You never forget your first helicopter flight. As a Vail Mountain Rescue Group dog team navigator on a mission to find a hiker lost on Oh-Be-Joyful Pass one August morning three summers ago, I boarded a CH-47 Chinook on the tarmac at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site at Eagle County Regional Airport in Gypsum. Buckling myself into a nylon bench seat in the belly of that dual-rotor behemoth—alongside the team’s lead SAR dog handler and her yellow lab, Drake (pictured at top right), and a dozen searchers from mountain rescue teams across the state—I remember the anticipation I felt as the turbines of the Chinook spooled up with a banshee-like shriek. Despite the earplugs, a concussive WHOMP-WHOMP-WHOMP hammered my eardrums as the helo’s rotors beat the air into submission. Through the half-open rear cargo ramp of the aircraft, I watched the ground fall away and felt my stomach bottom out as we shuddered and lurched into the sky in a thrill ride of movement in three dimensions, set to the soundtrack of a cacophonous mechanical symphony. Airborne, Army-style.
That was the frame of reference I had in March, when, as editor of this magazine, I hired Aspen Heli Charter to transport myself, my teenage boy (then a senior at Battle Mountain High School), and Halo (my wirehaired Australian labradoodle) from the Glenwood Springs municipal airport to the helipad at Beaver Creek in an Airbus Eurocopter EC130 that would serve as a prop for a photo shoot for this issue’s cover story ("Ski Luxe"). Unlike the utilitarian Chinook, the six passenger seats of the Eurocopter—the Lamborghini of sightseeing helicopters—are as plush as a sports car’s, upholstered in buttery leather. My son belted himself next to the pilot front and center, while I sat starboard with Halo at my feet. When our pilot fired up the turbocharged engine, I braced myself for another ear-thrashing, only to be greeted by a seductive whir and hum—and laughter from our pilot, as Halo pointed his nose upward and rotated his head faster and faster as the rotor blades slowly gyrated then disappeared in a blur above our heads on the other side of the tinted 360-degree bubble canopy. Then, as gently as a helium balloon released from the tenuous grip of a toddler, we floated into the sky.
Hurtling high above the interstate, we watched in wonder as the Vail Valley passed beneath our feet: the walls of Glenwood Canyon, the dusty hills of Gypsum and Eagle, the ridge of Wolcott, the valley of Lake Creek, then the subdivisions of Edwards—regarding familiar landmarks like my son’s school and our home on Mill Loft Street—and peaks like Mount Jackson and Holy Cross with a god’s eye. My son, even my dog (pictured above), couldn’t stop grinning. By the time we arrived in Avon on our final approach to Beaver Creek (where our fashion photographer and models were waiting at the edge of the helipad, pointing), our smile muscles ached.
Now that my son’s a freshman in college living far away in Chicago, I like to think that when he remembers his mountain home, it’s not the backdrop of I-70 from his bedroom window in our Miller Ranch condo that he sees, but a more heavenly perspective, that million-dollar view, a gift from above.