Remote Rubies: Nevada’s only heli-ski operation one of longest-running in U.S.
LAMOILLE, Nev. — Forty-two years ago, Joe Royer was driving from his home in Marin County, California, to his winter gig as a ski patroller in Snowbird, Utah. As he cruised along Interstate 80, he looked out at the towering peaks of the Ruby Mountains and thought about what kind of skiing must be up there. He decided to find out.
In 1977, with two business partners and a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, Joe founded Ruby Mountains Helicopter Experience in Lamoille, Nevada. The first year they flew and guided about 15 people through the range, but through word of mouth about the epic skiing in the remote mountain range, the business began to grow.
Joe eventually bought out his partners in 1981 just before meeting his future business partner — and wife.
Francy Vitch, an art school grad, was working as a pastry chef in Deer Valley, Utah, when she and a few friends took a ski trip to the Rubies. Joe was her guide for those three days on the mountain.
They were married in 1985, and four years later had their son, Mike, who would grow up to be a driving force in the family’s business.
“We’re very lucky to live in the place that we do with the Ruby Mountains right at our back door,” said Mike, a journalism graduate from Utah State University. “They are a very big range — 90 miles long and 10-12 miles wide with some really high peaks above 11,000 feet. There is a huge amount of terrain that we can access and work with for peoples’ different abilities.”
But without any resort skiing, accompanying resort-style town, and limited backcountry access, the range remains relatively unknown. Situated between Salt Lake City and Reno, the closest Nevada city is the mining and ranching town, Elko, with a population of just around 20,000.
“That’s really what has worked out for us — how remote these mountains are,” Mike explained in an interview with the NNBV. “The Rubies don’t get nearly the backcountry pressure that the bigger more popular ranges do. It’s pretty much just destination helicopter skiing with the very limited backcountry access that the public has through the Lamoille Canyon area.
“I think there are a lot of people that don’t know about the Rubies. We run into people and tell them what we do and they say, ‘You heli-ski where? In Nevada? I didn’t even know there were mountains there.’”
Today, the heli-ski company remains the only operation in the range and guides around 250 skiers every year on 200,000 acres of terrain. It’s also the longest-running family-owned heli-skiing operation in the country.
Roughly 50 percent of its clientele comes from California, more specifically, the San Francisco Bay Area.
Though years back the Royers cut the number of helicopters operating each day from three to one in order to maintain the level of guest interaction they felt was crucial to the business, they’ve expanded in other ways.
In 2015, the family purchased 1,100 acres for Snowcat skiing when weather prevents the choppers from flying. The land is also home to the Royer’s new Ruby 360 Lodge, which they completed in 2017.
The 10-room lodge sits at 7,000 feet and not only houses the skiers in the winter, but opens up the Ruby experience for events and retreats during the warmer months.
In the neighboring Sierra Nevada mountain range, heli-ski operations have come and gone. With land restrictions stemming from wilderness and state park designations, it’s been difficult for a company to make it work.
In fact, in the U.S. there are relatively few heli-skiing operations. Though not an exhaustive list of all heli-ski companies, the Heli-Ski U.S. Association has only 10 current members, including Ruby Mountains Helicopter Experience, and two additional companies currently undergoing the two-year review process.
“My dad will tell you that he had a lot of luck along the way. There’s a huge amount of work that takes place to make a business like this run,” said Mike. “There’s not really any weekend and there’s always something to do. But it’s awesome. It’s a different adventure every day.”
“I point out many cases of where privately owned companies do just as bad a job as publicly owned companies,” says Reno resident and former teacher Robert (R.D.) Gardner.