Heli-Skiing: It Could Save Your Life
Snow safety meets the ultimate ski liftby Josh Rhea
On a clear Utah morning, Mt. Superior's snow-caked flanks burn orange with the intensity of an arc-welder—stare at it too long, and the deep shadows of Little Cottonwood Canyon become nothing more than a dark haze. I'm standing on a large concrete slab below the shaded slopes of Snowbird, and as my eyes adjust from the glare above, the object of many a skier's dream comes into focus: a French-made A-Star B3 helicopter. I'm drooling at the thought of a flight later in the day, but realize not everyone in the vicinity feels the same way.
Wasatch Powderbird Guides recently took a step in assuaging the conflict between human-powered purists and gas-burning throttle jockeys: they are training people to safely access the backcountry for themselves. The 30-year-old company offers introductory avalanche awareness classes that focus on the basics of snow safety, backcountry route selection, and snowpack evaluation. But for the same cost as most earth-bound avalanche classes (about $100), WPG provides a morning classroom session followed by a single heli flight into the field. The organization doesn't profit from the classes or flight-this is purely a community service. Along with about ten other powder-hungry skiers and snowboarders, it's why I'm standing on this frozen heli-pad trying desperately to stay warm.
Inside, we settle into a morning classroom session with bagels and hot coffee, bodies soaking up caffeine while minds absorb knowledge from ski guides with decades of experience. Tyson Bradley, an accomplished ski mountaineer with multiple first descents under his belt, leads the class with the assistance of longtime Snowbird patroller and ski guide Ryan Carlson. The material is a refresher for me—each viewpoint offers new perspectives on information we sometimes take for granted. For others, it's a first taste of the mountain of information to be consumed in a lifetime of learning safe backcountry travel.
And while safety is the top priority at Powderbird Guides, thrill seeking is a definite runner-up. I'm sitting shotgun in the heli as it rockets on a collision course with the massive flanks of Mt. Superior, gripped with excitement and, I'll admit it—outright fear. At the last possible second, the pilot arcs the heli skyward, carving a spectacular turn above the sparkling powder, cliffs, and trees just below. In seconds we're at the top of nearby Grizzly Gulch, preparing to touch down on an impossibly small landing zone.
Once all groups have been shuttled to the summit, we're treated to a few hundred feet of fresh tracks and arrive at a suitable study site (carrying beacons, shovels, and probes, of course). Our guides delve into the basics of digging snow pits and the various levels of stability that can be evaluated through shear tests and simple examination of snow crystals. It's serious work, but the setting couldn't be better—everyone is having a blast. The pits reveal massive instability on a layer of rotten, faceted crystals, leaving our return trip confined to the safest route possible. With heli-skiing expectations high, it's a bit of a let-down, but the recent lessons sober my powder lust in a hurry.
A gentle descent finds us at the base of Alta Ski Area, ready to put newfound knowledge to the test. But rather than leaving me with an itch to go heli-skiing I can't afford to scratch, Wasatch Powderbird Guides endowed each of our group with new skills and a desire to explore the backcountry on our own terms—along with a ride none of us will ever forget.
Wasatch Powderbird Guides
Avalanche classes offered each December.