"The first rule of avalanches is don't get in one," said Mr. Perkins, president of New York-based Consensus Research Group and former president of Chiat/Day, New York. "Everyone knows people who have died doing this. So there are lots of things you can do to assess the level of avalanche danger."
Practicing safety is a small price to pay for those addicted to this growing, still-exclusive sport. Heli-skiing lets you ski "terrain you couldn't reach otherwise, and it's terrain that nobody else is on," said Mr. Perkins, who's been skiing since age 19 and started heli-skiing about eight years ago. "It's its own particular kind of obsession -- untrampled' powder."
$2,000 a day
Unlike at a ski resort, where skiers funnel into various chairlift lines, heli-skiers radio a helicopter pilot, who picks them up for another run. And instead of boasting about black-diamond runs, heli-skiers talk about the number of vertical feet covered in a day. For instance, the Canadian TLH Heliskiing guarantees skiers will cover 29,000 vertical feet in two days of skiing. To say it's an exclusive crowd is an understatement; the average heli-skier expects to spend upward of $1,500 to $2,000 a day.
Mr. Perkins, who grew up in Iowa and learned to ski from his ex-wife, whose parents owned a ski chalet in Dillon, Colo., has heli-skied around the world, including the Harris Mountains in New Zealand. He recently returned from India, where along with his "rag-tag" group of heli-skier pals, he skied on a small mountain range north of the Himalayan town of Minali.
At one point skiing at 16,000 feet, he lost his ski on the slope and had to climb up 30 yards on a steep incline to retrieve it, sinking to his knees with every step. "It was not waiting for the gondola at Vail."
Former Air Force flight instructor
A former Air Force flight instructor, Mr. Perkins comes as equipped for his heli-ski trips as one might for a military mission: He wears a transceiver, which transmits digital radio waves to rescuers in case he is buried under an avalanche. He also wears a parachute pack, which when activated blows up via a nitrogen cartridge into two "water wings."
"That keeps you lighter so in an avalanche you'd float to the top," said Mr. Perkins, who added that he's been caught only in a very minor one.
Safety starts in the air, he said, as skiers carefully examine the mountain terrain from the helicopter. "You try at all costs to not ski something you haven't seen in the last 20 minutes," he said.
"You're skiing in places where there are 6 to 8 feet of snow," he said, and avalanches "happen because there's an unstable layer of snow that hasn't bonded with snow below." That snow is prone to start sliding especially when "you put a 185-pound skier on it going 35 mph."
Three trips a year
Mr. Perkins, who has a partner and two stepchildren, is based in Manhattan, but that doesn't stop him from taking two to three heli-ski trips a year in addition to a few trips to ski resorts. His ski collection includes a set of K2 Apache Chiefs, which are very fat skis designed to handle deep powder. One of his favorite heli-ski experiences was navigating 9 feet of snow in New Zealand one August. "We had two nights of unbelievable cold. Then we had two days of fairy dust powder -- very safe, really, steep, powerful chutes ... it was fabulous."
Earlier this summer Mr. Perkins' ski buddies tempted him with a heli-skiing trip to Greenland. But alas he had to sit that one out. "Work has a terrible way of interfering. I have to make a living. It's quite frustrating."
~ ~ ~
Devoted to a worthy cause? Have a secret fishing hideaway? If you have a fascinating Off Hours activity, describe your passion in an e-mail to Mike Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.