First, let’s dispel one of the central myths of heli-skiing. Despite the James Bond-inspired image in your mind, you don’t jump out of a hovering helicopter. The bird lands, and you follow the pre-flight instructions, exiting safely and hunkering down until the gear is unloaded and the helicopter departs, leaving you high on some untrammeled-snow-covered peak.
That said, it’s still pretty awesome.
And on a recent one-trip heli outing in Telluride this year, when we rappelled down the slope—with skis on, poles tucked awkwardly between my pack and back—yea, that was pretty Special Agent.
Myself, three other intrepid skiers, and the guide departed from the landing pad of Telluride Helitrax, located next to the Peaks Resort in Telluride’s Mountain Village. We took to the sky on a bluebird day, the temps hovering in the relatively toast mid-30s, rising above the expansive terrain of Telluride.
Even from the air, the resort’s 2,000 acres looked massive. We passed over runs we’d taken the day before, flying high over the plush open-air French bistro where we ate, gliding over the army of ants riding lifts and skiing in-bound terrain.
We circled a peak just out of bounds from the resort. Once, twice, three times, looking for a place to land. It wasn’t happening, again dispelling that jump-off-the-heli-rung myth.
But when we did touch down, and the helicopter departed in a blizzard of snow, we stood at 13,000 feet, looking down of a long, rolling bowl, and it was perfection. Even though snow hadn’t fallen in weeks, the terrain was untouched. Our giddiness took the form of awkward high fives.
The plan was refreshingly simple. Ski our way to the town of Telluride, a quintessential mountain town nestled into a box canyon far, far below.
And it went well. Variable conditions couldn’t erase the bliss of the first five turns. Or the 20th. But traversing was necessary to navigate the backcountry’s maze of ravines so that we could end up at a town lift. And that’s when the altitude and the heat kicked in.
I won’t pretend. It was tough-going. Especially for this long-time resident of a sea-level city on the East Coast. Yes, I was last in our line of five skiers, even after opening my pit zips and all helmet vents.
I claim to be in decent shape—but let’s say that the altitude made for a convenient excuse.
Except for the rappel.
The rope was already there, a fixture of the landscape and a testament to the locals’ dedication to backcountry exploration. It wasn’t far—about 20 or so feet, and if the region had gotten more snow, we could’ve easily skied it. Instead, it was a slow and awkward descent, the rope wrapped around one arm and the rental skis scraping against a hoary collection of tree stumps and rocks. Yes—thank God they weren’t my skis.
But we made it without incident, returning to skiing, weaving through a patch of short pines, traversing some more, then skiing, then traversing some more.
Eventually we reached the snow-covered path near the belly of the ravine, a long route that snaked through the woods at an easy pitch. A few rollers, a bit of ice, a few locals on hikes during their lunch breaks.
And then Telluride proper.
By now it was noon and all the exertion (thank you, traverses) made me happy to have hunger as an excuse to suggest a break, which we had—after riding the lift up the slopes to the summit of Telluride and taking a few easy turns on the groomed slopes.
Typically with heli-ski trips, you yo-yo all day. You ski pristine powder down to a flat portion of the mountain, then radio for the bird and wait to be retrieved. Then you load up, hit reset, and ski till the heli’s out of fuel or your legs are drained.
We didn’t do that.
It was a one-and-done moment with the helicopter. And though the traversing almost killed me, the rappel and everything else that made that day’s just the right measure of tough something I’ll never forget it.
And I didn’t even have to be a part of her majesty’s secret service.