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    January 2021

    Heli Skiing with Jim Ryan: Tales of a Sun Valley Weekend

    “Bungee jumping was boring after the first bounce…
    but heli skiing will never be dull.”

     

    Helicopter dramatically dipping down after dropping off occupants on mountain side.

    Filming for the 17th installment of the “Mission Impossible” series? Or the latest James Bond movie? No, just a normal day at the office for these heli ski guides, in Sun Valley, Idaho.

     

    A reflection from a good weekend, from the mind of Jim Ryan. 

    How it started

    One of my favorite parts about heli skiing might be the casual breakfast. 

    Under few other circumstances can you opt for the eggs benedict and then go ski a remote backcountry summit, in sequential order. 

    For most of my backcountry skiing endeavors, warm meals and big peaks don’t often find themselves in the same sentence; nobody is making pancakes at 2:30 AM when they wake up to ascend before sunrise. 

    [Don’t get me wrong… I’m thankful for bananas and stale granola-chia power bars, just like the next person…]

    But heli skiing is different.

    You can usually have your cake (or toasted bagel sandwich) and eat it, too.

     

    Landscape image of a snowy mountain ridge.

    The Sawtooth National Forest: a feast for the eyes.

     

    When I pulled into Ketchum, Idaho, the night before our scheduled day of shredding with Sun Valley Heli Ski, what I was looking forward to most was big ski lines, yes… but also the luxury of a pre-run, hot latte.

    It’s the small things in life.

    I checked into the Limelight Hotel and made sure to get the full rundown on the expansive breakfast buffet the hotel would be offering in the morning.

    I dropped my bags in my room and then went to find my two companions for this trip, Cam Mcleod and Marcus Caston, in their room (deeply engrossed in the televised coverage of the pro bowling world tour) and we discussed the plan for the following morning. 

    Cam spoke first…

    “Let’s have a 6:00 AM departure… I want to take photos of the guide meeting.” 

    Dang it, Cam.

    So much for my elaborate, slow breakfast plans. 

    My date with that eggs benedict would have to be postponed until next time.

     

    Crew member begins early morning system checks on site.

    Early mornings are the name of the game for heli skiing team crew members. They often beat the sun.

    Crew member prepares the helicopter for flight.

    Helicopter. Choppa’. Bird. Weed Wacker. Catalina Wine Mixer. Whatever preferred term of endearment you choose to use, these machines are truly awe-inspiring.

     

    Scanning and Planning

    I have been lucky enough to attend a few heli guide meetings in my life, and I am honored each time I am permitted in the room. 

    Heli guides are serious backcountry professionals.

    They go far into the backcountry, often with inexperienced clients, on terrain that is constantly changing. On any given day a particular run might be perfectly safe, or perfectly deadly; one storm or one hot afternoon can make all the difference.

    Considering all of this (and including the fact that normal skiing is already somewhat dangerous…), heli skiing is relatively safe. 

    They pay attention; the wind, snow, and sun are all under constant observation. 

    This time around, Alex Kittrell, the lead guide for SVHS, goes through a list of the day’s potential hazards and runs that are safe and available to us for the day.

    Lucky for us, the list of hazards is short and the list of greenlit runs takes up the majority of the meeting.

    A lack of new snow and invariable temperatures have allowed the snowpack to bond nicely.

    This means we can ski almost anywhere we want. 

    Booyah.

     

    Jim Ryan and Marcus Caston sit in the heli guide office.

    Just a couple of laser-focused kids in a candy store, watching the heli ski guides lay out the plans, safety measures, and operations for the day.

    Lead guide facilitating morning operations rundown.

    Alex, the Operations Manager and Lead Guide at SVHS, is a pillar of knowledge and expertise, and by the end of our morning meeting we were ready to trust him with our lives.

     

    The Fun Begins

    Marcus, Cam, and I are driven to the LV and my heartbeat begins to rise. I have the unfortunate tendency to normalize (downplay?) extreme activity…

    For example, I felt bungee jumping was boring after the first bounce.

    But.

    Heli skiing will never be dull, no matter how many times I am fortunate enough to do it. 

     

    Man petting the office dog.

    Safe to say the most important part of the day was giving a little love to this little nugget.

    The guide crew has an exchange of directives.

    The SVHS works together like a well-oiled machine.

     

    As the helicopter comes into sight, I am awed by this majestic machine; it’s so loud, you can feel the blades turning in your chest. Your hair literally blows back, and you have to take a knee to prevent being toppled over backwards. 

    We load up and are magically transported to the zone.

    This alone could be the experience, as we buzz along just above the peaks, surveying the 750,000 acres on which we are permitted to ski. 

    The options are endless. 

     

    A perspective of inside the cockpit of the helicopter.

    Our pilot and guide have eyes like hawks and can spot a great potential run from a ways away.

    Jim Ryan stares out the helicopter window.

    It looks like Cam captured one of the moments I was daydreaming about that elusive eggs benedict, and all that could have been.

    Two skiers and a photographer pose for a group selfie inside the helicopter cockpit.

    Three peas in a pod. A very confined, close-quartered pod floating a few thousand feet up in the air. (Right to left: Marcus Caston, Jim Ryan, Cam McLeod)

     

    Alex picks a featured face and instructs the pilot to drop us off. 

    Nothing will ever feel as cool as jumping out of a roaring helicopter on a remote, snowy peak.

     

    Skier steps out of helicopter onto snow.

    Being able to touch the untouched snow is what it is all about.

    Skier smiles at camera near helicopter.

    Marcus is known to ham it up, but it is honestly very hard not to smile when you know how much fun you are about to have.

     

    Snow kicks up into our faces as the bird takes off and drops (!) over the cornice we are perched on.

    Time stopped, and there were no words.

     

    Helicopter takes off and dives over mountain ridge.

    As a skier, it’s moments like these that become engraved on the walls of your memory. When recalled even years later, your heart will begin to pump a little faster.

     

    And just like that, the helicopter is gone, and we are alone.

    It’s as silent as you would think an isolated peak would be, this far out from the buzz of civilization. 

     

    Skier looks out over edge of mountain.

    Marcus, simply taking it all in.

     

    We Came To Ski

    Marcus, Cam, and I peer over the edge of the face…

    Now, it’s time for us to get to work. 

    Marcus Caston is one of the best professional skiers in the game.

    There isn’t a ski-related magazine for which he hasn’t graced the cover.

    More than anything, his unique style and approach to skiing has helped give me the confidence to start my own career as a professional skier. He takes extreme pride in what he helps to create. For him, no pleasure is taken in the making of a sub-par product.

    Motion must be easily perceived, speed is apparent, and composure is a constant; the result is his art. 

     

    Skier turns, coming down the mountain.

    On a bluebird day, Marcus is known to play weatherman and add a cloud of his own to the scene.

    Skier rides down line of light and shadow.

    Not much to say about this photo other than WAIT. WHAT. WOW. *jaw drop*

     

    And who better than Cam Mcleod to capture it? 

    These two have been around the world together. Cam is the man behind the lens, the man with the vision, his eyes always scanning for the best light and proper framing. 

    He also freakin’ shreds. 

    So, when I get to see Marcus and Cam work, I take notes.

    Their countless trips together in search of the perfect photograph have allowed them to create their own language; every style of turn has a name and every type of feature has been categorized. 

    They are hunters of a certain kind… they hunt for light with a shared eye. 

     

    Skier floats out over edge of small cliff drop, coming down the mountain.

    This environment reminds me that nature can often act as a giant playground.

     

    The rest of the day is spent chasing soft snow and pockets of sunshine. 

    We hardly slow down enough for lunch. Cam and Marcus are so intent on capturing as much as possible, and it comes down to Alex to remind us we should eat. 

    I am thankful for the break. When lunch is served, we are all thankful for the food. Soup and sandwiches are enjoyed in a high alpine basin as we kick up our feet and take in the views. 

    It’s unlikely that another human is within 10 miles of our picnic. 

    The afternoon will be filled with more powder and helicopter wizardry, but it is in this moment that I find contentment, totally removed from society, and surrounded by steep untouched faces, finally enjoying a hot meal. 

    In this moment it hits me that this “buffet” of beautiful scenery and steep lines that we are consuming is way better than any breakfast buffet, anyway. 

    And it’s not even close.

     

    Skier turns, coming down the mountain, in light rays and shadows.

    “Good to go” conditions.

     

    ********************

     

    Written by Jim Ryan.
    Images c/o Cam McLeod.

    Jim is a professional big mountain skier, currently residing in Jackson, Wyoming. You may have seen him published in any number of ski magazines or recognize him from a recent Warren Miller film or two. 

    To keep up with Jim and his passionate pursuit of all things skiing, you can follow him on Instagram:

    @jimmiryan

     

    For more stories of the skier life, be sure to check out our blog!

     

    Tags: blog, skiing, ullr, ski, mountain, mountains, marcus, caston, backcountry, sogn, garibaldi, sun valley, idaho, ridge, sawtooth, heli, heli ski, jim, ryan, cam, mcleod, adventure, elevation

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