They are my best-spent 20 minutes of 2009. And I’m riding bitch, crammed alongside three other dudes in the back of an A-Star. While there’s little room for movement, there is no room for complaining. Besides, I’ve got a window seat.
Cruising at 10,000 feet above Idaho’s expansive, undulating Smoky Mountains—one of three ranges open to Sun Valley Heli Skiing—I’m starting to get an idea of what 750,000 acres of skiable terrain look like. As I gawk out the window, Erik Leidecker, our certified IMFGA guide, rides shotgun and casually selects a few runs for us, portioning individual crumbs of the empire to explore. Only each crumb is 2,000 feet long.
The helicopter touches down on Paradise, a sweeping pyramid with several lines that roll down its ridges and faces. Surrounding us are myriad peaks, enormous bowls, innumerable cirques, and the remains of one savage forest fire. We are four clients, including Olympic downhiller, X Games medalist, and aspiring guide Reggie Crist, who have come to lap Oh, Baby, one of several hundred named runs in the middle of Idahoan nowhere. Unlike other heli operations, with 11 guests per group, SVHS’s four-to-one client-to-guide ratio ensures that we move quickly, streaking down no-brainer, gladed trees.
I trail Erik by five turns, spooning the foot-deep trench to my right. We’re skiing fast, passing each pine with increasing speed. I skim over the undulating rollers, my skis leaving the snow. I can hear Reggie, Mr. Olympian, behind me, hooting as I dip and dodge through shin-deep snow until we come in hot to the pickup zone.
Sun Valley Heli Skiing is the oldest heli operation in the U.S. Bill Janss founded it in 1966 after helicopter skiing in Canada with Hans Gmoser (the inventor of North American heli-skiing), figuring he could do the same thing in Idaho. And he did. Recently, SVHS partnered with EpicQuest, a global, high-end adventure-travel companythat pairs clients with world-class athletes. I’m here with Reggie, but you can snowboard Alaska with Jeremy Jones or surf the Seychelles with Laird Hamilton. All you need is enthusiasm and a thick wallet, as this form of travel isn’t cheap.
By 2:30 that afternoon, we’ve eclipsed 20,000 feet of vertical and now it’s a countdown to the bar. By day’s end I’ve dialed getting in and out of the back of the ship—that is, until Erik throws me a curveball. “You should ride up front,” he says.
I don’t know how to respond. I thought that seat was guides-only and off-limits to clients. Then Erik notices me standing wide-eyed, trying to conceptualize sitting shotgun in a chopper, and clarifies the offer. “I mean, why wouldn’t you?”
Lodge: EpicQuest partners with a half-dozen Ketchum-area hotels (take your pick); a good place to stay is at a Thunder Spring condo (thunderspring.com).
Food: Lunch in the field is sandwiches or wraps, hot soup, chips, and a drink. After skiing, hit The Pioneer, a Ketchum institution, for dinner.
Max Elevation: 10,000 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 3,500 feet
Average Daily Vertical: 14,000 feet
Price: $1,100 for six or seven runs, which average 2,000 feet. Lunch and hotel transfer included.