Wasatch Wonderland on a Whim
Sometimes opportunities arise that seem too good to be true. And while I am usually pretty cautious, skeptical, and even dismissive of such things, I recently found myself in the predicament of having to choose to pull the trigger or watch what might be one of the greatest weekends of my life just pass me by. To make matters worse, I had less than eighteen hours to decide and mobilize.
The phone call came on a Wednesday evening from my good friend and co-founder of Squirrel (wingsuits and parachutes) Mike Steen regarding a quick weekend trip to the Wasatch Range in Utah for whatever the conditions allowed. Skiing, speedriding, wingsuiting and ski-BASE were all on the agenda. Mike’s heterosexual lifemate and other co-founder of Squirrel would have to cancel the last minute trip due to prior obligations. Mike explained he needed an individual with a decent knowledge of avalanche rescue and mountain travel awareness as well as at least a moderate skiing ability. I’m not sure exactly how far down his call list I was, but it was awesome to get the invite in any case. The catch was that I would have to be on a flight heading to Salt Lake in under eighteen hours.
I had a tremendous amount on my plate with school and family at the time and my initial reaction was that I just wasn’t sure if it was in the cards. Then Mike added that we would have access to an A-Star 350 helicopter courtesy of our good friend Nic “Savage Sac” Sacco. I was now furiously going through my SkyMiles account to make the flight happen and simultaneously figuring out how many assignments I could get through on the hour and a half plane ride to and from Salt Lake. I would just find a way to make this happen. It was too good to be true, but it was as true as it gets, so I pulled the trigger and bought the tickets.
Like most of my adventures, I pack for every possibility. With the crew that we assembled (Marshall Miller: pro skier, BASE jumper, speedflyer, paraglider, Mike Steen: Pro wingsuit pilot, world-class paraglider, BASE jumper. Matt Galland: pro Skier, trail runner, heli pilot. Nic Sacco: heli pilot, pro wingsuit pilot, race car driver. Danny Bryson: Photographer/videographer, ripping skiier) and a highly capable heli at our disposal, I would be a moron to not bring everything in my arsenal. Nothing is worse than having an opportunity and being the only one not prepared for it. So the kitchen sink was packed.
I linked up with Steen at the airport, loaded the rental truck and headed for dinner to talk over the schedule for the next several days. We’d lodge in Spanish Fork, as that’s where the helicopters were based.
Day one arrived and the breakfast at the adjacent Cracker Barrel was as glorious as Mike and I had hoped. Satisfied by full bellies and fueled by coffee, we headed to the hanger to meet up with the crew. Marshall would not be able to make the first day due to a work obligation, but another good friend, ripping skier and world class paraglider Steve Mayer would take his spot on the bird. After a short discussion, we decided to do a bit of recce and feel out some of the lower angled zones with moderate tree protection. We loaded the bird and fired her up.
Once into the range we could see evidence of massive slides that had propagated almost the entire length of slopes and ridges. While not exactly difficult to do since the Wasatch are a very steep, rocky range, some of the slides ripped to the ground. We finally decided on a zone that would allow is to test the conditions with a reasonable margin for safety. Nic set the heli down, we unloaded, and he took off to check out the pick-up zone.
When the snow finally settles after liftoff and the bird heads to the PZ, there is a moment of quiet and you just sit back and take it all in. It’s these moments when I truly realize how fortunate I am and how my persistence, hard work, and dedication to craft and self has paid off. Then back in the moment I go.
Our first few runs were pretty mellow. Smooth, open bowls that had good top and bottom LZs and plenty of outs in case we did rip a slide (avy). While the snow wasn’t waist deep anymore due to the wind event in the days prior, it was still boot-to-thigh-deep in most places. Quite alright by us!
As the day went on, we got a bit more comfortable and ambitious. While still erring on the side of caution, we continued to test how steep we could safely ski. After five or six bumps and several zone recces, we were fully satisfied with our first day. With tired legs, rumbling bellies, and a pretty good idea of where and what we would charge after the next day, we wiped down our gear, cleaned up the bird and retired for the night.
After a second straight Cracker Barrel breakfast, we headed to the hanger to get the blades spinning on another rad day spent with friends in the mountains. The weather had taken a bit of a turn. It was windy with a slight overcast that would turn into partly cloudy as the day wore on.
During our heli-side planning, we all decided that we would test the waters of steeper slopes, but would also stick to the trees for better visibility (with the low, flat-light conditions) as well as better overall avy safety (trees help anchor the snow creating a more cohesive bond with the crystals which are then less likely to break apart and cause a slide).
The wind would force us to leave speedwings at the hanger. With heli loaded up, we headed east to look at a few different zones that we were hoping to get in. Being Matt Galland’s backyard, he brought us to a series of steep couloirs known as the Crow’s Foot. It’s named this for the look of the three, incredibly steep, narrow couloirs that merge into a slightly larger, equally as steep couloir that covers roughly two thousand feet of vertical terrain. We were drooling and trembling with simultaneous nervousness and excitement. The crux of the matter was the condition of the snow itself. Would it hold? Would it release and slide the length of the couloir? And would we be able to safely land the heli on the knife-edged ridgeline riddled with trees and sharp, jagged rocks?
Was it possible? Yes. Could we do it? Sure. But was it a good idea to stack so many factors against us? Probably not. We all looked at each other to make an honest assessment if skiing the coulee was even a good idea. We came up with a group consensus that we would just pass.
The rest of the day was full of tree-banging, high-fiving, leg burning, perma-grinning, thigh-deep powder skiing with a great group of rad friends. Each load was more fun than the last. We laid down fresh tracks in numerous zones and were able to lap a few of the zones several times, as they were just too damn fun to not go back for seconds and thirds. The feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day for leaving nothing on the table was incredible. However, we weren’t done quite yet.
With the sun racing towards the horizon, Marshall called in a NOTAM to the FAA. We crawled out of our ski boots, zipped up our wingsuits and did a quick lap around the sky minutes before the sun retired.
At dinner that night, Nic and Matt shared their interest in taking a heli ride a couple hours south towards Bryce Canyon National Park. While the area is pretty high in elevation, it doesn’t typically get a lot of snow and when it does, it typically doesn’t stick very long. However, the storm that hit prior ot our arrival dumped nearly four feet in the Bryce Canyon area and a lot of it was sticking around. Nic assured us that the landscape of such magnificent red rocks was well worth the two-hour heli ride.
Per Nic’s promise, the flight south was incredible. The signature red rocks contrasted by the white blanket of snow was eye-gasmic and became more incredible to the closer we got to Bryce Canyon. We circled through a few areas looking for zones to ski when we came across several cliffs in the three-fifty-to-five-hundred-foot range.
We chose a cliff that had about fifty feet of in-run on a somewhat shallow slope and a sparse amount of snow on it. We landed the heli, got out and walked around, threw some rocks off the cliff and assessed that this would be a viable Ski-BASE jump.
Marshall had the honors and after a bit of high-fiving, some “out with the bad, in with the good” deregulated breathing, Marshall sent it in the only way he knows how: buttery smooth. After a laid out front flip, Marshall took the jump nice and deep, opened perfectly on heading, hooked a quick turn, and landed safe and sound. While a sense of relief came over me that Marshall had just tested the waters and proved that they were good for smooth sailing, I immediately felt the pressure mount. It was my turn.
Marshall got a quick heli bump from Nic back up to the top, switched out my pilot chute (his was too small for the jump, thus we had to share mine) and stepped aside for me to go. After a quick (albeit repetitive) mental visualization of what I needed to do and a re-direction of my focus from the things that I didn’t want to happen to the things that I would make happen, I pointed my ski tips down the hill.
My focus was laser-sharp on the exit point, the point at which my skis leave the Earth and I am free of everything else in the world (except gravity). The feeling is quite surreal, as it is a mixture of freedom and fear. The dichotomy of the two feelings come together, providing a euphoric, exciting moment that ends all too quickly.
I pitched my pilot chute, felt the canopy come off my back and waited for the opening shock of a (hopefully on-heading) healthy canopy over my head. Much like knowing is half the bottle (Yo Joe!), an open canopy is only half the jump. I still had a tree-filled snow field on a twenty-five-degree slope with rocks, a cliff and gully to navigate to and land on. Time to stick it. A quick mental calculation, turn onto short final, approach and flare and everything hits me. The feeling. The emotion. The excitement. The relief. The Stoke.
After getting back to the top of the cliff, we realized we were getting short on our day and long on our list of fun for the weekend. But we just couldn’t call it good before we skied between the walls and towers of the magnificent red rocks of southern Utah.
While the snow was smooth, you could feel how thin the coverage was. A feeling that was a testament to how special it was to be able to ski this zone that rarely gets enough skiable snow. We slashed and smeared turns between the red rocks until we entered the trees. A few jumps, hops, and tree bashing turns later, and we were in the pickup zone. Once we messaged Nic that we were ready and the zone was clear of obstructions, we took a moment to take one last pic. A selfie that captured the comradery, stoke, and overall feeling of the weekend.
There was solace in hearing rotor blades approach us in while we were in PZ (Pick-up Zone) posture. That sound takes me back to a time when rotor blades spinning up meant we were about to go to some foreign place and get it on, and when rotor blades smashing through the air, approaching from a distance to pick us up, meant we were halfway back to being home.
This time, it meant the assault on the Utah backcountry was over and that I would be returning to the grind of work, school, and responsibilities.
Writing this, months later, and looking back on my time in both arenas, it’s hard to tell which one I look forward to or miss the most. Maybe neither. Maybe it’s just a trade. An evolution in life. Moving from one series of events to another, relying on a skill set to get you through the event, with people you have an unbreakable bond with. In any event, I’m happy where I’m at. This is a good place.