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In late February this year , a potent Pacific-born storm swept over California and began making its way across the Great Basin. It dried out over the deserts of Nevada and Utah, picked up moisture as it passed over Great Salt Lake, and then scudded up Little Cottonwood Canyon, in the Wasatch Range.
Corralled by 11,000-foot [3,350-meter] peaks, the system dumped snow for three days, fantastically dry stuff with a water content of 5 to 7 percentseveral feet of powder as fine as hourglass sand and as light as eiderdown.
The day after the storm, at a helipad in Little Cottonwood, three other skiers, a guide, and I squeezed into an Aerospatiale chopper with a cruising speed of 120 knots. The aircraft, operated by Wasatch Powderbird Guides (WPG), lifted from the pad, then shot forward, skimming snowy saddles and banking past cliff bands. We breezed across Alta, where skiers were busy carving tracks, then eased over the resort's southernmost ridge.
Before us was a backcountry panorama of open bowls, snow-freighted clumps of pines, and crumbly granite faces. It was white and open and blue and beautiful, and the only question was where to land. Just about anywhere would do fine, it seemed.
Soon, I hoped, I would experience one of skiing's ultimate thrills: carving first tracks in buoyant Wasatch powder.
Legendary fluff doesn't come cheap: Day trips with WPG cost $500. Still, the experience is downright affordable when compared with multiday, multithousand-dollar heli-skiing trips up in British Columbia and Alaska.
WPG and similar outfitters in Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming offer outings that depart from heli-pads near major ski resorts. If the weather's no good for flying, you can still get in some runs at Telluride, Sun Valley, or Jackson Hole.
After five minutes in the air, our helicopter landed in the American Fork Canyon area, discharged our small party, and flew off.
Gathered there in a small clearing was another group of five, which had been dropped off 20 minutes earlier. Once the chopper was out of earshot, the mid-morning quiet was broken only by instructions from the guides.
Wasatch Powderbird has access to thousands of runs in an 80,000-acre [32,380-hectare] permit area, which is four times larger than the combined terrain of Utah's 12 major ski resorts.
In the American Fork, the moderately pitched routes in open cirques and glades of spruce and fir were ideal for our group of intermediate skiers. We had extra-fat skis that would make it easy to skim just below the surface of the powder, and we were proof that heli-skiing is no longer the exclusive domain of experts.
After our warm-up run in a gentle gully lined with aspens, the chopper picked up the group and flew us to a narrow ridge. Through a mini-blizzard of rotor-blasted snow, I saw that two young guys with skis strapped to their packs were on the ridge, too. They told us they had hiked up from Mineral Basin, at Snowbird, a slog of about 1,200 vertical feet [3,660 meters]. I was a little embarrassed.
For many people who arrive in the backcountry under their own power, heli-skiers represent a clattering, environmentally unfriendly intrusion.
Heli-skiing operators see it in more relative terms. What's worse, they ask, an aircraft that slips in and out or a ski resort, with its access roads, parking lots, and deforested slopes?
If the two skiers were anti-chopper, they concealed it. They noted the fine weather, smiled, and took off, and we soon followed.
After skiing cautiously off the back of the ridge, I soon found my rhythm on a 2,000-foot [610-meter] descent through a broad bowl: A little pole plant, the barest of bounces, and the skis seemed to steer themselves.
Gently porpoising through the snow, I glanced down to admire the course of my skis just in time to see the inside one veer sharply left, out of sync with its partner. I lost my balance, somersaulted in slow mo, and bit deep into the white. But I came up laughing.
The more we skied, the more I realized that Wasatch backcountry turns are about grace rather than force. Barely tipping my skis on edge, I slalomed through a grove of quaking aspens. I went much faster than I would have inbounds, yet I felt completely in control. Cutting around a trunk, I aimed for a gap between two trees far to my right, made it, and swung back hard left. Then I did it again and dropped into a gully nearly swept clean by avalanches.
As I cruised down, weaving between conical little pines and firs, a phrase popped into my head and repeated itself: I was "surfing in a Christmas tree farm." It was giddy nonsense, but that's what floating through powder will do to you.
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