You say you shelled out megabucks for a ski vacation and all the slopes had the texture of an ice rink laid down over a gravel pit?
You say you asked the ski patrol where to find the fresh powder -- and they handed you a can of medicated talc?
You say the resort's longest run was all of two-tenths of a mile -- and the lift lines were longer than that?
You say the fire marshall closed the slopes because of overcrowding?
Is that what's bothering you, Bunky?
Well, snap those boots back on, Bunky, because we've found the solution to these problems. Above a splendid alpine lake in San Juan National Forest, some 60 scenic miles south of Gunnison, Colo., there's a ski area called Golconda Resort that offers the ultimate lift to the ultimate slope providing the ultimate powder amidst ultimate solitude.
Golconda is one of a handful of American resorts offering the snow freak's ultimate adventure: helicopter skiing.
The only "lift" at Golconda is a Bell 206B Jet Ranger III helicopter that carries four skiers on a beautiful, exciting ride from the base on the shore of Lake San Cristobal to a drop-off spot precisely on the Continental Divide 12,500 feet above sea level and about 800 feet above the timber line.
In a way, the whole ski day has been made the moment the door snaps open and you step out of this "lift." There is an intense feeling of being at the top of the world. All around are the rugged, snow-clad peaks of the San Juan range (five 14,000-foot mountains surround the ski slopes). Over the cliff to your rear you can see the ant-like figures of ice fishermen on the lake surface 3,500 feet below. And ahead stretches an enormous ocean of snow -- unmarked, ungraded, untouched except for the tracks of deer and elk -- that dwarfs any traditional ski resort.
In addition to the sheer excitement of the helicopter flight, the major difference in heli-skiing is the scope of the undertaking.
Most ski areas measure their territory in acres; Golconda's permit area in two national forests covers about 20 square miles. Most ski areas are proud to boast of a run as long as 2.5 miles; in helicopter skiing, the shortest runs tend to be about 3.5 miles. If you ski fast and hard all day, you might get in five runs.
This new dimension in skiing is a Canadian invention. Hans Gmoser, an almost legendary ski teacher in Banff, Alberta, got tired of hiking three days into the Bugaboo Mountains for one day of marvelous skiing on the way back down. So in 1966 Gmoser began taking small teams of elite skiers -- to make the trip, you had to be expert, adventurous and rich -- on helicopter excursions to the top of huge natural powder bowls.
Today Gmoser's Canadian Mountain Holidays (Box 1660, Banff, Alta., Canada TOL OCO) is still the global capital of heli-skiing, offering five-day packages all over the Canadian Rockies at prices ranging upward from $1,500 (Canadian).
In the 19 years since Gmoser got his inspiration, heli-skiing has spread to Europe, New Zealand and, thank goodness, the United States.
The January issue of Powder Magazine has a directory of North American heli-ski resorts. It lists seven Canadian operations and 14 in this country -- six in Colorado, two in California and one apiece in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Washington State. True to our democratic traditions, the American operations have moved beyond the blue-chip set and made helicopter skiing affordable for the average skier (not the average American, but the average skier, who tends to be in the top quarter of the population in annual income).
If you go heli-skiing for just one day, you'll still break the bank. Typical charges range from $175 to $280 for a day of riding the chopper up and skiing the powder down.
But if you commit to a four-day (or longer) package, most heli-skiing resorts offer prices that are close to those at the major chairlift meccas.
At Golconda (P.O. Box 95, Lake City, Colo. 81235), for example, the six-day package includes five nights of lodging at the pleasant lodge on Lake San Cristobal, one day of instruction, two days of heli-skiing with a guide, one day of alpine skiing at Crested Butte (a two-hour drive up the road) and one day to bum around the hot tub, the ice rink or the cross-country trails. With three excellent meals per day, this costs $549 per person, double occupancy; if you choose to buy your meals separately, the per-person charge is $374.
But if heli-skiing is now economically within reach of most American skiers, it is still decidedly not for everyone. To get the most out of this new sport, you have to be a darn good skier.
You may think that you're a hotshot because you can schuss neatly down the advanced runs at Killington or Vail. What you forget is that those runs have been carefully engineered by architects under the watchful eye of liability lawyers. They are manicured almost daily by high-powered snow-graders and have usually been nicely packed down by hundreds or thousands of skiers before you got there.
Things look mighty different when you scramble out of a helicopter and gaze out over miles of sheer mountainside. Between your starting spot on the peak and the vast snowy meadow five miles down where the waiting helicopter glistens in the bright sun are assorted rocks, cliffs and pine forests surrounded by several feet of soft, ungraded powder.
"Yeah, it's a little intimidating, isn't it?" said Brett Jackson, our chipper, highly competent 20-year-old guide, shouting to be heard over the propwash of the departing chopper as we stepped into our skis.
As Jackson pointed out, the first morning of heli-skiing can be somewhat frustrating for those whose sole experience is on the carefully controlled hills of the major resorts. But under his patient tutelage, I eventually got the drift and began to enjoy an uninterrupted hour of straight downhill skiing in a spectacular setting that must rank as one of Mother Nature's finest achievements.
Actually, I had been somewhat prepared for what to expect ahead of time by Brett's father, Ron Jackson, an Alaskan who came south in 1965 to take over Golconda, which is located just south of Lake City, Colo.
The day began with a formal "helicopter briefing," in which I was warned to do nothing and go nowhere around the chopper except on the guide's direction. "We always hold our skis horizontal," Jackson said. "It could really wreck the day if you got your ski tip up in the turning prop."
Under Jackson's supervision I slathered on sunscreen ("You can get a real nice burn when you're 2 1/2 miles above sea level"), strapped on leg gaiters and eye goggles and belted myself into the back seat of the chopper. Our skis and poles were lashed to the landing struts, and off we flew.
Unlike most other heli-ski operations, Golconda specializes in a sort of crossbreed type of skiing the Jacksons call "Norpine": half Alpine (i.e., downhill) and half Nordic (i.e., cross-country). You wear a cross-country boot and binding, to make travel easy in the occasional flat meadow, but use a metal-edged telemark ski that provides solid control in deep powder on the steepest slopes.
The secret to Norpine is the lovely, enjoyable telemark turn, in which you bend deeply at the knees and turn hard on the inside edge of the ski. It takes a while to develop this technique; I spent most of the morning lying on my back struggling to find some solid spot under the deep powder so I could stand up again. But after some practice and a rest stop in a pristine forest glen (our lunch included cold wine, fresh vegetables and delicate breast of quail), I discovered that the telemark turn does indeed make it possible to negotiate slopes and powder that have never seen a snow grader or ski patrol.
The day after the excursion at Golconda, we took in a more traditional ski experience at Crested Butte, itself a major league resort with several runs in the two-mile-long range. But somehow, even that huge spread seemed cramped and limited after we had known the unparalleled grandeur of skiing from mountaintops that only the eagles -- and now the helicopters -- can reach.