Ruby Mountain Heli Ski flies high in Nevada
December 16, 2003
Lamoille, Nevada (located about 20 miles southeast of Elko) is a pastoral ranch community nestled at the base of the majestic Ruby Mountains. The little village has a picturesque church, a 3-room hotel and a herd of deer that roams freely down the main street. You are much more likely to encounter locals here wearing cowboy boots than ski boots.
Yet in a small pasture near the gate of Reds Ranch just a couple of miles from the main street, there sits a Bell 407 helicopter with a fire engine red paint job that reflects the light of a rising sun. Next to the heli-pad sit two small one-room buildings.
The road meanders along a creek until it dead-ends at the enormous stone and timber ranch house of Reds Ranch. A roll-up door on the front of the house leads into the garage, which has been converted into a locker room that would be the envy of any ski patrol in the country. Welcome to Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing, where the Wild West meets the high adventure of backcountry skiing.
Joe Royer started flying and guiding guests into the Ruby Mountains 26 seasons ago. He has assembled a team of guides whose combined experience includes mountaineering and trekking in the Himalayas of Nepal, river guiding in Alaska, Montana and Idaho, ski patrolling the resorts of Utah and leading climbs for the prestigious Yosemite Mountaineering School.
Royer’s guests stay in Reds’ impressive ranch house complete with radiant-heated hardwood floors, and a great-room complete with a grand fireplace, pool table and a dramatic vaulted ceiling supported by massive timbers. Guests are fed hearty breakfasts and five-star dinners cooked by a kitchen crew that is headed by Joe’s wife Francy. The lodge is reminiscent of the grand ranch houses seen in classic westerns and is a much grander place to rest between runs than your average ski condo.
As I sat down to a skier’s breakfast of pastries, quiche, bacon, fresh fruit and homemade smoothies, I met the diverse group that I would be skiing with for the next couple of days. Harvey is a real estate broker in Reno, Nicole and Kevin are a married couple (she is a teacher and he is a metal artist) also from Reno and Keith and Dan are friends who traveled all the way from Washington D.C. to ski some of the West’s most untracked powder.
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After we had our fill of breakfast, Nicole, Kevin and I joined guide Tom Carter in the great room for a safety orientation that is given to all guests prior to taking their first runs. Tom has been guiding with Ruby Mountain since 1983 and is an expert on snow science, avalanche safety and backcountry traveling, although you would be hard pressed to get him to admit to any of it. The closest he will come is to say that, despite his years of experience, he is constantly surprised by the way snow behaves and likens it more to “voodoo magic” than a quantitative science. Tom teaches avalanche courses to the public as well as professional ski patrollers, and also teaches US Marines at the cold-weather training center at Pickle Meadows near Sonora Pass. In the “off-season,” he is a climbing guide at the Yosemite Mountaineering School.
Tom walked us through the basics of backcountry safety. We were always to ski with a partner and keep tabs on him or her whenever we were on the mountain. Tom explained to us how to always seek out “islands of safety” – places on the mountain that would reduce our exposure should a slope above us begin to slide. Typical “islands of safety” include rocks, trees and other immovable objects or terrain features that are the preferred places to stop while on the mountain. Tom also tells us to listen for the telltale “whoomp” of settling snow, and to let our guide know if we hear a “whoomp” while on the mountain.
When we finished our briefing, Tom and guide Matt Lutz issued us each an avalanche beacon and we moved outside to get practical training on using these lifesaving devices.
An avalanche beacon is a small oval-shaped plastic device about the size of a pair of ski goggles. It is designed to both transmit a signal and receive a signal transmitted by other beacons in the vicinity. All skiers in the group wear the beacon switched to transmit, and if a member of the group is caught in a slide, the rest of the group can switch their beacons to receive in order to home in on the signal of the transmitting beacon.
Tom and Matt gave us a brief demonstration on how to wear the beacons and how to use the directional antenna in each to home in on another beacon. After a practical demonstration, Matt took a transmitting beacon down the driveway and we tried to find it. We began scanning the area by slowly moving the beacons in radial patterns in order to pick up the signal. Stronger signals will cause a light to illuminate and a beeping noise will get louder when the unit is pointed towards the strongest signal. Beacons do not transmit a straight-line signal, but emit twin signals on divergent arcs that resemble an apple cut in half. Once the strongest signal is picked up, the skier moves a few meters in that direction and repeats the process until the signal strength indicates that the transmitting beacon is nearby.
After successfully locating the “hidden” beacon, we collected our gear and headed for the helicopter. Pilot John “Quack” Quackenbush flies the 1999 Bell 407 owned by UK/USA Helicopters out of Atlanta, Georgia. Quack is a Vietnam veteran with years of high-altitude helicopter experience and has been flying for Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing for three seasons.
Matt briefed us on safely entering and exiting the helicopter while on the mountain. We were instructed to always wait for visual signals given to us by our guide. When the chopper lands, guests crouch on one knee and await the guide’s signal to load. One group member takes charge of the door to make sure that it doesn’t slam in the rotor wash and helps the others climb into the chopper. The rest of the group proceeds to the ship single file and loads quickly and orderly. While the guests climb aboard, the guide loads our skis in a basket mounted to one of the skids. Once we are all safely loaded, the guide will tell the pilot it is okay to take off. We reverse the process while unloading, stepping out of the helicopter and dropping to one knee until the chopper takes off or the guide signals us that it is safe to walk away from the aircraft.
Keith, Dan, Devo and I hopped in the bright red chopper and Quack lifted off. Below us, the horses, cows and pastureland quickly dissolved into the rocks and sage of the nearby foothills. The winds aloft were 35-40 knots making flying too tricky up at the 10,000-foot level. Did the weather put an end to a day of skiing? Absolutely not, we simply implemented “Plan B.”
Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing is a unique operation, even among other helicopter skiing companies. When weather conditions are unfavorable at most other heli-ski operations, the day is over and no one will be skiing. But Joe Royer has another card to play on stormy days.
Quack flew us up to a snow covered plateau near the bottom of a canyon meandering down through the Rubies and there waiting for us in the landing zone was a large snow cat. If we couldn’t fly to the runs, we would drive to them in this tank-tracked red box that would become our “backcountry subway car” for the day. Joe was waiting for us at the cat, as were the other guests and guide Eric Faull who would be driving the cat today. We loaded into the back of the cat that has bench seats down both sides of the passenger compartment and another two rear-facing seats at the front of the compartment. Nylon straps like those found on subway cars hang from the ceiling above every seat and two gigantic seatbelts stretch across the seats at the front of the passenger cabin. The need for these various retention devices becomes immediately clear as the cat started climbing steeply. If the straps were not here on the steeper parts of the climb, we would have been lumped in a pile of bodies wedged up against the back door.
Eric drove us up Conrad basin, a canyon that Ruby Mountain uses for its snow cat skiing. Both sides of this creek drainage are lined with aspen trees that give way to small stands of white pine further up the slopes, cresting in rocky ridges on both sides. We meandered our way up through the pine and aspen leveling out at the top of a ridge. As we piled out of the cat, Joe Royer and Devo were already unloading our gear out of the basket mounted to the side of the cabin.
Our skis started the day bundled together to our poles with a small rubber strap with a metal buckle. The guides unloaded these bundles and we handed them down the line bucket-brigade style until each guest had his or her skis in hand. The faster that guests can get their skis unbundled and on their feet, the more skiing the group will be able to do, and it doesn’t take the guests long to get the routine down to a science. The entire unloading to skiing process rarely takes more than a couple of minutes and the next time I wait for a friend to buckle boots and put on pole straps at the top of a resort chairlift will feel like an eternity of missed ski time.
We lined up at the top of an untracked slope and Devo reminded us to stay spaced about 100 yards apart. He started down the run and stopped partway down near an “island of safety”. We could ski our own line through the untracked snow as long as we kept Devo’s tracks in sight. Once we spotted him, we needed to stop near him, but never below him, one of the few cardinal rules that we had to follow out here. Joe Royer was our “tail gunner” bringing up the rear behind the last guest. By using this leapfrog method, we were able to get fresh tracks and a feeling of solitude without ever being far from a skilled guide.
It is an unwritten rule of backcountry etiquette that the group members take turns on who gets to ski down a new section first. That way each skier gets a shot at the best line on a slope on any given run. It is also considered rude to venture too far to the left or right of the fall line once you have selected your path to the bottom. This ensures that there will be fresh tracks for each skier on every run.
Northern Nevada had experienced unseasonably warm temperatures for several weeks and we were skiing in spring conditions in early February. The guides know the terrain intimately and were able to take us to the best snow as we angled to get to the best slopes by ski and snow cat.
Helicopter skiing runs are much different than those found at ski resorts and skiers must always be ready for an infinite number of transitions from wide open pitches to trees back to open slopes with little or no warning. There are also potentially sneaky changes in slope pitch, snow consistency and visibility. The guides are great at briefing skiers about what to expect on a given run, but there are enough changes in terrain to keep you on your toes at all times.
Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski provides guests with Rossignol Bandit XXX skis that are built wider and a bit shorter than the sidecut skis commonly seen at the resorts. The stability and light weight of these skis make them adept and easy to control in everything from windblown crust to champagne powder. The unique design of the skis can take a couple of runs to get used to, but by the end of a powder day you will swear that you don’t have any skis on at all and are flying just above the surface of the snow. Guests can also ride their own alpine and Telemark skis or snowboards.
While Francy Royer and her kitchen crew put elaborate meals on the table back at Reds, they also make sure that everyone eats well on the mountain. Besides tasty, high-energy finger foods known as “heli-snacks,” each guest gets his or her own personalized lunch bag that includes a sandwich, fruit, veggies and homemade cookies in each. The guides seem addicted to putting Tabasco sauce on their sandwiches for extra kick and I made a mental note to see if this is the “secret” ingredient that would enable me to ski as expertly as any of them. Rumor has it this crew has even lobbied heavily to have the helicopter painted up to look like a giant flying Tabasco bottle.
At midday, we stopped at the cat after a run and had a picnic in the snow, taking a breather and enjoying the natural beauty. Many people would not believe that we were in Nevada if we had taken a picture of where we were eating lunch, at the bottom of a snow covered canyon in the middle of an aspen grove with pine trees painting the slopes above us dark green.
After lunch and a few more thigh burning runs, it began to snow, a good omen for our chances of fresh powder the following day. Joe called Carol (Tom’s wife who runs the base operations and acts as dispatcher for Quack and the guides) on the radio to request a lift back to Reds. Devo led us through an aspen grove and down to a snow-covered promontory with steep drop offs on three sides. The guests were to fly back to the ranch while the guides were staying up on the mountain to make some in-the-field repairs to the drag on the back of the snow cat. I asked Eric how they would get back to the ranch without the assistance of the helicopter.
“We’ll take the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he said, pointing out a thin line of snow that disappeared into rocks halfway down the foothills. This is a tenuous trail that the guides can use to return to the valley when they don’t have guests in tow.
The guides stacked the skis on the makeshift landing zone and soon we heard, and finally saw the helicopter flying up the canyon. The juxtaposition of the snow covered mountains and the pastures and desert beyond was both eerie and beautiful from this vantage point.
Joe and Devo guided the chopper with hand signals and we crouched on one knee, watching Quack bring the chopper in and landing with such precision that the skid was lined up perfectly next to the skis. As one guide put it, Quack “could pick your nose with that thing.”
We climbed aboard and Quack took us on a thrilling ride back to Reds, gliding low over the top of a ridge and then dropping into the abyss on the other side, giving us a moment of what felt like zero gravity before banking the ship sideways and taking us back down to the “heli-pasture” at Reds. The snow continued to fall, which made fresh powder for tomorrow’s run look very promising. We took our gear back to the locker room and put our boots and gloves on the dryer, stowing our gear and getting ready to rest and relax.
The unseasonable warmth was gone with yesterday’s wind and in its place was more typical Ruby Mountain weather – namely a foot of fresh snow that had fallen overnight up in the mountains. We would be powder skiing soon.
Without any orientation or briefings, we were ready to load up early. Three inches of snow had fallen on the valley floor and the promise of much more snow up high got us moving rapidly.
Quack took the first load up the mountain from base and I joined Harvey, Tom, Joe and Joe’s son Mike for a pickup truck ride further up the foothills to a landing zone adjacent to Joe’s yurt, which is used as a warming hut for cross-country and helicopter skiers. Quack picked us up at the yurt and we spied a herd of deer bounding through the trees below us, dark brown against all of the fresh, white, new-fallen snow. We landed and re-grouped with the other guests and guides up on the mountain.
At the top we realized the extent of our good fortune. Over a foot of fresh powder had fallen overnight up top. Tom and Eric were our guides, and Joe and Mike were skiing along with the rest of us. Harvey and I paired up on the buddy system to make sure that we always kept tabs on one another.
The runs in the new fallen snow were proof positive of why people go to all the trouble to take helicopters, snow cats and their own two feet to get into the backcountry. The Ruby Mountains are smack in the middle of what is known as the northwest flow which drops great snow in the higher elevations. This snow is colder and drier than the flakes dropped by the storms in the coastal ranges like the Sierra and the Cascades. The resulting powder is absolutely amazing. Riding through it was almost like skiing through smoke and instead of exerting the pressure and energy of the kick turns we had needed the day before – simple, subtle movements were all that were needed to carve perfect s-turns through the cold, fluffy powder. Strength and control were replaced with rhythm and relaxation, turns felt almost automatic. As one guest quipped, it was “like skiing in down pillows”.
As guests and guides alike came down the hill one by one, each was distinguished by an ear-to-ear grin as they trailed whisps of powder behind them. Several guests could be heard yelping like hounds as they bounded through tracts of fresh powder.
The bright green pine trees we had skied past the day before were coated – needles, trunk, branches and all – with a white rhime that looked as if some backcountry painter had sprayed it on in the middle of the night.
Every run surpassed the one before it, and the etiquette of alternating leads was especially important as untracked powder in the backcountry is a very precious commodity indeed.
Ruby Mountain’s guides are equal parts wilderness scout, bodyguard, instructor and host. They split their time breaking trail, analyzing ever-changing conditions and safety considerations, giving guests helpful pointers and constantly asking questions.
“Are you warm enough?”
“Are you hungry?”
“Anybody getting tired?”
“How are those skis?”
The favorite question asked of our group was “everybody up for another run?”
Joe, his guides, and the rest of the staff are up hours before the guests, checking on weather, breakfast, gear and machinery – and they are often on the hill or in the locker room for hours after the guests have taken their last run. They work tirelessly and yet always with a smile or a great story, and they are this way down to the last person.
Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing is truly a family affair and Joe has guided some families for three generations. Pro skiers, corporate leaders, ranch-dwelling locals, reality-television show cast members and hopelessly committed ski bums have all been among Joe’s clientele and many make repeat visits for what is surely one of the most unique ski experiences in North America.