker rooms, and private hot tubs and saunas, the home known as Peak 72 is unique for the materials that were used to construct it. Built entirely from 150-year-old railroad trusses that were reclaimed from the Great Salt Lake, the home attracts moose and other wildlife during the warmer months, due to salt deposits that even today continue to seep out from the wood.  

Private charters are nothing new for Powderbird—the company has offered that option for decades—but clients wishing to take advantage of such exclusive skiing are not limited to just the Wasatch Mountain Range. This season marks the 10th that Powderbird has operated charters to Greenland, and other international offerings, including Chile, Argentina, Turkey, New Zealand, and Japan, also are growing more popular. “We’ll basically go anywhere people want to go where we can set up a program,” Olson says.

As he explains, the first Greenland expedition came about through casual conversations with friends and like-minded colleagues, and though the first charter in 2002 was experimental, the Powderbird staff immediately saw the potential. Private Greenland charters, which range from $70,000 per week for three guests and two guides to $100,000 per week for up to eight guests and two guides, include more than just skiing. Cultural side trips can be arranged that allow for nights spent in ancient Eskimo settlements, or travelers can elect to spend a few nights on the Kisaq, a 90-foot ship equipped with a heli-deck, and from there they can traverse the country’s fjords and select the specific coastal mountains that they would like to ski. “We like to refer to some of these trips as not just heli-skiing trips, but skiing adventures,” Olson says, “because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Nevertheless, the main draw of these international trips is the skiing, and with Greenland runs averaging 5,000 vertical feet, it’s easy to see why. “That’s as exotic as it gets,” Olson says. “The runs are long, there’s no one else anywhere. You’re the only ski group that week that’s there, so you’ve got hundreds of miles of [untouched] terrain.

“Arctic powder is unbelievably good,” he continues. “It’s gorgeous snow. All of these places have great powder skiing when the powder is on, just like here. It’s all about timing.”

Other Powderbird international charters, such as trips to Japan, are still in their infancy, though Olson says that’s predominantly because in the Japanese culture, the forests are home to spirits. Naturally, most backcountry regions in Japan have been off-limits for decades, though Olson is beginning to see some change in that regard. As for other exotic destinations, they come on board only when Powderbird can align with the right operations in those countries, but as Olson explains, all six international destinations that have hosted Powderbird charters to date offer established heli-skiing operations that the Powderbird team can trust. “It just came over time learning about the groups that were there, the guides that we would work with, and what was a good fit,” he says. “We want to make sure that we’re working with people that look at the world the same way we do.”

Back in the Wasatch, Olson’s group is finishing up the first run of the day. Each skier has worked through some early morning nervousness, and as the final person reaches the bottom of the run, all boast a similar frozen grin. Part of that is due to an overpowering sense of accomplishment that each skier feels, but the consistent plumes of fresh powder that they kicked up—and subsequently skied through—over the course of 2,000 vertical feet may also have something to do with it.

Nathan Rafferty, an avid heli-skier and the president of Ski Utah, describes it in a rather provocative way. “In a lot of ways, you could compare it to sex,” he says. “It’s not like you’re going to have a bad day heli-skiing; there are only varying stages of good.”

It’s a bold analogy to make, but after surveying the faces of the group—grins permanently affixed and giddy laughter percolating— there seems to be a good deal of truth to it. For the skiers in this group, one thing is certain: they’ll never forget their first time.

A Spirited Ride
The most authentic Olympic bobsled experience awaits those courageous enough to take the ride.
The most violent 60 seconds of my life. That’s what I was told to expect the day before I strapped on a helmet and took a seat in the almost 600-pound Comet bobsled perched atop the icy sliding track at the Utah Olympic Park (www.utaholympiclegacy.com) in Park City, Utah. Considering the source of that description—38-year-old Ivan Radcliff, a World Cup silver medalist and veteran bobsledder for team USA—you would think I’d be at least mildly apprehensive about participating in the Olympic Park’s Comet bobsled experience.

But I’m not.

It could be the most violent 60 seconds for most people, maybe, but I was a former competitive athlete myself. Sure, it’s a fast ride—that much I knew from watching years of Olympic coverage—but unless our driver, who first began training as a luger when he was 8 years old, takes an overly aggressive line and flips our sled (something that’s happened only twice during the last decade that the park has offered the Winter Comet Bobsled program), how violent could it really be?

Turn four provides the answer. During television coverage of the 2006 World Cup bobsledding competition, former bobsledder-turned-commentator John Morgan named this track’s fourth turn “Sunny Corner,” since that section sees the most direct sunlight over the course of a day. While the name may be appropriate from a literal standpoint, it is, nonetheless, misleading. Mild. Cheerful. Pleasant. Those are connotations that “sunny” bring to mind. Turn four is none of those things.

After three easy, gradual turns, a four-person sled on this track— even without a running start—is approaching speeds close to 50 mph when it hits turn four. With that speed heading into a hard left turn that drops close to 20 feet in elevation, riders should, as Radcliff advises, “Pucker up, buttercup.” I’m in a fight to keep my shoulders in a shrugged position—a position I was instructed to assume, since it would limit the strain on my neck due to restricted mobility—and though it takes us only a couple of seconds to negotiate the turn, those seconds seem anything but quick. The straightaway out of turn four segues into a gentle fifth turn and provides a temporary reprieve, but the 180-degree sixth turn looms, and it’s there that we experience more than 5 g-forces, entering the extreme right-hander at 50 mph and exiting it 30 mph faster. (For what it’s worth, astronauts experience only 3 g-forces during the strongest point of a space shuttle launch.)

During the 2002 Winter Olympics, the podium-bound bobsled teams were hitting speeds upward of 88 mph. On average, riders taking part in the Comet bobsled experience can expect to hit speeds right around 80 mph. “You’re really close to Olympic speeds,” Racliff says of the passenger rides. “It’s a great thrill ride.”

But the Comet bobsled experience at Utah’s Olympic Park, which costs $200 per person, is more than just a thrill ride; it’s also the closest that the untrained masses can get to the complete Olympic bobsled experience in North America. The Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid offers a bobsled experience, but the ride begins at the halfway point of the mile-long course. The Whistler Sliding Centre in British Columbia also offers a public bobsleigh program, but that ride starts three-quarters of the way up the track. The bobsled experience at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary is the only other program that gives everyday riders a chance to feel all 14 turns of the track, but they’ll complete the run 5 mph slower (on average) than those in Park City.

Radcliff, who began piloting Comet rides this winter, transitioned to the bobsled from track and field in 1998 and says that after his first completed run down the track, “I didn’t know what to think, because it was such a violent assault on my senses.” By his third run, however, he was hooked. “Being able to use my attributes of strength and speed, and the fun of going down the track and hearing the wind whipping past you as you go down … it’s awesome,” he says. “I really did fall in love with it.”

In many respects, that love that Radcliff references is what’s found at the core of the Olympic spirit, and for Carl Roepke, a former luger who now manages the sliding track in Park City and acts as the venue announcer for all competitive events held there, it’s activities like the park’s Comet bobsled experience that preserve that Olympic spirit. “We want people to have a chance to experience the Olympics all over again,” he says.

The ride certainly does that, but it also gives passengers a newfound appreciation for competitive bobsledders. “It seems so slow when that sled just trundles down the ramp,” Roepke says of the start of the Comet ride. “But I’ve watched some people need a few deep breaths [at the finish]. I can assure you, each and every person that rides that thing … their heart rate is up there.

For as quick as the ride is—an average, completed run of the almost mile-long track takes about 54 seconds—it’s at the finish that riders will experience the most profound emotions. Most of the ride may be a blur, but when the sled comes to a stop, the excitement and exhilaration that overwhelm riders is undeniably clear. Most significant, the finish line brings with it an overpowering sense of accomplishment, one that will endure long after the winter season has passed.

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