Joe Royer turns to me and says, “Go ahead, Melissa, and lead us out.” After spending the day making sure I maintained the requisite 50 feet behind him or another skier in front of me, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. “Really?” I ask. “Yep,” Royer grins. Afraid he’ll change his mind, I immediately point my skis down and drop into the Come Line (named for a kind of bet in craps), a 2,000-foot-long slot canyon in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains and a signature run of the Royer family’s Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience.
Royer’s interest in the Ruby Mountains—christened by 1800s-era prospectors who mistook the garnets they found there for precious gemstones—was piqued back in the early 1970s while he was ski patrolling at Utah’s Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort. He’d pass by the Rubies’ craggy peaks—located 270 miles due west of Park City in northeastern Nevada—on his way to and from his Northern California hometown. Eventually, he stopped to check them out. What he found was a virtually untouched wilderness of glacier-carved canyons, dramatic couloirs, and wide open bowls, all filled with a dry, cold snow rivalling the Wasatch Mountains’ famous powder.
In 1977, Royer left Snowbird, received Nevada’s first and only—to this day—commercial helicopter skiing permit, and launched Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience. “We have access to more than 200,000 acres that I’m still exploring today,” he says. Soon after, Joe’s future wife Francy, who was living in Park City, was introduced to both him and the Rubies by her close friend and coworker Julie Wilson, former Deer Valley Resort director of food and beverage. Francy and Joe married in 1985 and settled in Lamoille, a tiny ranching hamlet 20 miles from Elko at the foot of the Rubies. There, she guided skiing clients and lent her culinary talents to her husband’s then-fledgling heli-ski operation. The couple’s son, Michael, was born in 1989 and has been an active participant in the family business ever since.
Whereas helicopter skiing outfits in places like Alaska or the Canadian Rockies are notorious for testosterone-fueled chest-beating about vertical feet skied and close calls with avalanches, the vibe at Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience is decidedly more laid back. Sure, I could feel the butterflies beginning to swirl around in my stomach—a common phenomenon known as heli-stress—as Joe, Michael, and the rest of the guide staff took me and 15 other skiers and snowboarders through a safety protocol before we boarded our first helicopter lift. But most of what we skied was no steeper than an intermediate run at most Western ski resorts. I found that the experience isn’t about clawing your way down white-knuckle steeps, but achieving that Zen-like rhythm on a seemingly endless, powder-filled slope—like the run I took down the Come Line. And since Royer and his guide staff have established more than 400 helicopter landing and pick-up zones throughout the Rubies, skiing the same terrain twice during the typical three-day booking is rare.
The 2017 season marks not only Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience’s 40th year in business but also its next chapter. Last spring, on a secluded piece of land with endless views into the Great Basin, the Royers began construction of a 10,000-square-foot lodge they’ve dubbed the Ruby 360 (peep inside here). There, starting in January, the Royers will host guests from the moment they arrive in Lamoille until they depart after their last run. Lodge amenities will include a full-service bar, hot tub, infinity swimming pool (opening in June), and, the icing on the cake, three of Francy’s legendary meals per day.
For those looking for even more intimacy with the Rubies, the Royers also offer lodging in one of two backcountry yurts ($250 per night): the High Yurt, perched along a ridgeline at 9,700 feet above sea level; and the Conrad Creek Yurt, nestled in an aspen grove at 7,000 feet on 120 private acres. Both are comfortably furnished, have solar power and a fully equipped kitchen, and are ideal base camps for backcountry skiing or snowshoe adventures. (Helicopter access to the High Yurt is available for an additional fee.)
I now know what all the hype is about helicopter skiing. Pure adventure—that’s the best way to describe what it feels like to climb into that tiny aircraft and be lifted through the air as if suspended from a rope. As we approached a few of the landing zones that day, I was sure there was no way the pilot would have enough space to put the helicopter down, much less let us disembark. But he did, we got out with ease, and he easily lifted off, leaving us amid invariably stark and stunning country. (Note: you never have to jump from a helicopter when you go heli-skiing.) The pick-ups were even better. Crouching over my skis as the rotor wash scoured everything within a 200-foot radius, I had one thought: THIS is living the dream.