As seen in the February 2012 issue of FREESKIER.
Words and Photos by Jeff Cricco.
“When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now… I’m waiting for a mission… getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger.”
This quote from Apocalypse Now comes to mind every time I’m heliskiing. You’re stuck in Val-disease in an RV for weeks because of bad weather. Getting softer. Every Pop Tart and Natty Ice you drink, you get weaker. You check weather reports. You stare at the clouds. All you can think about is getting back home, where your buddies are skiing every day, getting stronger. But when you’re home, all you can think about is heliskiing.
When the thought of heliskiing becomes too much to cope with, there’s only one thing to do. Call up a film company, Josh Berman of Level 1; rally a troop of killer skiers, Parker White, Duncan Adams and Logan Imlach; and head for the bird, Helitrax in Telluride, CO.
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I’d never want another one.”
Heading to Helitrax with the Level 1 crew was a choice mission. And we got room service at our amazing hotel, the Peaks Resort and Spa in Mountain Village just outside of Telluride, the area’s newest development.
(L-x2) Duncan Adams, (R) Parker White
Since we stayed at a resort with an attached spa, all Apocalypse Now references will cease immediately. The San Juans are a steep, high part of southern Colorado that not many people see. Cathedral spires with precipitous relief reach into the blue skies. Long couloirs mark every peak of the jagged mountains. Sharp rocks with a mineral-rusted yellow tint litter the wind-scoured southern peaks and look like they could filet you and give you tetanus in one tumble.
Our arrival in this landscape around Telluride coincided with three days of high pressure and light winds. The snow was firm. We used the days to familiarize ourselves with the terrain, as there wasn’t too much to shoot. The plan was to come back to cherry pick the choice lines after some new snow.
After four days of poking around, trying to find some leftover soft snow, the crew decided to build a jump. We found a spot with primo late-day light above Trout Lake, a cabin community south of Telluride that was once used to the fill the steam engines of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad with water. The heli dropped us off in the early afternoon. It took us until early evening to finish the jump, and we were rewarded with a perfect sunset that looked like a CGI composite from a George Lucas movie.
Each evening, after we ate a surprisingly good meal of Chinese, we’d check out the infamous Free Box, a grouping of boxes and shelves in the middle of town where people can drop off unwanted treasures. It’s a Telluride icon that has been around since 1970, with legends of people finding Rolexes and Sony flat-screen TVs. Not for us. We just found crap. However, on the last night of the trip, Parker scored a butterfly net and a sweet pair of Rossignol Quantum skis so narrow they looked like cross-country skis.
After getting a little worried about the lack of snow and week-long high pressure, our fears were soothed on the fifth day by 15 inches of stable Colorado April snow. It worked out perfectly. On the sixth day of the trip, April 1, we got to the airport early. Helitrax had just officially ended their season and was closed to the public. It was go time. We had a ship and two hundred square miles of mint San Juans all to ourselves.
(Right) Parker White.
We headed straight to Governor’s Basin and took a couple of quick laps in the high-alpine bowl to suss out the snow and stability. Perfect stability. No wind. Light, blower powder. We wasted no time taking the doors off the heli. I shared a spot with Berman on the opposite side of our pilot, Chris Templeton. Berman was on the floor of the heli with his feet dangling out the door and resting on the skids. I was over his shoulder leaning out, secured by some webbing attached to a seat belt.
We chose a unique area in Governor’s called the San Sofia Ridge. I had never seen anything like it. The face was about 600 vertical feet of mini chuted spires and chimneys. Each pointy peak created its own couloir. The sides of each couloir ramped out at the bottom creating perfect exit airs.
The first run shooting from the heli was a little loose. Because the ship was a Bell 407, the ski basket was on the pilot’s side. Typically, with the common heliskiing ship of choice, the Eurocopter Ecureuil B2, the baskets are on the guide’s side, giving the pilot an unobstructed view of the skier. Duncan nailed his line but as he approached the bottom of his run, the pilot pulled away from the ridge and we missed the shot of a fairly good size air he stomped.
(Left) Duncan Adams.
We recalibrated with Chris, and he fired the ship back up. He looked back at me and Berman and said, “If it comes to hitting the side of the mountain trying to stay close, I’ll choose pulling out every time.” One of the little-known limiting factors of heliskiing in the lower 48 is that helicopters become exponentially less powerful the higher the altitude. We were flying at 12,000 to 13,000 feet. In Alaska, the peaks top out between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, giving the pilots significantly more power to play with when it comes to landing, taking off and flying.
After dialing in our setup and nailing the next couple lines on the San Sofia Ridge, we put the doors back on and shot the rest of the day on slope. Sadly enough, Logan was only able to schedule the first five days of the trip and had to return to his day job as an engineer in Anchorage.
However, Duncan and Parker made up for the loss by crushing lines the rest of the day. Parker skied multiple runs in a cliff band that was about half way down the bowl—tight rocky chutes that cliffed out at the end into drops of 15 to 60 feet. I got some of the better shots of the trip on these cliffs. Duncan, looking for more adventure, bagged a bunch of coolies. He skied a dream couloir, the Italian Stallion. Then he found a variation of the line with a pencil thin entrance and closeout air to finish.
(L-R) Logan Imlach, Duncan Adams.
After a rocky start, we ended up getting the goods while the getting was good. The next day was bluebird and still cold but in a simple twist of fate, the wind came up at night and firmed everything back up. So we parted ways with our spa and headed back home to think about the next mission, which couldn’t come too soon.