You’re going helicopter skiing today. While dining on breakfast in your sprawling mountain lodge or spacious suite in Telluride’s mountain village, you hear the telltale whup-whup-whup of a copter’s rotor blades throbbing through the mountain air. Seconds later the graceful Bell 407 alights right outside the mountain village, a short drive or walk from your breakfast table.
Telluride Helitrax, founded in 1982, was the only heli-ski operation in the state till 2008, and remains one of the only spots in the continental U.S. where a helicopter picks up guests right outside the town’s luxury resorts and homes. Savor it. This doesn’t happen in Vail or Aspen.
When you climb into that Bell 407, prepare to kiss your sense of detachment good-bye. The second your Plexiglas bubble lifts off the deck, you’ll love heli-skiing. And you’ll love it even more once the turns begin.
Telluride Helitrax not only accesses fresh, untracked mountainsides; it reaches some of the highest ski terrain on the continent, 10,000 to 13,500 feet above sea level. Its permit area encompasses more than 200 square miles of high alpine basins, cirques, and summits surrounding Telluride to the north, south and east. Almost all the terrain is above tree line, allowing effortless, wide-open turns down unobstructed slopes.
Because contemporary powder skis turn intermediates into experts and experts into skiing gods, you don’t need elite skills to enjoy Helitrax. You simply need to be, as the company puts it, “an advanced intermediate or above, with a sense of adventure and in reasonable physical condition.” While the slopes are ungroomed, they fall at moderate angles, resembling a double blue or single black run at Telluride Ski Resort.
So relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy the San Juan Mountains, Colorado’s closest resemblance to the Swiss Alps, including views of iconic Wilson Peak, which might seem familiar: It’s the perfect pyramid one sees on the label of Coors beer.
The view from the copter is fantastic, but once you touch down on a remote ridgeline with thousands of untracked powder below you, the real fun begins. Leading the way is a high-altitude, all-star roster of guides. There’s Joe Shults, who’s spent 30 years in the Telluride area working as a professional ski patroller, snow safety director, and heli-ski guide. There’s Matt Steen, who recently worked as an avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. And let’s not forget Angela Hawse, one of only eight women in America to attain the prestigious certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association. Rounding out the crew is Brian “Speed” Miller, who co-founded Helitrax back in ’82 and is renowned as the area’s consummate avalanche forecaster. As Hawse says, “Most heli-ski guides are the best in the industry because it’s such a sought after job.”
At the landing zone, you step out onto what feels like the top of the world, the guide grabs your skis and waves off the helicopter. Once it’s gone, the peak becomes startlingly quiet and pristine. You click into your bindings, then shoot down virgin fluff to the lower landing zone where the copter will meet your group.
The guide will normally go first, asking you to stay either left or right of his track, yet the snow you ski will be fresh, unmarred by other human beings. You’ll make as many turns as you like, but feel free to fly straight down. The sensation of high speed without friction is mind-altering, bucket-list stuff. When you reach the bottom, you’ll be grinning madly and fired up to do it all over again.
Helitrax normally provides skiers with six runs a day, which usually translates into 10,000 to 14,000 vertical feet of descent. In contrast to the massive helicopters of British Columbia operations, Helitrax’s Bell 407 limits the experience to a small, agile group of four close friends or family plus the guide. Translation: no waiting for strangers.
You’ll spend the non-skiing time shooting photos, eating snacks and lunch (included), and raving about the turns and scenery.
Expert skiers can choose to take it up a notch. If enough talented people can form a suitable group, Helitrax will fly them to test pieces such as Upper Waterfall, a wide-open, undulating roller coaster of a run that funnels into five little couloirs known as the Waterfall Chutes. Or, better yet, Sheep Chute. Lacing its way between imposing walls of rock, Sheep Chute pinches down to a width of 30 feet before opening to a more manageable, less claustrophobic 70 feet. The entire chute falls steeply (40 degrees) for 1,500 exhilarating vertical feet. Ski that, and no one will doubt your abilities anywhere.
Such options argue favorably for heli-skiing the Lower 48. Sure, British Columbia is where the sport was invented, and its mammoth operations are ever impressive. But their heli-ski lodges are incredibly isolated, with no charming Victorian town like Telluride to see or visit. They may serve incredible food, and offer downtime yoga, but you always know the nightlife highlight will be more cribbage games with the boys.
Alaska can be even more trying. The finest Alaskan skiing happens out of Valdez, a dreary sea-level oil town. Because Valdez receives maritime weather (as opposed to Telluride’s continental systems), gray clouds can cancel flying for days, even weeks, at a time. As such, there’s a name for the misery that envelops a soul when dreams of the perfect ski trip wither away under day after day of low ceilings: Valdisease.
But at Telluride, there is no chance of Valdisease; your flight home ends right at the mountain village, where you can walk back to your room (or drive back to your house), freshen up, and then meet your family for dinner, maybe pointing out the window at the remote high alpine mountains that you skied today, carving lines no one else at the table—or the restaurant for that matter—could.