By Matthew D. LaPlante
For Salt Lake Magazine

It’s easy to feel complacent here. There are 10 ski resorts within an hour of downtown Salt Lake City, and I’ve had best-day-ever experiences at most of them.

On bad snow years it only takes a lift ride with an out-of-towner to remember how preposterously privileged we are on the Wasatch Front. “This is seriously what it’s like here all the time?” an uber-amped young skier from New England asked when we caught a chair together at Brighton. “This is incredible!” It was, in fact, a disappointingly spring-like five-inch day in December of 2014 — a season that Wasatch Snow Forecast’s Evan Thayer has meticulously demonstrated to have been one of the worst in Utah ski history. Even Thayer concedes, though, that he still skied 38 days that season. “Over half of those days were legitimate powder days,” he wrote, and at least eight, “were incredible, over-the-head blower powder days.”

Salt Lakers can be in the backcountry in minutes, stalking untracked powder even days after a storm. A two-hour trip north puts us at one of the nation’s best mom-and-pop snow resorts. Three hours south and we’re in red rock ski country, a study of contrasts so unique that saying it is incomparable is a ridiculous understatement.

So why on God’s white Earth would I feel compelled to point my Mazda west on Interstate 80 for Lamoille, Nevada?

Why? Because the people who drew up Utah’s state lines were apparently too worried about trifles like silver and gold to concern themselves with keeping proper powder mountains in the same jurisdiction. And so, though I can’t say I agree with everything they did, it seems my state’s Mormon pioneers at least got something right: The province they originally envisioned included some of the most powder-packed ranges in the world. The road to Elko — where you’ll find the turn-off for Lamoille, an unassuming gateway town to the breathtaking Ruby Mountains — runs along the dead center of the northern border of the would-be state of Deseret, what later became Utah Territory. For my money, though, it should have simply been called the state of Snow.

Of course, our pioneer predecessors probably would have had a hard time envisioning the helicopters.

In the I-love-that-just-about-anything-goes-here sort of way that makes someone a Silver Stater, Joe Royer is proudly Nevadan. But coming into the 40th anniversary of the founding Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing, the former Snowbird ski patroller is still a Utahn when it comes to powder, which is to say that he’s as spoiled as Salt Lakers are, and sure as hell doesn’t resent us for it.

And that’s good, because after decades of serving powderseekers from just about every other corner of the world, Utahns are finally recognizing that one of the world’s backcountry gems is so close that you could decide over downtown drinks to go heli-skiing and, on the unlikely chance that Royer’s got a seat open for such an impulsive initiative, be doing so the next morning. And in this way and so many others, the Rubies might as well be part of Utah.

A visit on a whim might not be a bad idea for those who can afford those sorts of whims. For most of us, of course, heli-skiing is a rare treat — bucket list stuff. Even those privileged enough to do this sort of thing with a bit more frequency (Royer has customers who have returned year after year for decades) don’t ever seem to take it for granted.

“There’s something different about the Rubies,” says Ogden business owner Steve Arneson, who heli-skied in the Wasatch before finding himself in Lamoille last year. “You get out here and you just feel like you’re in the Wild West. It just feels more remote. More rugged. And there are fresh tracks all day long.”

Experiences like this are meant to be savored, which is why the 40th year of Ruby Mountain Heli-skiing will be marked with a 20-bedroom, 10,000-square foot milestone: A new lodge and home base at 7,000 feet intended to strike the balance between feeling rugged and being luxurious, perhaps with a bit of a lean toward the latter objective.

A big part of meeting that end of the equation is Francy Royer’s cooking. After the powder — and for some foodies, before — the former Deer Valley pastry chef’s gourmet feasts are the most impressive part of a stay in the Rubies. Every morning starts with a home-cooked breakfast buffet that is doubly aimed at pampering palates and infusing calories into the bodies of heli-skiiers in preparation for a long day on the mountain. (Francy also provides a hearty lunch, flown to skiers on the mountain, including homemade sandwiches, soups and baked goods.)

When the lodge opens (the Royers say they’re hoping to cut the ribbon in January) Francy and her kitchen staff will be doing triple duty, resuming dinner duties as well with offerings including beef tenderloin with gorgonzola sauce, grilled salmon tacos and Basque paella. The lodge will also offer live music, in-house masseuses and a full bar. Until then, the family has been hosting all-expense-paid dinners at various Elko restaurants, where Joe always works the room and, before the night gets too out of hand, offers a thoughtful toast. Guests are ferried back at the end of the night to a local hotel.

For the even more adventurous, or perhaps the less social, Ruby Mountain has built two yurts. The lower one is delightfully nestled into an aspen grove and the higher one — reachable by a two-hour hike, snowcat ride, helicopter lift or mule team — rests at nearly 9,700 feet overlooking one of the most spectacular mountain vistas in the west (which is, of course, saying something.) The yurts are fully furnished, comfortably sleeping four people (though more could likely fit fine if everyone’s OK with getting snuggly,) powered by Goal Zero solar equipment, and stocked with a propane stove and fireplace.

There are copious dive bars in and around Elko and, Nevada being Nevada, plenty of low-end casinos. The three-table poker room at the Red Lion Casino is quaintly delightful and generally full of a cast of locals straight out of an Émile Zola novel. Past any of that, though, it’s fair to say that this part of the world is not exactly built for après-ski mollycoddling — but guests are generally too exhausted to care anyway. It's the camaraderie that really matters, here — and that makes sense when you remember that only a few hundred people get to ski this range each year.

“I think I started dreaming about heli-skiing when I was eight years old, reading about it in a ski magazine,” says Salt Lake realtor Tim Watcke, who knew after the end of his first day that he was hooked on helis. “This seems like a bad, expensive habit, but it feels worth it. We’re already figuring out when to book for next year.”

There’s heliskiing in Utah proper too, of course. Royer, who served for years as the president of the Heli Ski U.S. Association, absolutely won’t say a bad word about it. Everybody offers something different, he notes.

But when National Geographic built its superlative “America’s Best Adventures,” list, a few years back, it didn’t specify where adventurers should start and stop on a bike trip across America, or where skydiving maniacs should strap on a wingsuit. Those two propositions, though, were followed by the much more specific “heli-ski the Ruby Mountains,” where adventure writer Doug Schitzspahn points out there’s copious dry desert snow — yes, of the Greatest on Earth variety — and “you won’t have to share any of it with other backcountry skiers or snowboarders.”

Racing through endless Wonderlandian acres of pristine backcountry, you might spot bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mule deer and other wildlife, but no other humans — lest of all the sort that might beat you to a line. And that’s to say nothing of the actual act of drawing those lines; guides here take their guests on roller coaster routes through low-angle canyons dotted with aspen and bristlecone, and plenty of steep-and-deep drops that go on and on.

And on and on.

It’s hard to describe the magnitude of the territory, but this comparison seems to get close: Having recently combined with the former Canyons resort, Park City is now the nation’s largest resort at 7,300 people-packed acres. That’s just a bit less than 4 percent of the skiable acres in the Rubies.

Indeed, even the solitude at Solitude — at it’s no joke — doesn’t hold a honeycomb candle to what Royer’s operation offers. That’s to say nothing of the difference between the privacy of the Rubies compared to that in Utah’s other, busier resorts.

“You can go to a ski area, and on a busy weekend you might be skiing with 5,000 people on 5,000 acres,” Royer says. “Here in the Rubies, you’re skiing with 16 other people — on 200,000 acres.”

That’s what Tessa Arneson experienced.

“It’s simplicity, really,” the Salt Lake City Pilates studio owner says. “It’s so accessible from Salt Lake — that’s the piece that’s so amazing. All of the sudden you step out of the helicopter and you’re just completely by yourself and it’s quieter than you’ve ever heard in your life. You’re not racing 30 people to get first tracks.”

The Come Line is a special treat — a 2,000-vertical-foot couloir, named for a big-risk-high-reward bet in craps. It looks on approach like something God dreamt up to take adrenaline junkies out of the gene pool. It’s a bit wider and more conquerable that it seems at first glance, but Ruby’s guides won’t take guests there until they know they can handle it.

Ruby has some of the best backcountry guides in the world but, Royer notes, it’s still the backcountry, and the Rubies share a lot of the same snow consistency, weather patterns and angles that can make the Wasatch Front so dangerous. A beacon training session is a reassuring reminder of the amazing accuracy of transceivers — but also of the remarkable power of snowfall, which in an avalanche can travel a hell of a lot faster than people can ski. “Stay calm if you get buried,” he says, “we’re coming for you.”

Caleb Merrill understands the risks. In seven years at Solitude Mountain Resort, where he forecasted and mitigated avalanches, and worked as a guide for the resort’s backcountry skiing service, he was constantly reminded of the awesome power of Old Man Winter.

He also recognizes the rewards. During his time on the Wasatch Front, Merrill came to know every nook and cranny of Big Cottonwood Canyon. But although he never had a problem finding fresh, deep snow, it was always a race against the world.

“There’s so many things that are great about the Rubies,” says Merrill, who completed his third year as a guide for Ruby Mountain Heli-Skiing in 2016. “The best thing is that it’s such a hidden gem. A little bit of a secret. And you just don’t get the crowds you have in the Wasatch.”

That also means, though, that there would be fewer people to help if things were to go wrong. To that end, Merrill and the Ruby Mountain guides never stop training. “Everyone who works here is top-notch,” he says. “And the thing that makes me feel so confident working with this team is that nobody here rests on that. Everyone’s always working to be better prepared and more knowledgeable.”

Notwithstanding such warnings, and an exhaustive pre-flight briefing covering helicopter safety and avalanche rescue, this isn't a treat for backcountry experts alone. Less experienced skiers can find their fair share of bliss here, too. There are no bad runs in the Rubies, after all.

And, of course, getting to the top of all those routes is a big part of the adventure.

I’ve been in Blackhawks over Baghdad and didn’t feel it in my stomach the way I did the first time I banked over a Ruby ridge. The views, though, are a damn sight better, and the risks seems so much more worthwhile. There’s simply nothing that compares to stepping out of a helicopter, watching through the spray as it flies away, and knowing that between you and the next pickup location is the possibility of carving a line that has never been drawn in the strange history of humans strapping planks on their feet for the purpose of riding down snow-covered mountains.

And yes, it is a strange history. There’s time to think about things like that in the Rubies. You find yourself asking “how did I get here?” — and answering in many different ways.

The simplest answer: Due west on I-80, and straight on to the rugged heart of Utah Territory.