There is a fanaticism among powder skiers that borders on dementia. These people seriously compare the joys of such skiing to those of food, drink, music, literature, sex—even money—and insist that a day spent floating turns through elbow-deep snow beats them all. But the supply of powder snow is by no means infinite at U.S. ski resorts. Even the deep-snow canyons of Utah and the mighty bowls of Taos or Vail aren't regularly covered with powder. Worse, when the slopes are blessed with a three-foot overnight blanket of the stuff, the chances are that by day's end it will have been cut, pounded, schussed, slashed, crisscrossed, sitz-marked and all-around pulverized by hordes of skiers.
So what's a powder fiend to do? Well, if he doesn't mind spending some money, there's the helicopter. It's all so simple. Merely ride a whirlybird to the highest, grandest, steepest places in the American mountains, get out, gasp at the exquisite isolation and heavenly silence, then slowly swing into that first transcendental turn, feel the powder's buoyancy, turn again and again and ride it down in a euphoria that is something like surfing the perfect wave. And at the bottom of the run the helicopter waits to airlift you to another magic run, again on an unmarked slope.
For years there have been commercial helicopter operations at a few major U.S. resorts equipped for day-long flights into the mountains beyond: Sun Valley, Snowbird, Mammoth Mountain. But this month, at a spot deep in California's Sierra Nevadas, a first in American skiing will occur—a destination helicopter skiing resort. (A similar operation has existed in the Bugaboos of Canada since the late 1950s.)
The man behind it all is a pleasant California multimillionaire named Jack Scantlin, 51, who made his fortune by inventing the radio-beeper paging device widely used to inform doctors, lawyers and other busy folks of important phone calls. Scantlin also happens to be one of the most deeply hooked powder skiers going. He beams and chuckles and waves his hands when he talks of his addiction: "I love powder skiing. I have loved it for 20 years. It's such fun. You literally float and there are no people around and you look back at your tracks and there is nothing but silence. We scream then and yell. Grown men. Do you believe it? It's so great. How many things in life can make you just holler for the joy of it? How many?"
To share this experience with paying guests, Scantlin has leased a cozy and comfortable layout of 10 cabins and an Alpine lodge situated in the Toiyabe National Forest of the Sierra Nevadas. The resort is 100 miles south of Reno, the nearest major airport. About 50 miles away, as the whirlybird flies, lies Mammoth Mountain. But as with any new ski operation, there was a bureaucratic maze to negotiate. Scantlin's Toiyabe Heli-Ski resort (P.O. Box 631, Bridgeport, Calif. 93517) required a permit from the U.S. Forest Service before the powder on the surrounding 1,000 square miles of the forest could be skied. That, says Scantlin, is one of the main reasons that his is the first U.S. destination helicopter resort. "Our restrictions are a lot more stringent than in Canada," he says. "The Forest Service hasn't been real enthusiastic about new ski resorts, so the number is pretty much limited. But there's a growing demand for more places to ski—and helicopters are part of the answer."
Room, board and powder at Toiyabe goes for $295 a day per person. Most of that amount ($200) is to cover helicopter costs—$600 per hour to operate the Alouette III Scantlin uses—though a portion of the fee also pays for such luxuries as a gourmet hot lunch served right on the slopes. The Toiyabe resort will work best with 20 to 25 guests each week, divided into skiing groups of five, each group with guide, so that the helicopter can keep up a steady series of up-and-down skier ferries, moving from slope to slope as the various groups complete their runs.
One of the keys to financial success is split-second efficiency in getting skiers in and out of helicopters. Wally Oldham, chief guide at Toiyabe, says, "We now have it down to 45 seconds between set-down and takeoff. The guests jump out, squat low while the guide quickly lifts the skis out of the rack, then the pilot takes off. When you figure it's $10 a minute to operate the helicopter, that counts up."
But is the world—even the fanatic world of powder skiers—ready for Jack Scantlin's dream child? "I don't know," he says. "If no one comes, we'll have fun with our friends. Money isn't my prime consideration in life anymore. This is a labor of love."
Skiers line up for a tasty feast flown in by helicopter.