The Experience

The Experience

A Day in the Life of a Powder Hound
The day I went heli skiing with Wasatch Powderbird Guides in Jan 2009 was a perfect bluebird day. There was a clear blue ski, bright sunshine and over a foot of fresh dry powder (and let's face it, in Utah, anything less than a foot of new snow is not worth squawking about!).  It was postcard perfect so I was pretty confident that I’d get the “big thumbs up” for a fly-day with Wasatch heli-ski. There wasn’t a breath of wind at Snowbird so I was dismayed to find out that heli-skiing was on-hold due to windy conditions up top. Damn – I’d have to go skiing at Snowbird!

Of course I wasn’t complaining (well not much), because for most people a bluebird day at the famous Snowbird would be an absolute dream, but it’s not just the same fantasy as heli-skiing in the “Greatest Snow on Earth”. The first run off the Peruvian quad chair at Snowbird was absolutely awesome – freshies galore, but the second run off the cable car wasn’t much fun. I thought I was in Europe considering the elbows in the cable car queue and the ensuing frenzy that occurred at the top. People were desperate for the fresh powder, as was I, but it appeared that only those who were willing to put in the major hard yards were going to get any of the remaining prize.

A quick phone call to WPG gave me the news I was longing for. The winds had abated and WPG came round with a van in a flash to take me up to the heliport. I arrived in time for registration and an initial safety briefing, but then one of the hosts queried my weight as it seemed surprisingly high. I swore that the excess weight must have been the water in my camel back and all the camera gear – of course it had nothing to do with all the yummy WPG brunch I’d just scoffed!

After a heli safety briefing, I squeezed my excess pounds into the heli with three new friends. The heli trip was pretty short and we were dropped off at a LZ in the area between the Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons where we waited for another four friends to join us. My powder hound nose could smell the powder and the wait was just teasing me. The guides Rusty and Matt finally gave us the go ahead to sample the virgin powder. The first few turns were a bit of a pleasant shock – I hadn’t skied powder that deep for over a year since a trip to Hokkaido, Japan. My lungs seemed to be forgetting to breathe. Perhaps it was the altitude or possibly just too much excitement. I was gasping for air and needed a rest, but due to the snowpack conditions and associated avalanche risk, it wasn’t wise to stop for a breather. The avalanche danger also meant that my opportunities to take skiing photos were going to be limited. What a shame - I just had to continue to enjoy all those powder turns!

When we got to the bottom of the run, the guides were somewhat apologetic that we’d only been able to ski a short bowl before getting to the trees. The uncharacteristically unstable snowpack conditions of late were preventing us from getting up to some of the higher alpine skiing. I certainly didn’t care. I was so excited by the quality of the powder that I was far from fussed.

For the second run the powder was even deeper. I was receiving face shot after face shot. The light, dry powder was completely enthralling, but as the slope progressed from a steep bowl into mellow tree skiing, I struggled a little in the deep powder. I was regretting not having organised to rent powder skis. In my haste and excitement of the morning such details seemed unimportant. On the up side, if I’d been floating in the powder with fat skis I wouldn’t have had the delight of so many face shots – clearly I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too.

After the first couple of runs, I wasn’t so impatient to start each run, but still incredibly eager. I could now enjoy the chopper ride, the vistas, and the beautiful silence after the chopper had pulled away. The peace, the sun, the powder – this was backcountry skiing at its best. Needless to say, all powder hounds are super keen to get to the powder, and I was really impressed that the guides ensured that no one was a powder hog (aka powder pig). There were absolutely no problems with getting fresh tracks at the top of the bowls, but due to the terrain restrictions, the last few skiers were skiing over tracks in the lower parts of the runs. The guides demonstrated great leadership in getting us to take turns.

Going heli-skiing is always exciting as the views from the heli, and the landings and take-offs are thrilling enough in themselves. But today, the exhilaration of the helicopter had paled into insignificance. The great powder skiing and boarding was the main focus. Powder, powder and more powder – yummy.

The only thing that put a slight dampener on my day was my old goggles that were incredibly fogged up. They had suffered from all the face shots (OK and a few face plants!). It’s probably not necessary to have full visibility with such great snow conditions, but the trusty Matt came to the rescue with a spare pair of goggles. What else did he have hiding in that backpack? Out came tumbling a thermos of hot coffee and some lollies (which those “strange” North Americans call candy).

For the last run of the day, Matt took a group of four of us on a “special” trip down to the road near Alta. It was definitely the run of the day – it went on and on and on. The Alta ski resort was in full view, and I could see a big lift queue at the Wildcat base - it made the run even sweeter.

On returning to the heli-port I was rewarded with a late lunch of very gourmet fare, washed down with a beer. I perused the many Wasatch Powderbird guide souvenirs and considered buying myself a belated birthday present. One of my fellow heli-skiers told me that for his birthday, his wife had given him the present of a day heli skiing with WPG. What a perfect present! What an awesome wife!

From the heliport, I just skied down a trail to Snowbird village. In the twilight, I could see the congested red snake of the brake lights of many, many SLC skiers driving home after a bluebird day at Snowbird. Thank goodness that I didn’t have to contend with all those other punters for a whole day at Snowbird – I got to go heli skiing. I have the best job on the planet!