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