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The mechanics of powder

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By Mike Mannelin Columnist

The infamous ‘Food Gas Beer’ sign at the 33 Mile Roadhouse looked like a relic from the old west as the sun rose behind it.

Domino, the resident goat, bleated as he hopped onto the picnic table to look for cigarette butts to munch on. Inside the restaurant, skiers ordered eggs, toast and caramel rolls while they anxiously waited for the helicopter’s jet engines to fire up. I filled my mug with hot coffee, left two bucks on the counter, and headed across the parking lot to the heli base.

The office was packed for the morning guides’ meeting. I found the last seat in the room, a Rubbermaid tote that began slowly collapsing beneath my weight. First we discussed the weather, then the snowpack, followed by logistics for the day ahead.

Next, I went outside to help the helicopter pilot, Al. He stuck his thumbs up out the window and, crouching low, I disconnected the power box he used to get the turbines going in the morning. I grabbed two orange flags and walked out to the snow bank on the side of the road to alert him pilot of any passing cars. As Al flew over my head, the rotor wash blasted through me like a five second hurricane.

He disappeared behind the trees, leaving me in silence on the side of the road. Above me, the mountains were completely white, spines of snow lining their faces like shower curtains hanging from the sky.

We assembled a group of guides to go take a few runs and check out the conditions. I took my seat in the back of the A-Star. I had butterflies in my stomach as we flew off towards Old Faithful.

We landed above the northwest rib of the mountain and crouched over our gear while Al flew off to get another group. The snow on the run down was cold, dry powder. Seth motored all the way to the bottom, scoring fresh tracks the whole way. The rest of us took more time, bouncing around, playing on the rolls, our skis hissing on the snow.

Skiing out the bottom, we saw Al already waiting for us with the rotors spinning.

“You boys have a good run?” he asked over the headset.

We responded politely with beaming smiles. “We wanna go again if that’s OK with you.”

We stuck around Old Faithful and played in some chutes and bowls, each of us taking different routes back to the chopper.

An hour later, we were back to business. The cargo van needed a new starter and the diesel van was having some issues.

Before long I was lying underneath a van, my hands frozen from the cold steel, water dripping on my face, and dropping wrenches in the snow. A smile crossed my face as I lifted a new starter into place. In my mind, I was on top of a mountain, with butterflies in my stomach, waiting in silence for the next adventure.

Mike Mannelin has been skiing Big Sky with friends for 15 winters. He is a guide for
Alaska Heliskiing, and spends his summers in a remote cabin with his wife, dog and some friendly brown bears.

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