MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — When Southern California skiers dream about helicopter skiing they usually envision the powder fields of the Canadian Bugaboos, Monashees or Cariboos.
And rightly so.
But California has excellent helicopter skiing and at a cheaper price than the Canadian resorts.
Mammoth/Toiyabe Heli-Ski is based 325 miles northeast of Los Angeles here in Mammoth Lakes, ideal for skiers wishing to make their own accommodation arrangements.
Mammoth/Toiyabe Heli-Ski began its sixth season Jan. 1 by ferrying powder hounds to back-country bowls between Mammoth and Bridgeport. Heavy snows in November ensured an excellent snow base but a warm January turned the snow to "corn," or small, round pellets resembling ball bearings.
"It was great skiing," explained heli-ski director Wally Oldham, "but it's difficult to sell corn snow in January."
Storms Slam Into the Sierra
As the ski season entered February, several storms slammed into the Sierra, and mid-winter heli-skiing returned to the High Sierra. "Experienced heli-skiers are telling us that the light, dry powder we have in the back country is just like the powder in Canada and Utah," said Oldham.
The two heli-ski companies are owned and operated by the same people. Mammoth Heli-Ski takes skiers to back-country bowls ringing Mammoth Lakes, while Toiyabe Heli-Ski clients ski on Toiyabe National Forest outside of Bridgeport, 50 miles north of Mammoth. The offices of Mammoth/Toiyabe Heli-Ski are across the street from Mammoth Mountain's Main Lodge. Heli-skiers carry their equipment to a landing pad behind the Yodler restaurant, only 200 yards from skiers patiently queuing up at Chair 1.
Once in the air, the French-made Aerospatiale helicopter swings by the crowded slopes of Mammoth Mountain on its way to McGee Mountain, the San Joaquin Ridge and the Sherwin Bowls overlooking Old Mammoth.
Mammoth Heli-Ski has a lot of terrain to choose from, more than 500 square miles. That is one reason why the heli-ski company has been a favorite with intermediate skiers who were intimidated by ski movies showing expert skiers whooshing down steep canyons as feather-light powder swirled over their heads.
Divided by Ability
The heli-ski guides divide the skiers by ability, and then select the best terrain and snow conditions for their skiing level. Group sizes are smaller than those in Canada, which allows for more personal attention.
The guides, who are all certified in back-country search and rescue, also enjoy teaching the novice back-country skier how to ski in powder.
During a helicopter tour Oldham's face lit up as he described the "thousands of skiing possibilities for Toiyabe Heli-Ski skiers outside Bridgeport. "The terrain here is bigger than Mammoth," said Oldham, shortly after the helicopter dropped the group at the 12,374-foot level of Dunderberg Peak.
Oldham's arm swept across the broad Sierra Nevada range and pointed to azure-blue Mono Lake.
"We've got more area to work with in the Mammoth area," continued Oldham. "An abundance of terrain is so important to us, because heli-skiers' expectations are high. They want to go where the snow is good. And if it's safe, we'll take them there."
Toiyabe Heli-Ski has a permit from the forest service to ski in non-wilderness areas stretching from Mt. Olson (near Lundy Lake and Conway Summit) to the Sweetwater range north of Bridgeport on the east side of U.S. 395. The permitted area is 40 miles long and several miles wide.
Three Crown Jewels
During a tour last spring the helicopter set down on three of the crown jewels of the Bridgeport operation, Dunderberg Peak, Eagle Peak and Flat Iron Ridge.
From Dunderberg Peak, Oldham led the group off the ledge into a steep yet broad expanse of spring snow. Just underneath the ledge, Oldham stopped the skiers and spent several minutes describing "self-arrest" techniques to use when falling on the steep snow.
"If you fall, throw away one ski pole and dig the other pole into the snow," he said. Each heli-ski guide carries a two-way radio for communicating with the helicopter pilot and the base station. A back-country survival pack is on the back of each guide.
The Dunderberg run, like most in the Bridgeport area, has a vertical drop of 3,000 feet, 50% more than the vertical drop from Mammoth's Cornice to the Main Lodge. An average run takes 30 to 45 minutes to ski. The helicopter flight to the next summit or ridge usually takes six minutes.
From Dunderberg Peak the high-altitude helicopter passed ridge lines at an altitude of 200 feet, cruising at a 150-m.p.h. clip.
Across the valley, several steep chutes were off in the distance. "See that chute?" asked Oldham. "I have several skiers from Squaw Valley who want to ski that tomorrow."
The long, narrow chute made Mammoth's Hangman's Hollow look like pasture land. A sliver of snow dropped for 3,000 vertical feet between two ledges of rock that never opened more than 20 feet apart.