What Would Leonardo Think?
When the helicopter comes in to pick you up, it’s like a tornado arriving from across the snow. Or a mega-mutant, angry bee.
At the landing site, the skis have been stacked on the pilot’s right side, where a little flagstick helps to guide him in. The skiers are all on the left, hunkered around the guide’s pack. The four adults are on one knee, as per instructions; the two middle-schoolers hide their helmeted faces from the furious noise and spray. The skids – the bee’s metal legs – settle down a couple of feet from our little human cluster, though it seems like mere inches.
The guide, Mark, had delivered the morning Power Point on what to expect. Over coffee and snacks he talked about the terrain we would be skiing, the (unlikely) possibility of avalanches, the protocols of skiing in the backcountry. He spent quite a bit of time on the helicopter itself, on how the tremendous noise and power of it so close can cause people to rush, to feel there is somehow a sense of urgency. There isn’t, Mark told us. In fact, it’s important to move deliberately round the ship, to be calm, and aware, and unhurried. So the first time the ship swooped in to pick us up, we were composed. On the outside, at least.
You can’t hear to talk, so hand signals serve for communication. I was designated doorman, holding the door open and helping people get up and in (not the easiest trick with ski boots on): sixth-graders Jennifer and Soleil, Jen’s mom Jan, Soliel’s dad Kent. We helped each other with the shoulder belts, and when Mark had loaded the skis into the basket and taken his seat next to the pilot, we gave him the thumbs-up ready signal.
Not that anyone is ready for the stomach-dropping acrobatics as the ship takes off. Some Helitrax LZs are openings in the trees – in the bottom of the Lake Hope zone, for example. Some are in rising, v-shaped drainages, as in Poverty Gulch. The pilot doesn’t have the option to lift off and go forward. Instead, he wheels up and back the way he came in with a motion like a backward swan dive.
It’s a rollercoaster ride and a twisting falling dream both at the same time. Or like you’ve been reincarnated as a crow, confidently toying with gravity and wind.
Everyone in the back howled the first time we lifted off, peeling away from the aspen trees in front of The Peaks. The little girls shrieked for a solid minute before settling down to look at the view. It was their first helicopter ride.
Leonardo da Vinci conceived and sketched what he called an “airscrew” vertical-flying machine in 1493, but it wasn’t until well into the 1920s that engineers figured out how to make them actually fly. And decades later still to solve the contradictions of torque and lift and power that resulted in the complex delicate machines we have now: news-channel ‘copters, fire-fighting helicopters, medevac helicopters, the President’s Marine One whirlybird.
For skiers lucky enough to fly in one to the ridgelines surrounding Telluride, it is a kind of magic-carpet bubble, an inconceivable advantage compared to the time-honored skin-track ascent. On the day I went, one hot-skiing group flew to and carved down a half dozen of the most iconic chutes in the region: Sheep Chute, Beattie-Fuller, Fatty’s, O-Chute. It was a form of steep plunder bordering on – no, it was – gluttony.
Our group skied mellower terrain. But it was just as miraculous – to be dropped off at 13,000 feet, again and again, minutes from your last pick-up, with a virginal, sparkling world at your feet.
Inevitably, helicopters stir up ambivalence. They are loud. They are elitist; the jet fuel alone must be $2,000 per hour. Don’t ask about the carbon footprint. There is the intrusion into otherwise-wild high country.
More than once as our pilot skimmed the treetops and astonishment leapt again in my chest, I thought of a high school friend who flew helicopters in Vietnam. He came home unable to accept his earth-bound adrenalin deficit. Not even surfing could get him high. We listened in horror (who was this person now?) as he told us about chasing tigers from above the canopy and the thrill of turning so hard and fast to escape Viet Cong rifle fire his rotors snipped fronds from the tops of palm trees.
With a technology this godlike, I asked myself then and again Saturday, however did we lose that war?