Published: December 2004
Leave it to me to book a ski trip right at the end of the weirdest three weeks of early March weather that anyone in Utah can recall. It's been intensely warm for days, with temperatures climbing well past 70 in Salt Lake City. The Wasatch Mountain snowpack has been rendered an unsafe mush, and when it's not, high winds and poor visibility make it unsafe to fly. The Wasatch Powerbirds have been doing very little flying lately.
"You shoulda come in February," says my Park City friend Jamie, whom I've invited along for a day of heliskiing. All winter he's been calling me in Vermont to gloat about how much snow Utah's been getting. But lately he's been phoning in depressing daily updates on how unbelievably fast it's all melting.
Desperate, I delay, pushing my date to the last weekend of March. Jamie, gorged on a winter's worth of face shots, can't be bothered to change his plans, so I call in Mac, another friend-and the kind of guy who doesn't turn down a day of heliskiing no matter how many powder days he's had lately. Mac's also the local rep for a ski company, so I won't have to lug skis from Vermont. And best of all, he's Irish. Maybe he'll change my luck.
Praise St. Paddy-it works. On the day I make the very short trek from Snowbird's Cliff Lodge, where I'm staying, to the Wasatch Powderbird Guides headquarters, a quarter-mile up the canyon, the skies are clear, and the 10 inches of snow that fell Friday remain unmolested two days later, thanks to high winds that kept the choppers on the pad Saturday. Mac greets me in the WPG lot with the same stupid grin I'm probably wearing and a pair of nice fat powder skis from his private stash. It looks like today, after weeks on the ground, the birds will fly, and Mac and I will be aboard.
Anyone who's ever skied Snowbird or Alta has likely seen a WPG chopper soaring overhead. They've been flying since 1973, when local guide Greg Smith founded the operation. That makes WPG the oldest heli outfit in the U.S., and in most years, they're the busiest. "When we have a good snow year, no one touches us," says Rusty Dassing, who's been with the company for 20 years. Dassing and two other guides manage the operation.
Dassing is also our lead guide today as we lift off in an A-Star B3, which seats four plus a guide, and head for WPG's American Forks terrain, one canyon south of Little Cottonwood. It's some of the company's prettiest, with views dominated by the backside of Alta's Devil's Castle, where I've hiked to some of my most memorable runs ever. For much of the day, we can also see the top of Snowbird's Mineral Basin quad, with occasional glimpses of the top of Deer Valley to the northeast. The chopper's-eye view of Utah's prime ski terrain puts it neatly into perspective, making it all seem smaller and closer together than I'd realized. Other than our fellow WPG clients, we don't see another skier all day. There are no showdowns with irate earn-your-turns purists, despite what we've heard about the conflict between Powderbirds and local backcountry skiers who resent having to compete for untracked lines.
Flying is half the fun, especially when the B3 labors up to a ridge and then zooms down the far side. In an instant, the chopper's roar changes timbre, your body goes weightless, and a broad new vista opens up below-another world, rife with possibilities.
Our group starts out with a shakedown on a run called Barrushka, then cycles twice through the aspens of Antsy Pants, followed by Fat Frank, Why Not, Outhouse Chutes and Pagan Bowl. Dassing saves the north-facing aspects for later in the day, when the snow starts to set up under a strong sun. A couple of runouts are a little stiff and sticky-not surprising, given the time of year-but in general, it's what we've come for: glorious Wasatch Mountain powder, untracked by anyone's skis but our own. The terrain isn't especially steep, but it's deeply enjoyable.
Our last run, clearly visible to the follks skiing Mineral Basin, drops us at a pickup zone just below the base of the lift. I scout the perfect line, steep and tree-spiked, but underestimate the depth of the powder and botch it. No worries. And by 2 p.m., about the time the snow is becoming a little too stiff to be much fun, we're done, back at headquarters, this time enjoying spicy Thai food and cold microbrews. (Lunch is part of the package, along with continental breakfast.) The late-season sun, streaming in through plate-glass windows, is so bright we eat with sunglasses on. Outside, what's left of Friday's dump has cooked down to a couple inches of goo. In fact, WPG's season is virtually over. In the coming days, the temperatures will climb again, and late-season visitors will have to settle for mostly corn snow. Mac and I are fortunate indeed. Only later do I find out that he isn't actually Irish. Oh, well: Chalk one up to the luck of the Scottish.