Adventure January 7, 2022

The Last Frontier

Heli skiing gets powderhounds closer to nirvana 

Call me a small-town Idaho hillbilly (many do), but there are a few things in life I never thought I would do, and heli skiing is one of them. Taking a helicopter to remote mountaintops for the chance to ski untracked powder runs is often seen as something reserved for the most daring, like those legends in Warren Miller movies, navigating only the most extreme terrain.

But after sitting down with our local heli-ski operation, the kind folks at Sun Valley Heli Ski, I came away with two big takeaways: 1) heli skiing is attainable for any intermediate skier (you don’t have to be a King or Queen of Corbet’s Couloir to partake); and 2) sometimes in life it’s best to not tell yourself something is out of your league.

Sun Valley Heli Ski has deep roots in the Valley. Bill Janss started the operation in 1965, making it the first of its kind in the lower 48. In contrast to the highly regulated industry today—where everything revolves around risk mitigation, various conflicting interests of other backcountry users, and scrutinizing daily avalanche data—the best way to describe the early “cowboy” days is simple: the insurance policy was for paying guests to be able to ski out to the highway if the “ship” (a.k.a. the helicopter, a Bell 47 in those days—think M*A*S*H) had any problems.

The terrain skied over the years has changed considerably; the early days saw Durrance Peak—about eight miles north of Ketchum, just north of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters—as the cream of the crop for its great pitch and easy access. Durrance is now only accessible for backcountry skiers and today, the heli-team focuses a lot of their time at Paradise, a region west of Baker Creek (way north of Fairfield) that typically gets 30 to 50 percent more snow than Sun Valley due to the way storms “stack up” on their approach to the Valley. Sun Valley Heli Ski has a lodge in this region, where skiers can spend a night totally immersed in the solitude of a heli-skiing experience. With travel to Canada curtailed over the last couple of seasons, this lodge has captured the interest of diehards from the lower 48.

The year 2020-2021 was tough for backcountry skiers, with three different avalanche cycles and locally more avalanche activity than most people have ever seen in Sun Valley. The drive north from Hailey in early February was littered with slides. Persistent weak layers kept those skiers who know how to play safe in the woods out of them. Sun Valley Heli Ski was running full flights a few mountain ranges to the west, where conditions were much more favorable, and providing avalanche data to the Sawtooth Avalanche Center. In addition to all the snowpack data Sun Valley Heli Ski provides the backcountry community, they also have a long history of assisting with search and rescue operations. Today, they have a formal partnership with Blaine County to provide search and rescue services when necessary.

Sun Valley Heli Ski has a permit with the U.S. Forest Service for 750,000 square acres, which gives them exclusive helicopter access to a massive playground with spectacular terrain, covering three mountain ranges. A day in their four-passenger A Star B-3E chopper will set you back approximately $1,800 per person. This might seem like a lot until you consider the adventure that awaits: you, giddy with excitement as the bird takes off, heart pounding as you’re dropped on a snow-capped ridge, the silence and majesty of all those nearby peaks paling only in comparison to the lines of untracked snow before you, with no competition from friend or foe. People say it never gets old.


When your favorite runs start to make you snooze, it’s time to tackle new territory. Take an early morning heli lift or snowcat trip to Idaho’s backcountry for some adrenaline-pumping powder.

Sun Valley, Idaho
This vast area covering three mountain ranges provides unparalleled access to legendary powder and terrain for all abilities, including beginners.

Fairfield, Idaho
Jump in a snowcat with 11 others to ski or snowboard 10,000-15,000 vertical feet of steeps, glades, chutes, bowls, and powder glades.

Victor, Idaho
Get the ultimate deep-powder experience in the Tetons, with access to beautiful open bowls, steep chutes, couloirs, enchanted forests, and perfectly gladed trees.

Alta, Wyoming
Home to over 500 inches of annual snowfall and Wyoming’s only cat skiing operation—right on the border of Idaho. Enjoy 602 dedicated acres of untracked light, dry Teton powder and 18,000 vertical feet in one day.

McCall, Idaho
Unlimited freshies await on over 17,000 acres of snowy steeps, tree-lined glades, and powdery bowls on three separate mountain peaks.

Sandpoint, Idaho
The birthplace of snowcat skiing in 1975, Selkirk offers alpine cirque bowls and huge powder fields to narrow rock-lined chutes and the famous snow ghost-covered runs from treeline.

This article appears in the Winter 2021 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.