A four-year weather apocalypse threatened to kill the most Wild West heli-skiing operation in America—Ruby Mountains Heli-experience in Lamoille, Nevada. Apocalypse, meet your match.
by Tracy Ross | Photographs Ryan Salm
On an overcast Saturday last April, I met Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience’s owner, Joe Royer, at headquarters. We hopped in his truck and drove a rutted two-track road to a stand of aspen trees sheltering a snowcat. Then we climbed inside and bumped our way uphill, making mulch out of dirt and sagebrush. A short way on, a ribbon of snow appeared, slick and listing sharply off the road cut. When we reached a patch of slightly deeper snow and a pristine white yurt overlooking several rock-lined drainages, Joe jumped out, surveyed the scene, and said, “Just look at that! Doesn’t the skiing look amazing?” I saw rocks poking out of an inch-thick crust of ice. But not Joe Royer. Joe Royer is an owner-operator optimist.
In the early 1970s, while ski patrolling at Snowbird, Utah, Joe took road trips home to California across I-80. Near Elko, Nevada, he looked up to see the 60-mile-long Ruby Mountains glimmering in the sun, and veered off the highway to investigate the razor-sharp ridges, Matterhorn-like peaks, and white lines snaking through all of it. Six years later, he and two friends from Alta, Utah, hired a local helicopter pilot, and started guiding. Several partnerships later, Joe and his wife Francy purchased the business, and started running all-inclusive, three-day, three-night heli-trips from a Sundance Catalog-worthy lodge called Red’s Ranch. From way back then, Joe, 65, dreamed of building his own lodge, so he bought a piece of land in the Ruby foothills. The plan stalled for 20 years, but ramped up last winter, when the Red’s Ranch owner announced a surprise rent hike.
Despite the snarling four-year drought, Joe drew new plans for a $2 million lodge that’s in the works. He also bought 1,100 acres of new backcountry terrain to add to his existing 200,000 skiable acres. Like all private heli-ski operators, Joe’s savings are lean. But in the Nevada fashion, for $150 he hired a guy with a string of mules to haul the yurt, piece by piece, to 9,700-foot Conrad Ridge, with the vision of offering heli-assisted backcountry touring in addition to his all-inclusive offerings. It’d all take place in Conrad and Talbot Creeks, with steep faces, shaded couloirs, sun-drenched bowls, and thousands of feet (combined) of vertical.
That’s the terrain we gazed upon during my spring trip. I know it will eventually wow me, but I can’t endorse it yet because we couldn’t ski it. But I have skied with Joe in the Ruby Mountains, and I can vouch that Nevada skiing is amazing. Envision bowls packed with the driest, lightest high-desert powder; slopes littered with gnarled bristlecone and limber pines; and long flowing runs down shoulders that overlook a sea of parched desert. The land below is stark; the land you ski, electric. At day’s end, relish Francy’s gourmet food, and fall asleep in log beds piled with down blankets.
Joe’s newest offering will be different. He’ll lift skiers to the Ruby Yurt via snowcat or heli, then leave them and their guides to make decisions. All of Joe’s guides are Level 2 or 3 avalanche certified, and all know the new terrain intimately. If the snow goes south, or the weather turns sour in the new terrain, the heli will pop on over and bump skiers to the designated heli-terrain for $400 per bump. There’s a two-night yurt minimum, and though you bring your food, a guide cooks it. (That’s the only downside, because Francy makes a screaming raclette, and she says, “There’s no way I’m cooking up there.”)
The upside? It’s snowing in the Rubies.
For more info, check out helicopterskiing.com.
More heli-assisted ski touring operations:
Colorado’s Silverton Mountain offers two-day guided trips. A heli drops you at the top of a peak, you lap the bowls, chutes, and couloirs beneath, and then overnight in a tent in the region. Repeat until midafternoon on day two, when the bird returns to do a second drop at the top of a peak that’ll funnel you back to the ski area. ($499 per person, with a four-person, two-day minimum. silvertonmountain.com)
In western Washington’s Methow Valley, North Cascade Heli offers three-day heli-assisted backcountry touring. Take off early morning, ski a big, North Cascades line, and then tour that region before the chopper returns to ferry you back to the heli barn in Mazama. Soak in hot springs, eat and sleep at the Freestone Inn, and repeat for two more days. ($1,350 per person; heli-ski.com)
From the Deep Winter 2016 issue.