Max Elevation: Ruby Dome, 11,300 feet Max Vertical Drop: 3,000 feet Average Vertical Logged Per Day: 20,000 feet Price: $3,050, which includes three days of food, guides, gear, and lodging. Getting There: From Elko, head southeast 20 miles to Lamoille (pop. about 200). Red's Ranch is just past the only Bell 407 chopper parked in a pasture full of cow pies. Info: 775-753-6867; helicopterskiing.comBeta: Spend enough time with Ruby Mountain Heli Skiing in the northeastern corner of Nevada, and you might believe that Peter Pan's Neverland is a 60-mile-long mountain range in the Great Basin—and that Pan himself is a five-foot-eight ski cowboy in a puffy vest and a pair of dirty Wranglers.
You'd think a renegade like 54-year-old Joe Royer, Ruby's co-owner (with his wife, Francy) and original member of the hard-partying '70s-era Snowbird patrol, wouldn't like being compared to a green-skirted pixie. But the Marin County, California, native—who first spied the Rubies during all-night, gonzo road trips along I-80 in his early twenties—is hip to the improbability of his operation. In 1976, Royer signed for the business on the back of a cocktail napkin. And in '88, urged by the Sierra Club, he sat down with "a very sharp #2 pencil, drew the Ruby Mountain wilderness boundary (around his future permit area), and had it committed to Congressional record. So call Royer Pan if you want to; he's been called worse. But if you hope to rip the Rubies—a snow-choked collection of canyons and granite peaks tearing through the middle of a 204,000-acre dust bowl—Royer's your guy.
Last February, 15 guests and I logged 28,000 vertical in 12 blazing-fast heli-shuttles under a blue-raspberry sky. We leapfrogged through white-pine forests; tilled east-facing, corn-topped bowls; and whooped off wind lips until the sun sprayed the hillsides pink. When the bird finally whisked us back to Red's Ranch, our personal bluegrass quintet, South Wind, was just starting its first tune of the evening.
The snow comes in dry and fast; fluctuating high-desert temps create sketchy layers. But these guys have skied here for 30 years, making the unpredictable slightly safer.
Ask Quack, the pilot, to take you to the 1,800-foot-long Come Line, which threads between two granite slabs. Spin laps in Snow-flake Bowl, Flake Offs, or Ruby Dome, the Great Basin classic no one you know has ever skied.
Quick-moving storms track from the Pacific Northwest, staying just long enough (12—18 hours) and dropping just enough snow (a foot and a half at times) to keep the powder-to-blue sky ratio just right. Go during big-dump-prone February or March.
Snowbird Ski Patrol is a veritable prep school for RMH guides. Request Royer for the wildest ride; shadow Tom Carter for the most irreverent stories. In the '80s, Carter wrote long-winded ski-mag adventure tales to support his habit. "The joke was, I'd hold the pen while my partner moved the paper, he says.
Built by Mimi Ellis Hogan, daughter of alleged mafioso Red Ellis, 10,000-square-foot Red's Ranch has 10 bedrooms, some with shoulder-deep jet tubs. Drinking (and après-heli ego stroking) happens in the Great Room. The lodge is upscale Western chic; outside, it's home on the range.
Francy Royer whips up homemade wild-mushroom soup and marinated salmon steaks. But don't miss scarfing her "Rubits—bite-size sandwiches of banana or zucchini bread, slathered with cream cheese or peanut butter and sprinkled with apples or raisins—aboard the bird.
Bang for Buck
With some Canadian heli ops charging $100 a run to ski with 70 people, RMH's $3,050 all-inclusive tag is worth selling your car for. They're intimate, and attend to the tiniest detail.
Expect "heli stress, a sweaty-palms reaction to the over-stimulation of riding in helicoppters and skiing in unknown terrain with strangers. If you're really worried, call Royer. His understated stoke will replace your fears with fire.