past & present
Heliski operations have come and gone over the years. Below are some early histories about past operations.
Current heliski operators are encouraged to send a short essay or link on how your operation has progressed.
Former heliski operations are also welcome to provide your history in essay form. Heliski photos to supplement your story would be helpful and greatly appreciated.
Colorado First Tracks
Heliskiing in the Crested Butte and Marble Colorado area
Last Frontier Heliskiing
by Mark Frankmann
Telluride Helitrax was founded in 1982 by four Telluride friends: Mike Friedman, Mark Frankmann,
David Bush, and Brian “Speed” Miller. The operation, originally named the Telluride School of Ski
Mountaineering, sought to provide backcountry guiding services around Telluride.
We were way ahead of our times and exceptionally naive, the former a challenge and the latter an asset.
Telluride was largely unheard of at that time. There was no airport, no Mountain Village and very few
visitors. There was one intermittant TV station and un reliable electricity.
We were pretty much the only regular and consistent backcountry skiers in the Telluride area circa midlate
70's. We lived and breathed with a sole dedication to ski un-tracked and would do pretty much
anything toward that end. We also loved the adventure of being off the resort.
Our early equipment was wooden 210cm skinny skis with 3-pin bindings. We used kicker wax to go
uphill. Exciting adventure was touring into areas that are now part of the ski resort. We used “avalanche
cords” and progressed to the first rescue beacons as soon as they became available. We had a very
healthy respect for the un-predictable nature of the snow and avalanche hazard that is ever present in the
Mike was the driving force behind us organizing as a business venture. The initial idea was to guide
people on backcountry ski tours. We never did any of that. We quickly realized that very few were
capable of such a thing and those that were did not want or need to be guided.
We had spent the fall setting up a Tepee in one of our go to adventure skiing locales and stocking it with
firewood, sheep herders stove, lantern, etc. We would spend a night or two there each week and get a lot
of fun skiing in. From the Tepee we could see across the valley to more distant terrain that looked great
but seemed too far away for day touring.
We all went to Snowbird for spring skiing after the Telluride resort closed for the season. While riding
the Little Cloud chair “Lucky Chuck” dive bombed the lift in the Powderbirds L3. A big light bulb went
off in our snow crazed minds.
With what in retrospect seems like an insane amount of can do optimism, we returned to Telluride and
set the wheels in motion to make our little guide service business into a Heli Ski operation. The primary
motivation being we wanted to go heli skiing. We wanted to get into that terrain across the valley. Any
other details were unimportant.
None of us had never been heli skiing. We hardly even knew anyone who had been heli skiing. We had
seen a Warren Miller movie or maybe two. We had, and still have, the greatest respect for the Canadian
Heli Ski operators and guides and also the Powderbirds. We looked up to them as the experts in the field
and aspired to reach their level of professionalism and experience.
We applied with the USFS for a study permit to inventory areas for potential heli skiing. This allowed us
to also get an explosives license. What were they thinking? Now we were having some fun! After a
season of study permit we applied for the real permit. The USFS process required public noticing. That
public noticing brought two other previously unheard of entities from outside the area out of woodwork
and they also applied for the same permit. The USFS ultimately made a non-decision and awarded a heli
skiing special use permit to all three applicants. Crazy. The available terrain, especially during the all
too common bad weather and heightened avalanche hazard, was barely enough for one operator.
All kinds of crazy s**t happened during those first two seasons, a period I refer to as “the cold war”. In
the end one of the other operators crashed a dangerously under powered Jet Ranger and subsequently
lost all their interest in heli skiing. The other operator failed to re-apply for the permit by the deadline
and was thus eliminated by default. We were the last boys standing!
In recognition of our great admiration and respect for the Canadians we took to calling Mike Friedman,
Mike Friegele. That remains in place today. Friegele had the wisdom to engage the legendary Peter Lev
to come down and take us out on our very first recon with a helicopter. We finally got into that terrain
across the valley. Peter Lev was a huge godsend and bonus. In the two days he spent with us he instilled
a confidence in our conservative approach and most importantly imparted an operational philosophy that
I have never forgotten. Thanks Peter!
Our first commercial heli skiing day took place over Memorial Day weekend in May 1983 during the
Telluride Mountain Film Festival. At 24, I was billed as the youngest heli ski guide in North America.
Not sure if that was true but it sounded good to me. We used a Bell 47 helicopter with the Soloy jet
conversion. That's the same heli that Hans Gmoser's CMH started with. It went off very well with
perfect weather, great corn snow skiing and plenty of guests, including Yvon Chouinard.
We operated Telluride Helitrax for the next 15+ years and had many up and downs, pun intended. We
transitioned to Aerospatiale Llama's, Bell L3/L4, Astar-B2/B3 and Bell 407 helicopters. We worked
with a succession of super hot, very colorful, real deal Vietnam vet combat heli pilots during the Llama
years. I'll never forget those guys.
This has got to be the most difficult place to run a heli ski operation. The high altitude, unpredictable
snow pack and remote location make it a difficult proposition to this day. We were always on the verge
of going out of business. One good year followed by two bad ones.
We remain very proud of our perfect safety record. No one was ever caught in an avalanche. We did
have one well publicized helicopter crash. No one was seriously injured but some celebrities were on
board and it made the cover of People Magazine. I never imagined that I would be heckled by a super
model during the morning safety briefing, but that happened.
We all started to mature and ultimately desired to move on to other things. We sold the operation in
1999 and worked a couple of more seasons to transition it.
Forming Helitrax and setting out all of the landing zones, ski circuits and operating methodologies was a
lifetime experience that I will always be grateful beyond words to have been part of. Not to mention the
skiing, avalanche bombing and shared adventure of creating Helitrax from scratch.