Saphire Skies...Perfect Powder...and a Helicopter Lift...
Photography courtesy Sun Valley Heli Ski & Hillary Maybery
For a moment, I feel like a bizarre, weightless creature with appendages adrift in the snow. Distracted by the hypnotic scenery, I begin to lose control, but refocus in time to prevent myself from falling. Oh, yeah, I’m skiing, and this is good powder—a little less than a foot, a couple of days old, but still cold, right side up, and effortless.
I turn into the fall line, feeling a slight twinge of guilt for having edged out the others in my group. The guilt disappears, however, when I float into my next turn. Not many people in this world have the chance to ski completely undisturbed powder, and I can now count myself among them. Time slows. Skis glide and sink and rebound. I feel the crisp air on my cheeks, the sun in my eyes. I make twenty turns, then stop at a pre-determined tree. I look back at my lone tracks in the otherwise perfect snow. It seems a violation of sorts, but also a new definition for hedonism: skiing untracked powder.
It’s the first day of a three-day trip to the Smoky Mountain Lodge (SML), the only fly-in heli-ski destination in the Lower 48. Ketchum-based Sun Valley Heli-Ski Guides (SVHSG) operates the lodge, and our itinerary outlines nearly 40,000 vertical feet of skiing, along with great food and accommodations at the newly constructed lodge. The only component the package doesn’t include is at least two weeks of “addiction recovery” after the trip is over.
On this clear February afternoon, we’re skiing an area called Paradise. The name may sound cliché, but I’m a believer.
The sky is sapphire, the temperature is 23 degrees, there are ten inches of new snow, and a helicopter will pick us up at the bottom of the run the moment we remove our skis. Perhaps every heli-ski area should be named Paradise?
The terrain is on a long ridge between a bump known as Elk Point and Paradise Peak, a 9,798-foot mountain in the middle of Idaho’s Smoky Mountains. Though not formally protected by the 1964 Wilderness Act, this cross-section of Idaho backcountry is nearly as remote and rugged as the nearby Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. A half-dozen landing zones (LZ’s) along the ridge provide access to twice as many named runs.
Moments earlier, pilot Lon Stickney had set our helicopter down slowly, carefully—and alarmingly close to a pine tree. (I later learned that he uses the tree as a landing reference, and actually had plenty of clearance.) We’d been instructed not to unbuckle our seat belts until the guide stepped out of the heli, and when he did, we followed in an orderly fashion, just as we’d been taught. We huddled near the front door as guide Bozo Cardozo unloaded our skis. He looked at the four of us and then back at the chopper, double-checked to be sure the helicopter door was closed, and gave Stickney a thumbs up.
Snow was blowing everywhere and the noise was deafening as the helicopter lifted off. Stickney made a slow right turn and dived toward the bowl below us. In a matter of seconds, he was buzzing over the pick-up spot where another group had just pulled in. Making a screaming right-hand turn to approach the landing area, he nosed the machine up and tracked perfectly into the twenty-by-twenty LZ. It took less than a minute for the other group to load into the helicopter.
The previous night’s winds had sculpted the upper, more exposed section of Phantom Ridge into intricate scallops and ripples—“dragon skin,” as Cardozo calls it. After several hundred feet, the dragon skin gave way to a dappled texture that reminded me of the pockmarked surface of the moon. Surprisingly, the scaly stuff skied okay, and by the time we were carving turns, it was clear that the wind had done little actual damage to the snow surface.
“Skis pretty well, doesn’t it?” asked Bozo when we regrouped halfway down the first run. Below us, the slope became steeper, creating a horizon line of powder. “Follow me,” Bozo said. I skied last, watching Bozo disappear below the horizon as two small, billowing clouds of powder settled on either side of his tracks.
Phantom Ridge approaches 25 degrees at its steepest, so it’s essentially avalanche-proof. (Most slides occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees.) With room for about twenty sets of tracks across its broad, treeless flanks, Phantom was easy, remote-control skiing, so I could relax enough to take in the surroundings. I could still see over the ridge to the east, where Big Peak and the Baker Creek divide lie, and beyond them to tall and distant Castle Peak in the White Clouds and Hyndman Peak in the Pioneers. I counted four distinct mountain ranges, not including the one we were in, and no road in sight.
We made six more laps in Paradise, on runs called Sweet Meat, Think Pink, Oh Baby, and Wapiti. The guides were still getting a handle on the avalanche hazard, so we never pitched it up—but the quality of the skiing was superb.
By our last run, we’d begun to learn our way around the area, so Bozo announced, “I can’t think of a reason why you guys shouldn’t ski this run first.” We decided to play “rock, paper, scissors” to see who would get first tracks. As luck would have it, I beat out my three companions—the PGA golfer, his caddy, and the Washington lobbyist, all visitors from Georgia.
Sun Valley Heli-Ski lumps Paradise into what it calls its “remote” ski area—meaning that there is no road access during the winter months. SVHSG owner Mark Baumgardner says the remote sector gets between thirty and fifty percent more snow than Sun Valley, making it reliable for heli-skiing when our local storms amount to little more than the infamous “angry inch.” The remote terrain is farther west, and in general receives a few more drops before the storm sponge is wrung dry at Baldy.
Located at 5,600 feet at the upper end of the South Fork of the Boise River, the Smoky Mountain Lodge sits on the western edge of SVHSG’s remote terrain, surrounded entirely by the Sawtooth National Forest. Baumgardner says the land on which the SML was built was once an old mining claim.
A few other landowners also hold parcels within a narrow corridor on either side of the South Fork, but no other structure in the area comes close to matching the size and comfort of the lodge, or its state-of-the-art energy and power generation systems. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of the SML may be the fact that it has electricity at all, given that it’s 20 miles away from the nearest power pole.
General contractor Carl Rixon, of Rixon Construction, oversaw the completion of the SML over the course of five summers starting in 1999. He explains that the lodge’s power comes from a bank of four-volt solar batteries, which store DC electricity generated from panels located just to the south of the building. Electricity from the batteries passes through two 30-amp inverters, making it usable AC and allowing the lights to go on in the Smoky Mountain Lodge. If the charge in the batteries drops below a specified level, primarily as a result of a lack of sunshine, a diesel generator kicks in.
The lodge’s hot water and heat come from solar technology, as well. A second solar array, located outside the east-facing front door, heats a glycol solution that circulates throughout the building’s concrete floor slabs, providing luxurious radiant heat. The panels also heat water for showers and general domestic use. A propane boiler supplied by two 1,000-gallon tanks backs up the solar panels when the sun doesn’t shine.
The great room of the lodge is dominated by a central river-rock fireplace built by local mason Jay Prentice. The stones are more angular and faceted than is usual with river rock, and their placement has resulted in a look that is more modern than rustic. Opening onto the great room is a chef’s kitchen with a polished granite counter and bar stools. The adjacent dining table, cleverly crafted from an enormous cable spool, completes the triangle between the fireplace and the kitchen. An open stairway on the north end of the great room accesses the guest bedrooms, while a hallway behind the kitchen leads to a main master bedroom and a sleeping area for staff.
“I didn’t want a big white elephant,” says Baumgardner, who fulfilled a lifelong dream when he built a ski lodge that could also be used as a family retreat. “The size was determined by the energy systems, and we built it with family entertainment in mind.”
As I walk barefoot on the warm concrete floors, it strikes me that the lodge has achieved a good balance in more ways than one. The rustic quality of the stone and native materials offer aesthetic warmth, while the modern concrete–floors and technologically–advanced energy systems do an excellent job of maintaining physical comfort.
“Nice place, huh?” says Stickney, waking me from my reverie. Our pilot has just returned from fueling up the heli, which is parked about a hundred feet beyond the south deck of the lodge. “Can I get you a beer?” he asks. “Warm feet, cold beer, heli outside the door,” says a fellow skier. “I could get used to this.”
While savoring our beers in front of the fire, my companions and I strike up a friendly conversation. Soon, chef Steve Haims slides artichokes and stuffed mushrooms across the bar for us to nibble on before dinner. The light in the SML is soft, delivered from behind welded copper sconces. The fire crackles as we line up for the dinner buffet, arranged by Haims along the bar. We serve ourselves with big metal spoons, then find a place around the cable spool.
Cardozo tells us what to expect the next day. “We’re going to an area called Pinyon Gulch,” he says. “The snow quality should be as good, but the runs will be a bit steeper and longer.”
As Haims delivers a bowl of warm raspberry-rhubarb cobbler and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, I can’t imagine how it could get any better than this.
First and foremost, however, the Smoky Mountain Lodge is for skiing. Sun Valley Heli-Ski runs a tight ship in this realm, with small groups and custom guiding. “The smallness of the operation allows them to gear the day to each individual’s ability,” says Jane Watkins, a longtime client who first went heli-skiing with SVHSG in 1996. “I was totally intimidated that first time, and basically had a private lesson. What started off as a nightmare ended as an amazing experience. It opened up a whole new world for me.”
Watkins, who has since heli-skied all over the world, says that the remote terrain around the SML is among her favorite places. “I’m stunned every time by how beautiful it is,” she says.
From a guiding perspective, the remote terrain has many practical attributes as well. Areas such as Paradise and Newman Peak have an abundance of lower-angle terrain that is appropriate to ski even when the avalanche hazard is higher. Also, on many of the north-facing circuits, including the West Fork of the Big Smoky Creek and Snowslide Creek, the snow stays cold and dry well into March, despite sunny weather that can cook up a wicked crust on sunnier aspects.
“It’s hard sometimes to convince people on Baldy that we’re still skiing good powder,” says SVHSG marketing director Sigi Vogl. “When Baldy is skied out, or even if it’s been a while since the last dump, we can usually go remote and get the goods.”
On this winter day, we’ve definitely “gotten the goods”–and the days to come promise to deliver more of the same. I step outside onto a side deck of the lodge. The air is crisp and cold on my cheeks, and silent except for the South Fork rippling underneath its blanket of snow and ice. Every star in the universe seems to shine brilliantly from above. This is the Smoky Mountain Lodge, isolated by the snows of winter–snows that we’ll be hungry to ski again tomorrow.
Erik Leidecker lives in Hailey with his wife, Gretchen, and two daughters, Sascha and Svea. He co-owns Sawtooth Mountain Guides and also works in the winter months for Sun Valley Heli-Ski. Leidecker is a regular contributor to Sun Valley Magazine.