IN THE 1980S, SOUTHWEST COLORADO WAS A LOOSE AND WILD PLACE, with three upstart heli-ski operations buzzing about the San Juan Mountains. Then one outfit crashed and shut down. Another, named Sidewinders, was so adept at triggering avalanches it became known as Slidefinders.
The third, Telluride Helitrax, the state's sole remaining heli-ski operator, has a safety record more sterling than Qantas Airways (well, except when it rolled a bird with Christie Brinkley on board-under different ownership). Today, it has exclusive access to some 500 square miles of couloir-riddled terrain that stretches from west of Telluride to east of Silverton Mountain ski area. Helitrax dishes up above-treeline powder skiing on more than two dozen of the 80 peaks above 13,000 feet in the range. Only two heli operations in the world-one in Peru, and one in the Himalayas-operate at higher elevations. If you think this sounds cool now, wait until you step out of the bird.
The area's high elevations, sunny days, and wickedly cold overnight low temps (among many other factors) make for an unstable snowpack. But last year it didn't get quite so cold, the air was more humid, and the dumps-some 440-plus inches of wet, dense snow-resulted in a 12-foot base in places and created more stable layers. Regardless of the conditions, Helitrax does extensive stability testing-with explosives, mind you-every other day.
With vertical rock walls on either side, the top of Sheep Chute is only 30 feet wide, but it quickly fans out to 70 feet, falling away at over 40 degrees for 1,500 perfect vertical feet. Another classic is Upper Waterfall, a wide-open, undulating roller coaster of a run that funnels into five little couloirs known as the Waterfall Chutes. They spit you out just above the PZ (pickup zone).
The San Juans are desert mountains, and the region's dry air is the main reason the powder is so delicious. Storms blow through quickly, which means more bluebird (300 days of sun), and less milk-bottle, skiing. Historically, March is the snowiest month, but last year Telluride got hammered in January, when it's usually too cold for big storms to develop.
The four main guides hold Level III avalanche certifications, two teach avalanche-safety courses, one was a guide in Alaska, and two are former ski resort snow-safety directors.
Helitrax has partnerships with several hotels. If you book a multiple-day package, you've got three choices: The in-town Camel's Garden is sleek, modern, and dog-friendly; the Hotel Columbia is a more intimate, B&B-style hotel; and up at the mid-mountain village, the swanky Inn at Lost Creek has a rooftop hot tub.
To maximize vert and take advantage of clear weather, there's no designated lunch break, though the guides keep needling you with water and energy bars. But when the rotors stop whirring, Helitrax lays out an après buffet at 9545 (the restaurant at Inn at Lost Creek) that includes deli sandwiches with fresh-baked bread and homemade soups like shrimp bisque.
BANG FOR BUCK
It's not as cheap as Canada, but it's a lot sunnier. Book 90 days in advance and you'll save at least $70 a day. Reserve a multi-day package before mid-February, or after early April, and you'll save even more.
If you're going to be in the area, but can't sell enough old baseball cards to book ahead of time, put yourself on the standby list. If a spot opens up, it's yours for $550.
MAX ELEVATION: 13,700 feet
MAX VERTICAL DROP: 3,100 feet
AVERAGE VERTICAL PER DAY: 12,000-14,000 feet (six runs)
PRICE: $895 a day; three-day all-inclusive packages start at $3,295
GETTING THERE: Telluride is a 360-mile drive from Denver. Air is a better option: Six major cities have nonstop service to Montrose, Colorado, 75 miles from Telluride..