Fresh snow – time to board a helicopter in the Ruby Mountains |

Fresh snow – time to board a helicopter in the Ruby Mountains

Sam Bauman
Appeal staff writer

The snow is fresh and beautiful in the Sierra Nevada. So is it in the Ruby Mountains by Elko. Sporting in the snow is fine right here at home, but there’s a lure over in eastern Nevada that is awesome

Maybe 50,000 people live in Elko County’s 17,000 square miles. In those wild Ruby Mountains, the hills go on and on. It’s year-round recreation land, but the most exciting has to be the heliskiing and heliboarding. And with all the fresh snow it’s a heliski paradise.

It’s three days of riding a chopper from the landing pad at Lamoille, skiing fantastic Ruby Mountain’s unmarked, ungroomed runs, living in luxury at Red’s Ranch, where Joe Royer, 57, and his wife, Francy, run things. A minimum of 39,000 vertical feet cruising are guaranteed guests. Not cheap, of course: $2,850 will do the job.

Royer can’t recall his first heliskiing experience. Both the skier and the sport were young then. “It was in Utah, in the early 1970s.”

Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing opened in 1977 with one leased chopper. “We had 12 guests that year. Now we do about 1,200 skier days each season.”

The season begins late and extends to mid-April. Guides each take charge of four skiers at a time. Skis ride in a basket on the outside of the aircraft. Weather depending, groups get in between eight and 12 runs a day. Snowcats transport skiers in bad weather.

“It’s timed so that when the first group is at the bottom, the last group is at the top. There’s not much down time. The runs are unmarked, but they’re all mapped out on GPS. The guides know right where they’re going.” He says just about anybody can heliski powder.

For many of the guests, heliskiing is a continuing experience. “We have about an 80 percent return rate,” Royer says.

“In the beginning, we’d put people up in Elko hotels,” he said. Now lodging is at the posh Red’s Ranch, complete with a library of 50,000 books. Francy oversees dining. “She had worked at Alta and came down to heliski,” Royer said. The two married a year later.

“Sometimes it just amazes me that it’s all here,” Royer said. “It wasn’t here, and we did it. I’m really proud of that. At the same time, I feel incredibly lucky. You’re fortunate to have a passion in life. If you can also make a living at it, then you’re really, really lucky. We are really, really lucky.”

The combination of world-class skiing, riding and luxurious lodging places Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing among the premier helicopter skiing operations in North America. Conditions are at their peak March and April. Each exclusive three-day tour accommodates a maximum of 16 individuals. Included are:

• All meals (except dinner the arrival night)

• Three nights’ lodging

• Guide service

• Ski rental (but bring your own boots)

• And a vertical guarantee of 39,000 vertical feet.

At times when the helicopter cannot fly due to storms, high winds and other weather conditions, guests get to access the Snowcat terrain, which is done via helicopters to the Snowcat base area at a 7,500-foot elevation.

The Ruby Mountains have peaks above 11,000 feet, with the Wasatch Mountains of Utah to the east.

For current rates, conditions and info, visit or call at (775) 753 6867.

A personal note on heliskiing

Several years ago, Joe Royer invited me to try heliskiing in the Rubies. It was a memorable experience, to offer feeble praise. As a news person, I didn’t rate staying at Red’s Ranch, but I lounged around there, dived into fine dining and great camraderie. Most of the other guests were wealthy, one had even been given the experience by friends. But the hotel in Lamoille was just fine, nice and old-timey.

Before climbing into the helicopter, we all had a course in mountain survival, including use of an avalanche beacon. That was sobering. That morning, three of us climbed into the chopper, skis tucked outside in a basket. Heli-flying was not new to me; I’d ridden with Special Forces craft in Germany and Italy, but this was different – all civilian gear. The views were brilliant in every direction.

We put down on a mountaintop, knelt out of the downdraft as the aircraft took off, put on our skis, and moved over to the edge of a nearby cliff. Very steep, all untouched snow, aspen groves on each side of the long chute. I stood there, looking down and wondering if I could hack it. After all, untouched powder like this was a rare thing for a Tahoe skier.

But I shrugged an invisible shrug, pushed off my poles, telling myself to stay forward, hands out front, turn on both skis, and don’t panic. The powder will slow you down.

The snow flew up in a rooster tail as I followed the guide’s tracks. He had said this would be about a mile run, and I could see him off in the distance. The run was every bit as exhilarating as promised – and I was skiing deep powder like I knew what I was doing.

Of course, at one point moving along a nearly flat area, I relaxed too much and took a header. Happily, one of the other skiers stopped and helped me dig out.

It was only one day for me, and that night we swapped lies at the posh dinner table, cuisine by Francy. I was off the next morning. Back home, I never got to ski that kind of powder again, and by now I probably couldn’t do it. But, as the song goes, the memory lingers on.

-Sam Bauman