ARCHIVED  December 1, 1997

Helicopters, snowcats take you to the best snow

Untracked vertical, empty slopes and no lift lines. It may sound like a snowy daydream for those with champagne powder tastes on a ski-resort budget.
Fork over some cash, however (from $75 to more than $6,000), and a handful of Colorado ski companies can offer the experience of a lifetime through the steep and deep, either by helicopter or snowcat.
Heli-skiing doesn˜t come cheap.
Telluride Heli-Trax helicopter, complete with guides, will take a group of nine on a private tour for a little more than $6,000. Snowcat skiing, riding a big snow grooming machine up remote terrain, is more in the $75 to $125 per day range. Either way, such outfits may be just the ticket for skiers looking to avoid hassles and crowds.
Telluride Heli-Trax˜s permit area is known as the "San Juan Triangle," bordered by Ouray, Telluride, Silverton and Purgatory Resort, near Durango. The helicopter drops off skiers anywhere within the permit area, depending on snow stability and avalanche conditions.
Want to give a heli-ski gift to a ski-fanatic friend? Heli-Trax charges $575 a day for five runs and $75 for each additional run.
"Helicopters are expensive," said Mike Friedman, Heli-Trax project director. "Most of us don˜t go out and rent a $1.2 million machine."
Looking to spend a little less for the backcountry experience? Snowcat companies are happy to oblige.
Chicago Ridge Snowcat Tours, entering its ninth year at Ski Cooper near Leadville, charges $75 for a half day of skiing, usually about three or four runs; $125 for a full day of eight to 12 runs, depending on the strength of skiers in the group, including lunch.
But what runs they are. Chicago Ridge, which gets an average annual snowfall of about 300 inches, features slopes of 1,500 to 5,500 feet in length, with vertical drops of up to 1,400 feet per run.
Groups of eight to 12 skiers usually are accompanied by at least two guides. Snowcat companies hand out radio transceivers to every client and gives instructions on how to use the gadgets in case someone is lost in an avalanche.
Last season, the company retired its old bench-seater snowcat and enlisted the services of a new $75,000 Piston Bully Tour Cat. Featuring a larger Mercedes engine, a smoother ride, increased seating capacity, upholstered bucket seats, wall-to-wall carpet, tinted skylights and a stereo system, the vehicle rides more like a Lear Jet than a snowcat.
During the outfit˜s inaugural year, clients had access to about 600 acres of backcountry terrain. Since then, that number has tripled, and company officials hope to expand the area to the south, increasing the number of acres to 2,400.
Depending on snow conditions, the Chicago Ridge season stretches from mid-December to late March, available every day but Tuesdays. Reservations are required; (719) 486-2277.
Monarch Ski and Snowboard Area, near Salida, has another of the state˜s best-kept backcountry secrets: Monarch˜s Great Divide Snowcat Tours.
"It˜s the steepest snowcat skiing in Colorado," said Mike Potts, Monarch˜s ski school supervisor.
Depending on snow conditions, Great Divide˜s season starts in mid- to late-December and ends in late-March or early April. A full day of backcountry skiing costs $125 per person. On weekdays, for $1,000, a group of 10-12 skiers can have the whole snowcat to themselves. Call for information at (719) 539-3573.
Potts said Great Divide offers skiers a variety of terrain — 1,000 acres along the Continental Divide — including trees, bowls, glades and steeps. "You name it, we pretty much cover it," he said, adding that trip reservations for this season are pouring in. "We˜re almost totally full."
And, as with any backcountry skiing experience, the views are incredible.
"On a clear day," Potts said, "you can see into Utah, and you can see Pike˜s Peak."
As far as helicopter skiing goes, group rates at Heli-Trax include a minimum two hours of flight time. Skiers can decide how they want to use that time — fewer, shorter flights and lots of vertical feet in one area, or numerous, longer flights and shorter runs for a taste of several different mountains.
"When the helicopter leaves the face of the earth," Friedman says, "that˜s when the clock starts ticking."
For more information about Heli-Trax, call (970) 728-4904, send e-mail to helitrax@infozone.org, or visit the company˜s Web site at www.telluridemm.com/helitrax.

Untracked vertical, empty slopes and no lift lines. It may sound like a snowy daydream for those with champagne powder tastes on a ski-resort budget.
Fork over some cash, however (from $75 to more than $6,000), and a handful of Colorado ski companies can offer the experience of a lifetime through the steep and deep, either by helicopter or snowcat.
Heli-skiing doesn˜t come cheap.
Telluride Heli-Trax helicopter, complete with guides, will take a group of nine on a private tour for a little more than $6,000. Snowcat skiing, riding a big snow grooming machine up remote terrain, is more…

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