The first thing you notice are the mountains. They’re rough and jagged, and they stand tall against the rising sun, etching patterns in the sky. The second thing you notice, because it sits right in front of you, is the helicopter. A bird, waiting to take fight, with you safely tucked into its belly.
It’s cold in the dawn of a winter Telluride morning. Cold enough to make you want to add another layer or perhaps retreat back into the warmth of your bed. But you don’t notice the chill. The helicopter has all of your attention. The helicopter and the mountains. Because that heli is here for only one purpose: to fly you to the top of those impossibly jagged peaks so you can ski down them. Throw in ample amounts of light, dry Southern Colorado snow and the coming day is all that’s on your mind.
Epic powder, remote peaks and memorable runs are reason enough to go heli-skiing or boarding. And if you’ve never been, you should start saving your money right now. But while heli-skiing can be expensive, with week-long adventures at Canada’s top flight operations costing thousands, heli-skiing doesn’t cost much here in Colorado.
That’s right, you can go heli-skiing right here in the Centennial State. Best of all, there are two options to choose from: Telluride’s Helitrax and Silverton Mountain’s heli operation. Both offer an affordable way to sample one of the best experiences a skier or snowboarder can have on two feet. Plus, both operations fly in some of the most breathtaking mountains on the planet: Colorado’s San Juan range.
With a season that runs approximately from December to April, as well as access to some of the highest heliskiing terrain in the world, both the Telluride and Silverton operations are blessed with deep, light snow, endless descents and, of course, stunning flights.
In fact, the latter might just be as good as the skiing. Well, almost.
Our day started with one of those impossibly spectacular flights, a journey that took us from the Telluride airport, where Helitrax is based, to a snow-covered peak in a matter of minutes. The recent storm had been a doozy, and because of this the avalanche danger was in the red zone, keeping us away from the steepest terrain. But that didn’t matter. It was plenty steep and plenty deep, and before we knew it, we were at the bottom, with the helicopter waiting for us.
With prime skiing terrain that encompasses everything from above treeline bowls to open glades of aspen and spruce, Telluride Helitrax has something for everyone. Along with the variety, comes enough vertical to make wish you’d been a bit more committed to your pre-season workout plan. Guests here rack up approximately 10,000 vertical feet per day, on snow that gives new meaning to light and dry.
Our last lap of the day was, as you’d expect, the highlight of the experience. The sun was painting the San Juan Mountains a warm gold as the heli dropped us on a high ridge. In front of us stretched the whole range, with the funky shape of Lizard Head Peak dominating the skyline. Below was the gravy shot: a steep avalanche chute that started above timberline and then plunged to the valley floor through lodgepole, spruce and, finally, aspen. The snow was perfect, sparkling in the late afternoon sun.
And although the run beckoned, we stood still in our tracks for a few minutes to savor the silence, the beauty and the warmth of the sun.
Finally it was time to go, and one by one we dropped in, arcing GS turns down the ridge and into the chute. The run seemed to last for hours, but in 10 minutes we’d hit the bottom, and the shuttle van back to the heliport. In the van, we all agreed that it had been one hell of a day, maybe the best day of the year.
Silverton is the yin to Telluride’s yang. While both are classic mining towns, with picturesque Victorian homes, Telluride has been discovered and gussied up in a big way. After all, when Oprah decides to buy a ranch and it’s in Telluride, you know that the neighborhood just ain’t what it used to be.
There’s a reason that Oprah didn’t buy a home in Silverton: she doesn’t ski. Well, at least not as enthusiastically as the Silverton locals, many of whom have been hiking up the mountains around this venerable mining hamlet for years. The hikers got a reprieve a few years ago when Jen and Aaron Brill moved into town. The Brills bought some mining claims on a steep mountain and put in a used chairlift, realizing Aaron’s dream of opening a ski area. Silverton Mountain has no grooming, no fancy mid-mountain lodges and no ski school. But what it does have is plenty of crazy steep terrain, a chairlift to get you to the top and, as of last year, a helicopter that can take you to the farthest reaches of the ski area, places that used to command multi-hour hikes to access.
Silverton’s heli can be booked by the day, but given the low density of skiers on the mountain, and the fact that almost every day of the season it is possible to find powder off of the chairlift or via short hikes, a better option may be the single rides, which cost just under $150.
Silverton’s terrain, and the fact that the resort caters only to advanced skiers, means that the heli-skiing here isn’t for everyone, despite the fact that you’re skiing in the same range — the San Juans — plied by Telluride Helitrax. In fact, you’d better be on your game here, because the runs are, generally speaking, steeper and longer than those accessed by Helitrax. The other people in your group are also likely to be fairly serious skiers or snowboarders with fat skis and enough duct tape on their pants to prove it. Be ready to keep up or face their scorn.
But what’s intriguing about Silverton’s offering is the ability to combine lift accessed skiing with a bit of hiking and a heli-drop or two to create your own custom experience, an experience which is every bit as memorable as a day flying with Telluride Helitrax, only different.
But, in reality, you don’t have to choose. Given the proximity of Silverton to Telluride, there’s really no reason not to sample both experiences. After all, Colorado is one of the few places where you can go heli-skiing outside of Alaska or Canada. Which means that you probably should take advantage of the fact that you can heli-ski right in your own backyard at least once this season.
Take to the sky
Telluride Helitrax: helitrax.com. Single days of heli skiing cost $999, with a minimum of 6 runs, weather permitting. Extra runs cost $149 per person, private helicopters are available for groups who want to ski together.
Silverton Mountain: silvertonmountain.com. Helicopter skiing at Silverton will set you back $159 per run (lift ticket $49-$129 depending on the time of year, not included). A full day costs $999. Private helicopters are also available, contact Silverton Mountain for pricing.