Mountain Chronicle Wasatch Heli Wars

Mountain Life
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Mountain Life

War is probably too strong a word. Nobody has died. Yet. But the battle in Utah between anti-heli-skiing forces and the venerable Wasatch Powderbird Guides approaches war in its vociferous language, its us-versus-them passion and its high-alpine theater.

Things have gone well beyond name calling. Last winter, backcountry skiers belonging to the group Heli Free Wasatch scrambled along ridgelines to purposely block helicopter landing sites. They unfurled "Heli FREE Wasatch" banners and hurled invective at guides and heli-skiing guests. The Salt Lake valley's most influential environmental group, the Citizens' Committee to Save Our Canyons (SOC), published a pamphlet that began: "Without Your HELP There will be Five More Years of Unfettered Heli-Skiing in the Wasatch. Can your conscience bear such a grim burden?"

Someone handed me a copy at the Salt Lake REI outlet last March. I was in town for WPG's 25th anniversary party. Greg Smith, Powderbird founder and owner, offered former guides and friends of the company what he called "Robin Hood rates" for a few hours of heli-skiing. "And for those who still don't have any money 25 years later," he grinned at the majority of us, "well, you can go free."

I went out with the last group, flying through puffy clouds up White Pine Canyon west of the heli base in Snowbird. Facing the light, our shadows like marionettes behind, we stitched together four runs on Red Baldy: 70, 80, 90 turns in giddy, hypnotic succession. We saw one party on touring skis, two people, who returned our powder-addled smiles.

Later, one of Smith's guides told me, "Most of the people we encounter out there are completely mellow. It's just, 'Dude, did you bring us some beer?' But these (Heli Free Wasatch) guys are so mad they're wiggling and spitting and yelling. There was an article in a local magazine that purportedly encouraged tourers to block landings, to approach heli-skiing groups with profanity and actually try to get the guides to punch them. It's a jihad with them."

Smith, a long-time Alta resident and backcountry skier himself, tries to downplay the antagonism. But he admits a serious impasse. WPG's special-use permit ran out in June 1997. They flew last winter with a temporary Forest Service permit that, under pressure from SOC, limited heli-skiing in Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood and Mill Creek canyons, the three drainages closest to downtown Salt Lake City. This year, the proposed restrictions are even tighter, and Smith is saying as of late summer that "we may have to sit on the shelf for this year."

Smith resembles a battle-weary Kurt Vonnegut. Fly fishing keeps the exasperation at bay. Mostly. His life's work, the oldest, most successful and most professional heli-skiing operation in the U.S., could go away tomorrow. "Heli Free Wasatch is a rabid splinter group that simply wants us eliminated," he says at the WPG heli-pad overlooking Snowbird's Cliff Lodge. "Save Our Canyons will be satisfied to restrict us to death. Sooner or later."

SOC, according to founding member, author and 40-year backcountry skier Alexis Kelner, would just as soon that be sooner. "I think it's time for no more heli-skiing," he says. There's no question that the Wasatch, with arguably the best and most accessible powder skiing on earth, has shrunk. Only about a hundred miles long north to south, and often not more than one ridgeline wide, the range, especially the prized tri-canyon area, is seeing ever-greater pressure.

While the metropolitan population booms, improved gear has swelled the ranks of backcountry skiers from about 50 (Kelner's guess for the year 1973, when Powderbird started up) to something like 100,000. That's SOC's unofficial estimate. Greg Smith believes the number is closer to 5,000. The difference could be crucial if the Forest Service decides it must apportion access to the most sought-after terrain. The average number of heli-skiers has stayed constant over the past few years at abt 1,200 per season.

No other heli-skiing outfit in North America operates this close to this kind of urban center. Kelner and SOC are lobbying the Forest Service to restrict Powderbird for reasons that actually have little to do with competition: They claim issues of resource damage, safety and noise. The first primarily involves trees downed by avalanches in areas where WPG uses explosives to stabilize ski slopes. Kelner admits, though, that no one can say with certainty whether a given slide path would have run on its own, without having been bombed. The safety issue is potentially way bigger.

Basic protocol in avalanche terrain dictates that skiers not ski above another group. Some backcountry tourers claim that WPG helicopters have landed on ridgelines above them and that guided groups have skied above them. Greg Smith says his guides make every effort to avoid touring parties, going so far as to fly to a new drainage if free-heelers are spotted. Other safety issues include the inevitable, though rare, explosive dud that may sit in the high country unfound for years, and the debatable question of whether or not prop wash from the helicopters might start avalanches.

So far there have been no fatalities attributable to heli-skiing operations, and only one close call, that involving a triggered avalanche above a snow camper hidden in the trees. The corollary here is that backcountry skiers die with some regularity in snowslides of their own making. A case can be made, and is, that WPG's control work improves snowpack stability for all who venture into the affected basins.

The noise thing is indisputable. Whirlybirds overhead in an otherwise pristine cirque are at best an annoyance, and may even bring on flashbacks from 'Nam. Kelner finds the racket indefensible. Greg Smith says, "Yes, it's noisy, and yes, that compromises solitude. But must it all be managed for perfect solitude?"

Smith claims the conflicts are not so much environmental as social. Competition for untracked snow is a factor, he says, but only occasionally, at the end of a dry cycle between storms. Much of the time, as I witnessed on my afternoon with WPG, crowding is a non-issue.

Class conflict is used shamelessly in SOC's propaganda war. Smith paraphrases: "The virtuous poor walk, and the lazy rich fly. Locals versus outsiders, even though the Wasatch is a national treasure on national forest land. What's on trial here is this: Is one group-muscle-powered, pure, quiet-and its chosen form of recreation more righteous than the others?"

Caught in the middle, as happens increasingly around the country, are the public-land stewards, the U.S. Forest Service. Bernie Weingardt, articulate, soft-spoken Forest Supervisor in Salt Lake City, sees both the environmental and the social sides. "Legally, we have to look at all of it: the noise, the explosives, the avalanches, the possible impact on nesting golden eagles. And the fact that this is a very small piece of real estate, and we're cramming it with uses."

Weingardt says his office is continuing to move forward on the Environmental Impact Statement required for WPG's special-use permit, "but I don't have a cent to do it with," he sighs. "Our special use money from Congress keeps going down while the laws keep getting more complex and expensive. Every special use on the National Forest is in the same boat with Greg. That's the nature of operating on public lands these days."

In the meantime, the regional forester has made Smith an offer on another temporary permit for this season. This one is even more confining than the last. WPG's season would be trimmed, they'd only be allowed one helicopter (instead of two) in the tri-canyon area, and they'd be excluded from these same areas every other weekend.

At this point, on principle, Smith is just saying no. "I am optimistic," he says, "that in the long term we will get our permit, because I think we are right." And then the global-view fly fisherman speaks: "When the water gets low, fish gotta rub fins. These people don't want to coexist. They're spoiled. They want to step out of their cars and into perfect solitude. And yet they won't drive or climb a little farther to ski in the wilderness areas into which we cannot and have not flown since 1984."

Among the many ironies here is the fact that two user groups who, beneath ski suits, are very much the same-powder skiers and mountain lovers-are pitted stubbornly against each other. Another is that this place, the place, according to Brigham Young and Alf Engen and countless others, is the object of such near-religious contention.

At the party following Smith's day of largess, I thought I noticed a hint of melancholy, an unspoken understanding that eras were shifting perceptibly. Smith later summed it up: "I liked the Forest Service better when they all rode horses and only a few of 'em could type." He wasn't just talking about public servants, of course. It's a whole new world out there.

And then he told me about something he'd seen on the television during the Super Bowl. It was an ad for Ford's Expedition sport utility vehicle. "Two guys are peeling off big turns in the powder, ripping and grinning, and a helicopter dives exuberantly for the valley after them. Then this yuppie couple in the Expedition with ski racks on top say to each other, 'What?! Did you see that?!' They'd driven to the top of the mountain, and they couldn't believe that somebody else had beaten them to it. There it was, in 20 seconds. I saw our fate.

"Twenty-five years, and you can't tell where we've been. Forty thousand people have skied with us and had a wondrous time. I don't know. I'm going fishing."

Peter is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com .man speaks: "When the water gets low, fish gotta rub fins. These people don't want to coexist. They're spoiled. They want to step out of their cars and into perfect solitude. And yet they won't drive or climb a little farther to ski in the wilderness areas into which we cannot and have not flown since 1984."

Among the many ironies here is the fact that two user groups who, beneath ski suits, are very much the same-powder skiers and mountain lovers-are pitted stubbornly against each other. Another is that this place, the place, according to Brigham Young and Alf Engen and countless others, is the object of such near-religious contention.

At the party following Smith's day of largess, I thought I noticed a hint of melancholy, an unspoken understanding that eras were shifting perceptibly. Smith later summed it up: "I liked the Forest Service better when they all rode horses and only a few of 'em could type." He wasn't just talking about public servants, of course. It's a whole new world out there.

And then he told me about something he'd seen on the television during the Super Bowl. It was an ad for Ford's Expedition sport utility vehicle. "Two guys are peeling off big turns in the powder, ripping and grinning, and a helicopter dives exuberantly for the valley after them. Then this yuppie couple in the Expedition with ski racks on top say to each other, 'What?! Did you see that?!' They'd driven to the top of the mountain, and they couldn't believe that somebody else had beaten them to it. There it was, in 20 seconds. I saw our fate.

"Twenty-five years, and you can't tell where we've been. Forty thousand people have skied with us and had a wondrous time. I don't know. I'm going fishing."

Peter is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com .