Friday, December 23, 2005

Heli-skiing expands skiers' horizons

Sun Valley celebrates 40 years of helicopter skiing

Express Staff Writer

A Sun Valley Heli Ski helicopter deposits a ski film crew on top of a peak in the central Idaho backcountry.

Sun Valley has been first in American skiing since its beginning. It was the first large destination ski resort when it opened 70 years ago. The first chairlift in the world was designed, developed and built for Sun Valley. Though it is deservingly famous for the lift-serviced skiing on Bald Mountain, as well as for the quality of its ancillary amenities, like lodges, restaurants, bars, shops and other recreation facilities, Sun Valley has also been making first tracks in American backcountry skiing since its inception.

The first backcountry ski mountaineering ski school in America was started by Sun Valley and headed by Florian Haemmerle. Before World War II, Haemmerle and his guides, including the well-known climber/ski mountaineer Andy Hennig and Victor Gottschalk, took clients on leg-powered skiing excursions in the Boulder, Pioneer and Smoky mountains and even further north into the Sawtooth Mountains. They made extensive use of the Pioneer Cabin in the Pioneer Mountains and the Owl Creek Cabin in the Silver Creek drainage of the Smoky Mountains. They offered rustic and spare accommodations compared to the Sun Valley Lodge, but business was brisk for the "alpine touring" ski school in those days. Sun Valley's "alpine touring" school came to an unofficial end in 1952 when Gottschalk was among those killed in an avalanche in Lookout Bowl and the Owl Creek Cabin was destroyed by another avalanche off Bromaghin Peak.

Backcountry skiing has always been an integral part of the Sun Valley experience, including the aspect that caters to and is only available to the financially elite.

The first commercial helicopter skiing service in America was founded in 1966 by Bill Janss, the former owner of Sun Valley Resort. Janss was a devout and accomplished skier to the end of his life. He is known to have used the helicopter to access the untracked powder of the local mountains for himself and his skiing buddies as much as any paying guests. There were no guides or instruction or real safety protocols, and the business was essentially between the helicopter pilot and the skier. An April 3, 1966, article from the New York Times chronicles a day of heli-skiing on Durrance Mountain, north of Ketchum. The headline reads: "Progress Marches (or, Rather Flies) On: A Helicopter replaces the Ski Lifts on the Mountain Slopes." An accompanying photo shows a small, two-passenger helicopter parked in the middle of Highway 75 below Durrance, and the article reads, "For every pair of skiers making the 10-minute ascent of Durrance, the charge came to $10 each. Although the Sun Valley resort and ski lifts close for the season on April 10, helicopter skiing in the high mountains continues through May."

How things change.

Today, prices for this most extravagant (and enjoyable) of skiing experiences are a bit more than 40 years ago. Today, Sun Valley Heli Ski, a private company that is no longer a part of Sun Valley Resort, charges up to $775 a day to ski the local mountains. A three-day package, including two nights of lodging and gourmet food at the new Smoky Mountain Lodge, will go for $4,000 a person. A custom tour can be arranged for up to eight clients for $7,800 for the first two hours and $2,000 an hour for any additional hours.

According to Mark Baumgardner, owner/operator of Sun Valley Heli Ski, even at these prices helicopter ski companies in America are not extremely profitable and do well to break even. It has always been that way in Sun Valley and elsewhere. Even in the early years when overhead was lower, guides were non-existent, safety protocols were improvised on the spot and everything about helicopter skiing was "very Alaskan," in the words of Baumgardner, referring to the frontier ethic still in place further north, the business of heli-skiing was a labor of love. SVHS is not only the first and longest standing heli-ski service in America, it is one of eight members of the Heli-Ski US Association (six in the Lower 48 and two in Alaska), the only survivors of several operations that started and folded over the years.

In 1973, Ann Janss, Bill Janss' wife, was killed in an avalanche while heli-skiing off Balcom Ridge near Sun Valley. This tragedy marked the beginning of what is now a far more regulated, controlled, certified and safety-oriented helicopter skiing business in Sun Valley today, but it changed slowly from its very Alaskan roots to its present professionalism. For instance, Sun Valley Ski Patrolman Carl Rixon, who owned the business with partners from 1976 until 1983, remembers doing backcountry avalanche control from his 1940 Taylorcraft single-engine fixed-wing airplane by dropping sticks of dynamite from the plane onto slopes to be skied later in the day. In today's environment it is difficult to imagine such free-form flying and bombing runs in the skies above the Wood River Valley. Rixon remembers with a smile that in 1977-78, "the best year we ever had," there was 150 percent of normal snowfall and the helicopter flew 83 days. Rixon personally guided 79 of those days and managed to get in 1.2 million vertical feet of skiing that season.

It is worth noting that the SVHS is the only helicopter with a highly trained rescue staff for winter backcountry emergencies in the greater Wood River Valley. (For more on this, see Sun Valley Guide magazine, Winter 2006.)

For Baumgardner's 30th birthday, his wife bought him a day of helicopter skiing. It changed his life. A year later, in 1983, he began training as a helicopter guide and bought into the business, which, after years of partnerships, he owns himself. His chief guides, Pete Patterson, Bozo Cardozo and Eric Leidecker, are well known and widely respected in the world of skiing and mountaineering.

This tight group has expanded the territory over the years further and further from the mountains immediately adjacent to the Wood River Valley. Today its permit area encompasses three mountain ranges and 750 square miles surrounding Sun Valley. This expansion has been driven by several forces, including avoiding conflicts when possible from areas frequented by leg-powered backcountry skiers, the search for more and better snow and new terrain, and by better technology, especially helicopters and communication. Rixon pointed out that the expansion of services, terrain and skiing possibilities has been coming for a long time.

"We always knew the way it is was coming," he said.

The modern Sun Valley Heli Ski business has more overhead than in days past, and, according to Baumgardner, a series of light snow years and the economic fallout in America of Sept. 11, 2001, has made the business struggle. The new Smoky Mountain Lodge was built on the South Fork of the Boise River, about 20 miles west of Ketchum and 20 miles north of Fairfield, because that area receives on average about 30 to 50 percent more snow than around Sun Valley. The lodge has 13 beds and usually accommodates eight guests. It is essentially a six-bedroom house with two bathrooms, powered by a solar grid with a diesel generator for back up.

The early-season snowfall this year has allowed Sun Valley Heli Ski to begin flying earlier than usual. They are open for business in full operation, both for multi-day excursions to the lodge and to the Pioneer Yurt in the Pioneer Mountains, for multi-run day trips and for one-run rides into the backcountry to access remote areas. Baumgardner expects to fly some 120 missions, often three per day, and some 600 skiers this season.

That's 40 years and thousands of miles of flying and millions of vertical feet of skiing since $10 rides from Highway 75 to the top of Durrance.

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