DanvilleSanRamon.com

Cover Story - March 23, 2007

Fresh snow

Helicopter skiing lets enthusiasts run virgin slopes

by Natalie O'Neill

Staring down the face of a 2,500-foot mountain, Alamo's JeffreyWeil had the overwhelming feeling it was his own private slope.

Having just taken a helicopter to the top of a mountain in Whistler, Canada, he and his wife Lisa shared the fresh snow with just four other people. Not a ski track could be seen for miles.

"When you get up there, you have this incredible virgin powder.... It's paradise," said Jeffrey, who made the trip to Canada three weeks ago.

Before skiing they completed avalanche training, an hour-long class that taught them what to do in case of emergency. The training included instruction on how to use safety radio devises, and how to shovel and probe in case someone is buried by the snow.

After the training, the guided run down the mountain put them in three to four feet of unmarked powder.

"It's an incredible sensation, like you're floating," Jeffrey said.

At the bottom of the mountain, after a 30-minute run, they were picked up and flown to the top all over again.

"You are out there in nature - you're really one with the mountain. I couldn't stop smiling, I felt like a kid," Lisa said.

Skiing the tops of mountains isn't just for professionals, willing to bomb off hundred-foot cliffs. In Whistler, guides will take any skier or snowboarder with intermediate or advanced capabilities heli-skiing.

"It's not like you're jumping off cliffs like James Bond," Lisa said.

The Weils, who are in their 40s, said it was "a rush" even though they didn't feel like they were in danger at any point.

"My adrenalin was pumping," Lisa said.

It's a different kind of skiing because it requires you to stay much more upright and balanced, she explained.

In deep powder like that, falling is much more of an ordeal as well. Skiers can completely lose their skis and poles under the snow and some have trouble getting up if the weight of the snow catches them at a tricky angle.

"You just have to know not to panic," Jeffrey said.

When it comes to outdoor adventure, Jeffreyand Lisa are no strangers to the adrenaline rush. They have gone hammerhead shark diving, bungee jumping and deep sea scuba diving.

Being in these extreme situations has often left them at the mercy of nature. In turn, they have developed a heightened sense of respect for the elements.

"It's just you and Mother Nature and it's incredibly beautiful with no one else around. It's so quiet up there," Jeffrey said.

The price to heli-ski for one day ranges from about $600-$800 per person for four runs in Whistler. Additional runs can be added for $90 each.

When heli-skiing, there is no waiting in long chairlift lines, and at lunchtime the helicopter even brings hot soup and sandwiches to skiers, who picnic at the top of the mountain. The couple used this time to enjoy the view and talk with the other skiers, who had come from Germany and Japan for the adventure.

While Jeffrey doesn't consider the sport dangerous, he said there were a couple of nerve racking moments. At one point, the helicopter pilot was trying to land in a blizzard and he couldn't locate where the ground was.

"It was a white out, exciting but not scary," Jeffrey said.

They ended up landing sideways, near some trees.

Even for experienced skiers, physical training before you go is crucial, Jeffrey said. No matter what shape you are in, it's important to strengthen your leg muscles for the extreme conditions and to use special thick powder skis.

This year, the couple trained with the rest of their family on a ski trip in New Mexico. Their son is 9 years old and can already ski black diamond slopes, for advanced skiers. Jeffreysaid he hopes to take him heli-skiing someday.

Those who are interested in taking advantage of the last few weeks of this year's season should remember to plan on being at the mountain twice as many days as you want to heli-ski. The weather can easily prevent you from the experience if you don't arrange enough time, Jeffrey said.

In Whistler, heli-skiing lasts until the end of April, and regular slopes are open until June. There are no heli-skiing services at Lake Tahoe, but East Bay skiers can travel to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada or Sun Valley in Idaho if they are looking for a trip closer than Canada.

"It's a highlight of any skier's life," Lisa said.

Contact Natalie O'Neill at noneill@danvilleweekly.com

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