Skiers and Heli-skiers live together in harmony

Backcountry skiers and heli-skiers have battled over virgin snow in the Wasatch for over 30 years, but it’s time to put it to an end.

It’s 6 a.m. one January morning as Evan Capelis and his buddies drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon. It’s dark, it’s quiet, and they’re alone on the side of the road. They get into their ski gear and begin the 2,200 foot vertical climb over 3 miles to reach the summit of Cardiac ridge. After about 45 minutes, they’re a mile into their journey. The sounds of the highway behind them disappear and for a moment they reach complete serenity as the group leaves society in search of adventure in solitude. The pristine conditions awaken Evan’s excitement as he and his friends tread, ever so lightly, over 14 inches of fresh snow through the quiet mountains. Only their breath and thoughts can be heard. They will reach the summit in 15 minutes. Their labor is about to pay off in the form of face shots. Suddenly, WHOP WHOP WHOP WHOP WHOP WHOP — here comes a chopper from below. The group has been touring for almost two hours and will lose the race to the summit. The wind from the helicopter over their heads smugly blows snow in their faces as they flip the bird to the bird. Quiet has suddenly turned to deafening sound, the feeling of solitude is lost, the excitement fades, and the experience is ruined for the backcountry skiers. Rage courses through their veins as they begrudgingly finish their ascent to meet the heli at the summit. They are still 15 minutes away and the elitists who can afford a five-minute trip to the peak via sky limo, will surely track through and chew up the fresh snow. Capelis and his friends continue to clench their teeth and fists as they approach the peak parked copter with its group of guides and clients awaiting their arrival. Ready for a fight, the backcountry skiers approach the heli group with a piece of their mind in the chamber, ready to fire. However, one of the heli guides greets them with a smile and says, “Obviously, first tracks are all yours.” Tension fades, quiet returns, serenity is again attained, and the excitement floods back into the backcountry skiers’ bodies.

Capelis and his ski buddies haven’t only had this experience with the helicopters in the Wasatch once, but three separate times. Three separate times he has encountered a chopper when he and his touring group were nearing a summit and all three times, the heli guides insisted that the guys who had just hiked the ridge ski it first. Experiences like these have shaped his and other backcountry skiers’ perspectives on helicopter ski operations in the Wasatch over the past few years.

The helicopter ski operation has been in business since the 1970s and backcountry skiers have become accustomed to their presence over the last 40 years. An entire generation has come and gone since the dawn of the chopper age, and those who have been skiing with them the entire time don’t seem to mind so much. Most of those that I spoke with have had pleasant experiences when inevitably encountering the powder birds. However, there are still some backcountry skiers that remember the days before helicopters in the Wasatch, and were in the trenches during the most furious battles with heli-skiers

Bob Athey, more famously known as the Wizard of the Wasatch, is one of the few backcountry skiers still charging up and down the Wasatch peaks from the ‘70s. He is one who remembers these battles and still fervently attests that they have no business operating in the small mountain range whose thrill-seeking population continues to bulge.

Sometimes he runs into the heli-ski guides in the backcountry and the result is never pleasant.

“I tell them to get the f— out of there. They know me and I don’t like them, if we run into each other there’s gonna be conflict, and there’s gonna continue to be conflict until they get the f— out of there,” Athey passionately explains. “Way back in the mid ‘70s I was learning how to tele-ski and the guys would jump out of their helicopter and yell at me for making my turns too wide. I’d tell them to stick my middle finger up their asses.”

So from Athey’s personal experience, the helicopter skiers came into the terrain he had already been skiing for years and immediately ruffled his feathers. Needless to say, he hasn’t gotten over it.

Aside from Athey’s personal vendetta, there are environmental and regulatory issues he brought up as well. One of the biggest issues is overcrowding.

With the growth of the Salt Lake City Metropolitan area that sits at the foot of the Wasatch Front, the population of backcountry travelers has grown exponentially as well. There haven’t been many — or any — in-depth studies done to account for the actual amount of backcountry travelers in recent years, but there are certain gauges one could look at to see the population’s growth. For example, looking at the traffic on the Utah Avalanche Center’s website. In 2010-2011 the site received 2 million views. That is double the amount from 10 years ago and quadruple the amount from 2 decades ago. Granted, there has also been a steep rise in the use of technology over the past two decades, but it still shows growth in the Wasatch backcountry.

Athey‘s friend, Dr. Howie Garber says, “One helicopter and 24 skiers can ruin the snow for 500 backcountry skiers. People don’t understand what we have here. What an incredible resource (the Wasatch) is. It’s a small mountain range too.”

Garber has lived in the Salt Lake valley for over 40 years and passionately loves the Wasatch mountain range. In fact, he just published a book of essays and photography aimed at education for the preservation of the range. He is also a backcountry skier and former heli-skier. Garber was in the middle of the biggest debate of the backcountry feud during the late 80s.

“Things started to get ugly between the backcountry skiers and the powder birds,” Garber says. “They started arresting skiers who were sitting on their landing zones. And so what happened was in 1988 or 1989 the forest service decided that they had to do something to make peace between backcountry skiers and the helicopter operation.“

Garber was asked to represent the backcountry skiing community as part of a panel to try and reach a compromise with the helicopter ski operation.

“Basically we couldn’t get [them] to budge an inch,” says Garber. “The Wasatch backcountry has been incrementally shrinking as ski resorts expand. What I’m trying to say is that I think that there was a time and a place for helicopter skiing in the Wasatch, but now with so many people back there, at some point you have to say what is the greatest good for the greatest number of people. I think that the helicopter ski operation pioneered a lot of the runs that we are skiing now. You know, they skied them, they named them and I think that it was a legitimate use.”

Considering the times that Garber experienced and the effort he put forth in putting a stop to the helicopter operation way back when, even he is softening on the issue. Unlike the Wizard of the Wasatch, Garber has accepted that the operation will continue.
He has even experienced first hand how cordial the relationship can be.

He remembers a time that he and a friend ran into a helicopter in Days Canyon.

“This friend of mine was visiting from Hawaii, we skied Main Days and we were coming around the corner on Upper Days and the ridge kind of blocked the noise. When we came around the corner they were landing,” Garber told me. “My friend started screaming at them, he was really kind of obnoxious saying, ‘you people don’t belong here.’ I was kind of embarrassed because I don’t feel like that kind of stuff belongs out there, there’s no reason to be rude to people. So my friend starts screaming at them and I couldn’t believe it when the guide said, ‘Hey, we’ll let you guys ski first.’ I mean, I thought he should’ve clocked my friend to tell you the truth.”

As of now, the helicopters that operate in the Wasatch range are going to be allowed to continue operations until at least 2019, when their 10-year permit expires. It seems as though not much will change at that point as the operation continues to help maintain avalanche safety in the backcountry, provide avalanche control for the Utah Department of Transportation for the highways that lead to the resorts in the Cottonwood Canyons and provide an extra helping hand in avalanche rescues.

Steve Achelis of the Utah Avalanche Center and a long time member of the Salt Lake County search and rescue, talks about how much he enjoys working with the choppers that provide heli-skiing in the Wasatch.

“It is really nice to have them there for rescues,” Achelis says. “I’ve worked a fair amount of rescues with them, although I’ve worked more with Life Flight and Air Med, who also have helicopters standing by for rescues, but they don’t have as skilled of people. [The helicopter ski guides] man, they are super skilled avalanche guys, you’re not gonna live long enough to get a rescuer like me in there from Life Flight. If they’re in the air and hear there is an avalanche, man they can be there within minutes.“

Achelis is well-versed on avalanche safety and believes that the heli-ski guides are vitally important to the safety of back country skiers.

“Whoever’s in the snow the most, knows it the best,” he says. “These guys ski the same places every day all winter long, they are extremely skilled. They are really, really good at keeping their clients alive.”

They’re not only good at keeping their clients alive, they are also maintaining safer slopes in the backcountry for skiers like Howie Garber as well.

“There’s no question I feel safer skiing Cardiac Bowl after they’ve thrown a bomb there,” Garber says.

Other avalanche center experts love having the choppers nearby as well. Craig Gordon spends every winter day hiking around the Wasatch as an avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, but he would rather be known as an “overall bitchin’ dude.”

“They’re really good! From what I’ve seen, the helicopter operation is really in tune with what’s going on in the backcountry,” Gordon says. “These guys have got three-plus decades of experience and that’s really huge. They’ve certainly seen a lot, experienced a lot, and I have personally never felt my safety was encroached on or in danger or anything along those lines.”

Gordon understands the grudge that some skiers like Athey hold on to, but he thinks that it can be avoided fairly easily.

“You’re competing for limited resources, however I’ve always taken the approach that if I don’t wanna hear a helicopter I don’t ski near it. It definitely takes more effort,” Gordon explained. “All of the guides man, they’re all skiers, they all tour, they get it, you know? This day in age with so much social media and information sharing, people can be in tune to where other people have skied and what is untracked. So it takes a certain level of savviness. You know, you don’t go to the popular places. I mean, its like, come on this isn’t 1965. We’re not the first ones, we’re second and third and fourth generations, we’re not the first ones to discover the Wasatch.”

Gordon is in the backcountry more often than even the most hardcore trekkers. He has learned how to avoid the helicopters when he wants to. When he does run into them though, he has nothing but great things to say.

“I would have to say that anytime I’ve encountered the powder birds they’ve always been super cordial to me. I’ve never been buzzed on a ridge … well I shouldn’t say that, I’ve never been harassed,” Gordon says with a guilty smirk.

So, in some experiences the relationship between backcountry skiers and heli skiers can be cordial. Sometimes it can be hostile. However, I was regaled with more tales of respect from the helicopter operation towards backcountry skiers than times of confrontation. In fact, every story I heard of an encounter that happened anytime in the last 10 years was a positive one (if I throw out Athey’s testimony). It seems like the two sides have learned to share the small natural playground that is the Wasatch and maximize its recreational potential. Backcountry skiers of today are no longer concerned with the noise of the choppers or the over consumption of freshies by their clients. A seasoned veteran should be able to avoid the whirly birds when they want, although it might take a little more effort. Backcountry skiers also seem to appreciate the service the operation can provide in terms of avalanche mitigation, highway maintenance, and rescue efforts.

The battle that has raged on for decades seems to be coming to a close and an understanding is being reached. An alliance could soon form between these former adversaries as they turn their attention to other imminent threats like further ski resort expansion and the building of a super-gondola (the dreaded ski-link). Because after all is said and done, they both want the same thing, preserving and protecting the Wasatch backcountry.

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Copyright 2021