Unique outfit caters to rare breed of skier, snowboarder

Business finds backcountry niche

Posted: Friday, September 13, 2002

KETCHUM, Idaho (AP) -- In January, when mountain snow is just reaching its finest quality, a rare breed of skiers will begin hitting central Idaho's slopes and giving true meaning to the cliche, ''high-flying adventure.''

They're the heli-skiers and heli-boarders who take a helicopter in search of premium, virgin backcountry slopes where snow has been known to be up to a man's armpits and where they make the first trails from the peak to the base.

If the skiers in this sport are rare, the helicopter service that totes them around the backcountry looking for the perfect powder is even rarer.

There's only one in Idaho, Sun Valley Heli-Ski Guides. It's been in business for 35 years and just received a five-year renewal on its permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

One requirement of the new permit is that skiing in the Durrance area north of Ketchum, a favorite of owner Mark Baumgardner, 52, will be phased out in five years. The time is to allow the firm time to scout for new areas.

Baumgardner also will be required to erect and operate a seasonal yurt for guided and unguided skiing near 12,078-foot Hyndman Peak east of Sun Valley.

''It is not only our mandate but our desire to provide a range of diverse, quality recreational opportunities in Sawtooth National Forest,'' said forest Supervisor Ruth Monahan in announcing the permit renewal.

The A-Star Eurocopter used by Baumgardner carries a pilot, a guide and four skiers.

In a typical day, it might shuttle four groups from its base near Cathedral Pines up Idaho Highway 75 north of Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters to a chosen backcountry ski area.

It's not a cheap sport. A six-hour day of skiing from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. costs about $700, according to Baumgardner, and includes multiple lifts to a peak for several runs as well as lunch and refreshments.

Last season Baumgardner said Sun Valley Heli-Ski operated for 83 days, flew 100 trips with 531 guests who made 2,609 ski runs -- about five runs per skier during a day's outing.

Despite the cost, Baumgardner said the sport is attracting more skiers -- some who can easily afford the hefty price tag as well as others who simply scrimp and save all year for the rare thrill.

Age is no barrier, either. Baumgardner said his guests have even included a family of eight -- grandparents, parents and children. He has a regular skier from Utah who's in his 80s. Children as young as 8 years old also have joined the sport.

This year, Baumgardner announced a new wrinkle -- flying into a new lodge operation on the South Fork of the Boise River for several days of heli-skiing.

He said it will be the only fly-in heli-ski facility in the lower 48 states.

Once the season ends, Baumgardner says the helicopter returns to California where it's used in firefighting operations.

And his ski guides turn to off-season jobs in construction or as river guides and, in one case, heli-skiing in faraway Greenland.



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