If you want to see grown men giggle with joy like sugar-addled schoolgirls, you could go to the Super Bowl, a Home Depot clearance sale or a movie theater showing an early Jim Carrey marathon.
Or you could head to Goat Peak, near Ketchum, Idaho, on a late January morning, about five minutes after a five-passenger helicopter dropped off four skiers and a snowboarder at 9,800 feet.
One by one, we followed guide Pat Deal down a run called the Football Field. We skimmed through widely spaced trees that stood like motionless linebackers. The snow was deep but light, alternating with patches of soft crust. Powder exploded in our faces with every curve. Descending the slope was like riding a butter knife through cake frosting.
I paralleled Deal’s sinuous tracks on a snowboard, taking turns with two other guests nicknamed Rico and Chopper. Guide Reggie Crist, a former World Cup skier and X Games medalist, brought up the rear.
The five of us were having so much fun it was almost adorable.
Sun Valley, a resort city, is known mostly for the long, crowd-free descents on Bald Mountain and celebrity sightings in Ketchum.
It’s also the birthplace of heliskiing in America — and lift-based resort skiing, period, for that matter.
Since John Lennon compared the Beatles to Jesus, people have been hopping out of helicopters here and skimming down otherwise inaccessible slopes.
On a morning like this, it was easy to see why.
Sun Valley started as a gleam in the eye of a Austrian count.
In 1935, W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the board of the Union Pacific Railroad, employed Count Felix Schaffgotsch to find a place for a resort where guests could enjoy a booming new sport called alpine skiing.
Harriman knew that nothing drew well-heeled passengers like luxurious lodgings in spectacular settings. (The next time you settle into a classic national park lodge out West, thank a railroad baron.)
After months of searching, Schaffgotsch was ready to give up, but then he heard locals mention a place called Ketchum. The tiny mountain town, nestled amid the serrated peaks of the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho, had enjoyed a mining boom in the late 19th century. When he arrived there, in the shadow of 9,150-foot Bald Mountain, he knew he’d found his place.
He gushed to his boss by telegraph how it “combine[d] more delightful features than any place I have ever seen in Switzerland, Austria or the U.S. for a winter resort.”
Harriman immediately bought 4,300 acres and built the world’s first chairlifts on Proctor and Dollar hills, smaller peaks near “Baldy,” that fall. (Rope tows and overhead cable lifts were already in use back East.) The design was based on a conveyor system used to load bananas onto United Fruit ships in Central America.
Sun Valley opened less than a year later. Unfortunately, there was almost no snow. Fortunately, the Hollywood VIPs who were invited to promote the opening were having too much fun socializing to care. The resort was a huge hit with American celebrities and European nobility alike, hosting stars such as Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Clark Gable and Janet Leigh.
Ernest Hemingway bought a home in nearby Warm Springs in the 1950s and is rumored to have written part of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in a room at the Sun Valley Lodge. (He is buried in the local cemetery alongside his granddaughter Margaux.)
In 1966, Sun Valley owner Bill Janss, inspired by a heliski operation in Canada, decided to start his own operation back home. That same year, Sun Valley Heli Ski (SVHS) received the first Forest Service permit for heliskiing on public land.
“The service was very basic,” says Mark Baumgardner, who owned SVHS from 1983 to 2008 and worked as a guide until last year. “You hired the helicopter to drop you off and pick you up, and maybe you brought a ski patroller, instructor or other savvy skier if you were smart.”
Our setup was somewhat more formal. We gathered at the Sun Valley Heli Ski office at 7:30 a.m. for a safety briefing and an overview of the day.
SVHS has the largest heliskiing permit in the Lower 48 states, with access to over 750,000 acres spread across three mountain ranges. Groups are kept small, with a guest-to-guide ratio of no more than 4 to 1.
Guests have to be at least intermediate skiers or snowboarders, meaning comfortable riding wide planks in deep snow. Beyond that, you just have to stay safe.
Reggae music played in the background as Deal, an emergency medical technician and Alaska-born avalanche forecaster, described how to board and exit the helicopter safely.
We were each issued an avalanche beacon and a backpack with a built-in avalanche flotation device, essentially a shoulder-mounted air bag designed to keep you near the surface of a slide. (Avalanche debris sets like concrete the moment it stops moving.)
In an ultimate worst-case scenario, if the air bag didn’t do its job, the beacon would tell rescuers where to dig.
Deal and Crist had decades of avalanche and rescue training between them, however, and it was clear they considered safety the highest priority.
We took the resort’s Challenger lift to the top of Baldy, where the helicopter was waiting. A local avalanche rescue team was already there, busy introducing a rescue dog to the chopper for the first time. The animal was definitely not thrilled to be handed inside the thundering contraption.
When it was our turn, we eagerly crammed four sets of shoulders inside the narrow rear seat — Deal sat in front with pilot Chris Templeton — and grinned like maniacs as we leapt into the sky.
Our first run ended in a snow-filled drainage valley 2,000 feet below the drop spot. Deal marked a pickup zone with orange carpenter paint as we unclipped our boards, faces flushed.
After the euphoria of the descent, the guides were all business as the helicopter came in, making sure everyone was in a safe spot and genuflecting appropriately. Still, the rotor blast nearly knocked us over.
The guides secured our skis and board in a basket attached to one skid as the rest of us piled in. Then we were airborne, soaring over an archipelago of frosted peaks, our own tracks braided like a river down below. Just flying in a helicopter is hands-down exciting — let alone when you know you’re heading for yet another descent through untracked Idaho powder.
At each new landing spot, Deal and Crist dug a pit in the snow to check for layers that might slip and cause an avalanche.
When the mechanical uproar faded, the only things that broke the snowy silence were whoops of joy and the thwack of gloves meeting in high-fives.
Every run of the day was at least 2,000 feet, over half the vertical drop of legendarily high Baldy back in Sun Valley. There was never more than 10 minutes between one and the next.
The last run took us down the east ridge of Little Goat Mountain. In one short but steep section, we touched off a few ankle-deep mini-avalanches, or slides — nothing dangerous, just enough to add an extra frisson to the end of the day.
On the way back to town, Templeton pointed out the window. “There’s Tom Hanks’s place.” A few seconds later: “There’s Schwarzenegger’s.”
After unpacking, we headed to Apple’s Bar & Grill next door to the SVHS office for post-flight beers and burgers. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and every face had that windblown, mountain-town glow that said, yes, we really do live here.
Not surprising given its history, Sun Valley is still somewhat of a throwback as world-class ski resorts go. There’s no trace of a megaresort atmosphere or X Games vibe. The clientele in the lodges definitely skews older; many look as though they could have been the models in the old Life magazine covers that decorate on the walls.
Whether this is by circumstance or choice, it certainly keeps the crowds to a minimum. In two days of skiing at the resort, we never waited in a single lift line. For the past decade, more than 90 percent of SVHS’s business has come from Idaho residents.
Over a pint of Bitburger pilsener, Deal said he rated our day’s skiing as “very good.” “There’s only one more level — that’s ‘excellent’ — and that’s when it’s blowing over your shoulders consistently on every turn,” he says. “We get maybe a handful of those days every year.”
Which is probably for the best. After all, there’s only so much a man can take.
Smith’s next book, “Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters,” will be published in August.
Sun Valley Inn
1 Sun Valley Rd.
Part of the sprawling Sun Valley resort complex, with high-end rooms, suites, apartments and heated pool. Rooms from $249.
601 E. Sun Valley Rd.
Sleek, bike-themed cafe and wine bar serving Intelligentsia coffee, organic teas and gelato. Plates from $7.
230 Walnut Avenue Mall
James Beard Award finalist Taite Pearson offers upscale American fare (and selections from a private wine label) in an intimate setting. Entrees from $14.
Sun Valley Heliski
215 Picabo St., No. 102
Helicopter-based skiing trips out of Ketchum. $1,350 per person, per day, minus an $80 refund per run if six-run minimum is not met.
Sun Valley Ski Resort
P.O. Box 10
Eighteen lifts, 80 runs (up to three miles long) and an average of fewer than 3,000 skiers per day. Lift tickets per day: adults $109; age 12 and under $59; seniors $80.
245 Raven Rd.
The glowing blue outdoor hot tub at this high-end health club is the ideal way to end a day on the slopes. Day pass $40; age 15 and younger $15.
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