January 27, 2014
Sun Valley Heli Ski
Flights of Fancy

It all started in Sun Valley.

In 1966, backcountry skier and former owner of Sun Valley Resort, Bill Janss, lifted a curious hand over his eyebrows to gaze past the Bald Mountain resort. He saw the jagged snow-capped peaks towering towards the north and east, where only the birds could go. Realizing flying was the only way to reach these untouched pinnacles, he arranged for his own kind of bird—a two-passenger Bell 47 helicopter—to take him exploring the steep lines and untracked snow of Idaho’s mountainous backcountry.

So it was that almost five decades ago, the first and oldest official heli ski operation in the United States was formed right here in Sun Valley. And so it was that Bill Janss became its “godfather.”

For 47 years, Sun Valley Heli Ski (SVHS) has been flying backcountry skiers into the deep and steep. With their Eurocopter A-Star B2 helicopter (aka “Charlie Romeo”), they charter groups into the remote couloirs and chutes of the Smoky, Pioneer and Boulder mountain ranges, where the terms “virgin snow” and “first tracks” take on whole new meanings.

SVHS has one of the largest special-use permits in North America, with access to over 750,000 acres of terrain. A regular itinerary for skiers includes hundreds of landing zones and over 10,000 vertical feet of skiing in a single day. Not to mention access to some of the lightest, deepest powder and remote skiing terrain in the state.

In the landing zone with snow flying, as soon as the chopper disappears over the horizon ... silence. It’s just you, your friends, the guides and thousands of acres of untouched powder. Photos courtesy Sun Valley Heli Ski.

“All of the storms that come from the west tend to drop their snow in the mountains between Boise and Sun Valley (which is part of SVHS guiding territory). They get on average between 30-50% more snow than Baldy,” explains Mark Baumgardner, who bought the company in 1982 and owned it for 24 years.

Together with partner Carl Rixon, who is also a general contractor and owner of Rixon Construction, Baumgardner built the Smoky Mountain Lodge (SML) in 1999, nestled 5,500-feet high in the mountains at the upper end of the South Fork of the Boise River. This 4,000-square-foot basecamp, surrounded by the picturesque Sawtooth National Forest, is the only fly-in heli ski destination in the lower 48. Powered by a diesel generator and state-of-the-art solar batteries, with a riverrock fireplace, granite countertops, wood-fired sauna and hot tub, private chef and sleeping room for up to 12 guests, the SML is essentially a five-star mansion in the wild.  

In 2006, Baumgardner sold SVHS to EpicQuest but continues to guide for the company. Now owned by Jay Levine out of Massachusetts, it is managed year-round from their new location at the base of Warm Springs on Bald Mountain, where SVHS continues to be one of the pioneering forerunners of the heli ski industry.

“Guests, if they so choose, can be picked up in the helicopter at the top of Bald Mountain,” explains Tyler Ferris, the business operations manager. “We are one of the only operators in the country with that capability.”

Before guests take off, Ferris usually asks them one simple question: “Are you ready for your life to change?” And they crawl in the chopper, wide-eyed and puffing clouded breath—just like “the godfather” of heli skiing—for the adventure of a lifetime.

Excited guests awaiting the heli pickup on top of Baldy, ready to ski powder in Idaho’s remote terrain.