A story from the Wild West days of Heli-Skiing
In 2005 I received an assignment from Powder Magazine to document a Heli-Ski party in the Bugaboos to celebrate 40 years of Heli-Skiing. The story was far more than a magazine article, and from the magazine assignment the project transformed into a 293-page book called Bugaboo Dreams: A Story of Skiers, Helicopters and Mountains.
For two years I interviewed the characters involved in those 40 years of innovation and adventure, and in the process came across some wild stories. In the early days of Heli-Skiing, there were no radios, no avalanche transceivers, no mountain weather forecasts, no collaborative safety program between guides - and a bottle of wine was shared at lunch time.
Of all the stories I heard, this is one of the wildest; told by Bob Geber, a guide who retired from guiding just two years ago:
“The pilot had a southern accent and no mountain flying experience. As we were landing I looked down to enter flight time in my book – when I looked up all I could see was snow.”
The pilot reacted at the last second and pulled up just before hitting the slope so the helicopter crashed with much of the force on its skids. As the machine rolled backwards, a skid stuck in the snow crust, preventing a probably fatal tumble. When things stopped moving, Geber had one thought: “!#&$, I’m still alive!”
During the crash, he slammed his head into something in the fuselage, and blood from the wound pooled in his eyes. His second thought was: “!#&$, I’m blind!”
He could smell fuel, so he kicked down the door and started running away. After a few steps he had a third thought: “!#&$, I’m the guide!”
Wiping the blood out of his eyes was a relief, as he realized he still could see. He turned around and helped everyone else out of the helicopter. No one was hurt, and there was wine in the lunch, so they grabbed the lunch and moved away from the helicopter to wait for a rescue. There was no long-range radio in those days, so Geber hoped someone would realize the helicopter hadn’t returned and send out a second ship.
They drank the wine and ate the lunch, and still no rescue was forthcoming. The short winter day was half over, so Geber decided they’d better try to get out under their own power before darkness fell. While the helicopter was bent, with pieces scattered everywhere, the basket miraculously protected the skis during the crash. Everyone grabbed their skis and did what they knew how to do – ski. The only problem was the pilot. He had no skis and wouldn’t have known what to do with them if he did.
The snow was too soft to walk without debilitating effort, so Geber had the idea to make a sled using a disk-like cover that fits around the base of the helicopter’s rotor assembly on the very top of the fuselage. There was enough room for the pilot to sit in it, like a child on a saucer, and the disk slid easily on the downhill. They left the wreck and headed down the mountain, eleven skiers easily cruising along, and the pilot sledding behind on a piece of his mangled helicopter. When the terrain was less steep, they attached a rope to the makeshift sled and pulled the pilot along, but when they hit a flat section, with deep, soft snow, it became impossible to pull. He tried to walk, but ended up wallowing.
To make forward progress, Geber and one of the stronger skiers each gave up one ski so the pilot, with zero ski experience, could use two. Gently rolling terrain was perfect for the new system and they made good time, the pilot even started enjoying the idea of skiing with the exhilaration of sliding easily down a few small hills. Soon they crested a bigger hill, and Geber was ready to change back to the sledding system, but the pilot asked, “Hey Bob, do you think I could ski by myself down this one?”
Geber thought there wasn’t much of a hill, so he let the pilot go ahead. Geber remembers, shaking his head, “He went about 50 feet, fell over, and started squealing like a pig. We couldn’t figure out what he could have done to himself in such a short distance and insignificant fall, but I skied up to him and he was holding his leg. Immediately I could see he had somehow gotten a compound fracture. The bone was obvious sticking out against his pants.”
By now the day was well the way to a guide’s worst nightmare, in fact nightmare on top of nightmare. With a crashed helicopter and a pilot with a broken leg, Geber was in no mood to listen to the pilot’s screaming. “I shoved 200mg of Demoral up his #$$, and pretty soon he was grinning stupidly, happy as a baby.”
By this point a rescue helicopter found the beleaguered skiers. The other guide was so happy to see the entire team alive and well, he got out of the helicopter and started running towards Geber – directly into the path of the rotor. To end the day, Geber ran at his fellow guide and dove at his legs with a football tackle, effectively knocking the other guide over before he decapitated himself on the blade.
Yup, more than a few things have changed in Heli-Skiing.
Photo courtesy CMH Archives.