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Among skiing’s many habit-forming charms, perhaps none is more soul-salving than the sense
of having escaped, however temporarily, the ravages of our day-to-day world. Riding gravity’s wavelength down a mountainside focuses all of your energies on matters just ahead; there’s no room for any other agendas. This total immersion in the moment is hard to achieve, much less sustain, if the slope you descend is as crowded as a Tokyo subway.
To truly get away from it all, without reverting to some precivilized state where you spend more time and energy climbing than skiing, the skier seeking solitude is inevitably seduced by the allure of helicopter skiing. Preferably a small helicopter, one that will only seat four in the passenger compartment, to further reduce the on-slope congestion. And if you really want to feel transported to another world, hop on the helicopter they keep tethered in Lamoille, Nev., where the Ruby Mountains rise like a white-capped oasis in a vast, tawny ocean of desert.
You can fly into Elko, 20 miles down the road from Lamoille, but making the drive from Reno (or Salt Lake City) has a romance all its own. Traversing this immense terrain seems to open the mind, the enormity of its unpopulated vistas inviting the imagination to expand to fill them. The roads that spool away from I-80 along the 300 miles that separate Reno from Elko lead to distant outposts like Unionville and Tuscarora, and always in the distance, measureless miles away, a jagged wall of mountains monopolizes the horizon. Take one of those roads and follow it to Lamoille, and there, at Reds Ranch, you’ll find Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing.
Reds Ranch is a Western-style hunting lodge with 10 well-appointed bedrooms, replete with private baths, surrounding a large common area dominated by huge log beams and an inviting rock fireplace. While the style is rustic and the tone casual, the feasts laid out at breakfast and dinner would make a Roman emperor blush. Proprietors Joe Royer, an erstwhile Snowbird patrolman who co-founded this operation in 1977, and wife Francy, who oversees the bountiful kitchen, are the sort of cheerful, can-do hosts who naturally make their guests feel at home. Royer is an affable, open-hearted 54-year-old who knows he has drawn an enviable lot in life. “I consider it an honor,” he says-and this after 27 years of guiding here. “An honor,” he adds for emphasis, “to click into my bindings every morning, knowing this is what I get to do for a living.”
It isn’t until the four-passenger Bell 407 whirls into the sky and climbs some 4,000 vertical feet to the top of any of the myriad ridgelines crowning the Ruby Mountains that you get some perspective on where you are. The dun-colored plains that stretch out below seem to extend farther than the eye can see, yet 200 or so miles away you can make out the white-sprinkled crest of Pilot Peak. The Ruby Mountain Range runs for about 50 miles on a north-south axis, creating a 500-square-mile playground, most of it skiable. Its enthralling rock formations have earned Lamoille Canyon, which lies roughly in the center of the range, a reputation as the Yosemite of Nevada. The snow that collects here is lighter continental snow-similar to that which falls on Utah’s Wasatch Range, 250 miles to the east. It’s less predictable and more slide-prone than the heavier maritime snow that falls on coastal ranges and the Sierras to the west, so it’s rare to have all exposures in play at one time. On the other hand, because of the amount of terrain available, there’s almost always something fresh out there, and it’s usually dry, light and deep.
In the event the chopper can’t fly due to weather, Royer offers catskiing, as well. The slopes of RMHS’s permit area are a pastiche of open bowls and glades of evergreens, aspens and white-bark pines usually tumbling downhill at a relatively modest angle. The 10,000-foot peaks here are not super steep, nor are the runs excceptionally long; the average vertical falls in the 2,000- to 2,500-foot range, or roughly the length of most top-to-bottom runs in the Lake Tahoe area. “We don’t cater to the extreme-ski crowd,” admits Royer. “If you want to chase an avalanche to a cliff band, go to Alaska.” What you get here are unintimidating, if nonetheless exhilarating, swoops down mountain canyons you don’t have to share with your fellow man, save the few of you on the same ship. The turnaround time between runs is brisk, so it’s easy to knock off 20,000 vertical feet in a day. “Our motto is, ‘The guest should never wait on the guide,'” says Royer, and he’s not kidding: Once you’re in the mountains, it seems you’re always in the air or skiing new snow. It’s gourmet skiing in a down-home atmosphere, amid mountain majesty and edge-of-the-earth vistas.
The price of escaping to another world isn’t negligible, but then heliskiing is not for the faint of wallet. Guests are assured of catching 39,000 vertical feet during a three-day visit, at a tariff of $3,050, meals and lodging included. The season typically runs December through March, with the eternal caveat that the weather can be uncooperative. But chances are better than nine out of 10 that you will get that 39K, even if some of it ends up being on a snowcat instead of a chopper. Either way, you’ll have been to a world far from the everyday-and returned the better for it.