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Untracked Line: Ruby Mountain Heli-Skiing

Nevada's home-grown heli experience.
posted: 09/13/2011
Ruby Mountain Heli

Over Nevada’s high northeastern desert, the powder falls dry and crystalline, and 14 inches drop the night I arrive. It’s pure cattle country here, which is probably why Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience has wielded a monopoly on dumps in this remote range for 34 years. I take in the cow pastures and sagebrush foothills and figure the landscape hasn’t changed much since Joe Royer, then a young ski patroller at Snowbird, spotted this 60-mile-long island of peaks on a drive to California in the 1970s and opened one of the first heli-ski operations in the States.

There are 200,000 skiable acres and several summits that top 11,000 feet. The guides are an elite group, hand-poached from resort ski patrols and drawn, they say, to the family vibe and terrain that still feels unexplored. But that first night, in a bar peopled with ranchers and gold miners, a guide named Jay sums up the Ruby experience in what may as well be its marketing slogan: zero hype. Over the next three days, there will be no obsessive tallying of vertical, as in British Columbia. If you want ballsy, 50-degree descents, he tells me, you’d better go to Alaska. There’s a cowboy attitude here, but the genuine kind—friendly, laid-back, authentic. The skiing is advanced, and there’s a ton of it. “It’s like Vail,” he says.

The northwesterly storm passes quickly but leaves behind brisk winds and slides everywhere. To play it safe, we ski powdery laps through whitebark pine and aspen glades accessed by RMH’s snowcats—the benefit of a small and nimble operation that can ensure guests turns even when the bird is grounded. Back at Reds Ranch, a 10-bedroom lodge situated in a cottonwood grove, Royer’s wife Francy churns out raclette-potato crostini and grilled beef tenderloin finadene as the 16 guests mingle hearthside with red wine in the great room, under the eyes of stuffed moose and elk heads.

By day three, it’s on. Clear blue skies, settled snow, and acres of possibilities. The chopper accommodates groups of five, including a guide, and deposits us on exposed ridges with views that reach to the desert and beyond. Only when pressed does our guide, Jamie Laidlaw, mention his sponsorships and solo ski descent down the world’s fourth-highest peak, Nepal’s Mount Lhotse. That kind of stuff doesn’t matter in the Rubies. We make seven laps above treeline—down sweeping bowls, over gentle rollers, through a narrow chute. The skiing is tame but the landscape is wild, and en route to the helipad we pass a cow birthing a calf. Where else does that happen?

Max Elevation // 11,387 feet
Max Vertical Drop // 3,000 feet
Average Daily Vertical // 18,000 feet
Price // The standard three-day package—including lodging, meals (booze is extra), ski rental, and a 39,000-vertical-foot guarantee—costs $4,350. Additional vert costs $100 per run. Single-day skiing (Thursdays, February to March) costs $1,375.
Info // helicopterskiing.com

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