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Ruby Magic

Andrew McCarthy heads to the Ruby Mountains for three days of great food and untouched powder reachable only by helicopter.

Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience's helicopter soaring over a ski run. (Joe Royer)

Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience’s helicopter soaring over a ski run. (Joe Royer)

By Andrew McCarthy

“This is high-consequence terrain, so…” Jamie Laidlaw shrugs and pushes off the precipice of a 10,000-foot mountain, leaving me dangling on the ridge, with no choice but to follow. He is full of such laidback threats. “We’re just gonna ski fall-line here,” he assures me early in the day, as I stare down at a 38-degree pitch peppered with not insubstantial boulders. Later, before slipping into a tightly packed glade of whitebark pine and aspen, he turns to me: “Enjoy your powder experience. Just keep left of my tracks—or it’s problematic.”

Mr. Laidlaw is one of a half-dozen guides with Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience, located in remote northeast Nevada—a spot that may be the best-kept secret in downhill. The Rubies hide in plain sight: Part of the Humboldt National Forest, they rise over 11,000 feet and stretch for nearly 80 miles. Despite their size, there’s not a chair lift in sight. But some of the country’s finest heli-skiing has been going on here for more than 30 years.

In 1971 Joe Royer, a young ski patroller in Snowbird, Utah, was driving his Volkswagen Beetle back to his parents’ home in Marin, Calif., when he saw some lonely snow-covered mountains to the south and went to investigate. “Back then it was really desolate out here, just a few cowboys and some gold miners,” Mr. Royer confides. (There’s not much more to it than that today.) He found himself drawn back to the stark mountains, and in a few years, began one of the first heli-skiing operations in the country.

Today, Mr. Royer, a straight shooter with weathered looks that confirm a life lived out-of-doors, is one of the industry’s elder statesmen, as well as president of the Heli-Ski U.S. Association. Each year, from late January until April, he and his wife, Francy, welcome up to 16 intermediate and advanced skiers at a time for three days of backcountry experience in some of the finest powder in the world.

They operate out of Reds Ranch, a 10-bedroom property nestled in a cottonwood grove on 92 acres in the high desert, attracting folks who want high-adrenaline skiing, great food and a low-key atmosphere. Ms. Royer whips up dishes like pan-roasted Idaho trout and basil-marinated elk ribeye steak while guests lounge beside the fire in the great room, cocktails in hand, beneath the stuffed buffalo head and moose antlers.

“It’s pretty laid-back around here,” Mr. Royer tells me as we sit by the stone hearth. “Those young hotshots who want a 50-degree pitch and to jump off cliffs, we send them up to Alaska.” The attitude-free environment helps explain the 68-year-old grandmother from Seattle sitting on a nearby couch and the 10-year-old who will later tear past me down the mountain. (He dubs his first day of heli-skiing, “The best day of my life so far.”)

Before dawn each morning, Mr. Royer and his guides gather in the garage/staging-room. Lengthy conversations on “dew point spread” and “freezing line” give way to freewheeling debates on the merits of avalanche protection air bags and shovel packs, peppered with digressions on Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and Crown Royal whisky, before coming back around to snow density and where the best and safest powder can be found on a given day. It’s a tight-knit unit with a humble confidence and deep love for the mountains—a feeling they transmit to the guests and one that permeates the days on the slopes.

“You’re bound to experience a little heli-stress,” Mr. Royer warns me on the first morning. “Don’t worry; it’s normal. After two runs you’ll be an old hand.”

I’m not actually aware of feeling any stress at all—until I’m handed an avalanche transceiver, drilled on its application, and instructed to “wear it at all times.” By the time Tom Carter, Mr. Royer’s right-hand man for 30 years, starts to discuss helicopter etiquette— “When that machine settles down into the snow, those blades will enter you personal space pretty quickly”—my heli-stress is palpable.

“But when it’s all said and done,” Mr. Royer jumps in, “we’re gonna ruin you. You’ll never want to wait in a lift line again.”

I try to smile.

The helicopter carries just four skiers, one guide, and a pilot. We break into three groups for the day. The flight from the meadow outside the lodge takes us deep into the Rubies in minutes. Arcing through ragged canyons, I get my first close-up view of the terrain that will dominate my life for the following three days. It’s a harsh, dramatic, un-manicured wilderness. Tom’s parting words from the morning echo in my head: “There’s enough teeth in these mountains and enough magic to keep you interested.”

Too quickly, the helicopter descends towards the narrow saddle of an exposed ridge. There is nowhere to land, yet the chopper goes lower. Snow is whipping into a frenzy beneath us. We set down on a pinhead, two feet from a 2,000-foot sheer drop-off. Heli-stress indeed. We unload and hunker down close beside the chopper. The retreating rotor blades create a weather system of their own for a few violent seconds, and then it is resoundingly quiet. I feel my heart racing. Is it the altitude? The beauty? The terror? With only one way down, I push off.

After just a few timid turns I’m in a thin grove of Aspen. I panic: Where’s the trail? The trees call on my attention. I drop into a more aggressive posture and weave through them. A wide valley of virgin snow suddenly opens below me, and before I finish my first run, I am laughing like an idiot.

The realization that there are no lines, no set trails, no cramped gondolas imposing limitations elicits a rush of adrenaline. When the feeling of freedom settles, it yields to a sense of wonder, and then peace, as the day in the mountains wears on. We fly to and ski different corners of the valley, and then up and over into another drainage for more. On a high ridge, I devour a chicken and avocado sandwich and watch clouds rip across the peaks.

Over the next few days I ski more than 50,000 vertical feet. I see no one besides the dozen skiers staying at the lodge and no tracks others than the ones we make.

On my last morning in the Rubies we are high up, close to 11,000 feet, on a run Mr. Royer named Rolling Thunder (since no one else is out here, he and his crew have named the more than 200 runs they’ve found). It is more of an Alpine experience than some of the valleys we’d been skiing; trees are far below. The Rubies are showing off in the sun and the metamorphic rock is glistening. We make one sweeping, weaving run after another in powder that feels like we are skiing through a bowl of heavy cream. Deep in the glacially carved valley we load into the helicopter one last time.

The chopper swoops up and arcs into a feather-light touchdown just beneath the sheer cliff that forms a cathedral-like wall above. The blades slash at the sky and the backwash rips out daggers of crystal snow. Then the air is still and silent. I look out. The sky against the jagged peak of Ruby Dome is a hard, cloudless blue, a lone black bird circles. The sun pours down and sequins of light shimmer off the cascading fields of untouched powder below. I’m aware of my breathing. My legs are sore but solid beneath me. Silently, Mr. Royer skis over and smiles. He knows what I am thinking. I nod. “You’re right,” I tell him, a grin spreading across on my face. “How am I ever going back to a chair lift?”

I’m ruined.

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