On a great ski day, the real world can seem miles away, even if a chairlift is just around the bend. Surrounded by mountains and enveloped by the sounds of Mother Nature—snow swirling, trees billowing, birds whistling—that remote feeling is something, we as skiers, know and love. Last February, I found myself standing atop Idaho’s Smoky Mountains with Sun Valley Heli Ski Guides and the real world truly was miles away.
Much like Sun Valley Resort was the Nation’s first destination ski resort, Sun Valley Heli Ski (SVHS) was the first heliskiing operation in the United States. For nearly 50 years, SVHS has been making dreams come true for skiers and riders of all ages and ability levels on 750,000 acres of terrain in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
My day started at 8 a.m. in the Sun Valley Gun Club, a wood cabin about two miles down the road from the Sun Valley Inn. From late December through early April, SVHS commandeers this cabin as their own private clubhouse—used to provide safety briefings each morning and furnish beers and recount the stoke at the end of each ski day.
My guide for the day was 20-year SVHS veteran Bozo Cardozo, who originally hails from the White Mountains of New Hampshire. With his sun-weathered skin and unkempt grey hair, Cardozo looks like the Keith Richards (circa 1985) of heli-ski guides. The same way Richards doesn’t always look fit to be on stage, much less have been the man that penned classics like “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Loving Cup”, Cardozo’s appearance masks his precise ski form and backcountry expertise that is on display the moment the A-Star chopper blades start spinning.
Thanks to the size of the small A-Star helicopter, you’re ensured to be one of only four skiers per guide with SVHS. The guides do their best to partner skiers of similar ability levels—meaning you spend most of your day skiing and not waiting for others in your group. Cardozo led our group—myself, Sun Valley Photographer Tal Roberts and a couple from San Francisco—through safety procedures and training with our avalanche beacons before meeting pilot Chris Templeton and boarding “the bird.”
As the chopper soared high above the Smoky, Pioneer and Boulder Mountain ranges, Cardozo and Templeton scouted out the terrain below before settling on a ridge with a run called “Velveteen Rabbit” just below it. Cardozo selected this moderate pitch to assess his group’s ability level right off the bat.
“The Opening run was fairly lax, just about anyone could make it down,” Cardozo said at the end of the day. “Then we moved into more terrain that fit our group. We noticed that the group could handle more ‘pitched’ terrain, so we moved into that area.”
With only a few inches of new snow in the previous 10 days, at first I was worried that there wouldn’t be many fresh tracks to be found. However, the lack of recent snow provided a more stable snowpack that allowed Cardozo to take us on some traditionally avalanche-prone terrain that hadn’t been skied yet that season.
The snow was light and fluffy and ranged from being boot deep in spots to over my knees in other areas. Each run was approximately 2,000 to 3,000 feet of vert on 33- to 40-degree pitches through the timberline. The snow conditions would change from light and dry as we left the high alpine (around 10,000 feet) and ventured into the heavier and stickier snow of the lower terrain (around 7,000 feet). Cardozo was sure to stop and alert us to this change in snow consistency and to other terrain features and obstacles whenever necessary.
After a second run on “Velveteen Rabbit”, the helicopter dropped us atop the “East Lot” where we accessed a run called “Ciao Mama”. A few quick turns between rock formations up top begat vast swaths of powder below. As we neared the landing zone (LZ), Templeton circled back in the A-Star to drop off lunch. Enjoying a turkey wrap, soup, fruit and some chocolate for lunch, I gazed at the bluebird sky above—a common site considering Sun Valley’s nearly 300 days of annual sunshine.
Over lunch, Cardozo gave us a tutorial on the snow conditions we were experiencing. The top layer, “surface hoar”, was about two to five centimeters deep. He equated this to the wintertime equivalent of morning dew. Underneath the surface hoar, was a layer of older and broken down snow called “near-surface facets” which is what made the snow consistent and enabled us to ski steeper terrain that would be off limits just after a storm.
Following lunch, Templeton flew us directly north to two runs called “Rare Bird” and “Alpine Gulch.” These were steeper pitches that SVHS usually doesn’t ski because of avalanche danger, but on that day they were outstanding.
Then, it was onto “Lost Control” off of the north side of Commander. We closed out an outstanding day that afternoon on “Hidden Bowl.” Accessed via East Commander Proper, “Hidden Bowl” is typically affected by high winds. Thanks to scant winds and the lack of new snow, we were able to ski this high, Avalanche-prone terrain. A couple of steep chutes and some side traversing opened up to a huge powder bowl that capped off an outstanding day.
As “the bird” whizzed us back to the Gun Club for après beers and snacks, we were able to look down on the seven runs and approximately 15,000 feet of vertical we skied that day (six runs is typical for an average heli day with SVHS). Back at the Gun Club we unbuckled our boots, turned off our beacons and traded stories with the other foursomes over Tecates. Cardozo, who has guided in Alaska and bagged first descents in Europe, summed up the SVHS experience:
“People are under the impression that heliskiing is for experts. It’s not what you see in the movies—we’re not jumping out of helicopters—we ski terrain that is appropriate to the people we have with us. Here in Sun Valley, it’s for normal people that are interested in doing something new,” Cardozo said. “Some of our best days are taking people out and blowing their minds by giving them an experience they didn’t expect or think they could do. It’s not about being a ripper dude, coming out here and showing me your stuff. It’s about coming out here, having a blast and maybe expanding your vision on what you thought you could do.”