Many years ago I discovered the singular beauty of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. They are beautiful in the summer for hiking and mountain biking, but in the winter they turn into a captivating brilliance of white powder snow. I could never tire of those mountain peaks that are so close to Salt Lake City. Mount Superior, Albion Basin, Peruvian Ridge, High Rustlers, Mineral Basin, Mount Baldy, Collins, and Germania are all names that bring an instant smile to my face and remind me that they are God’s creations to be enjoyed with wisdom and good judgment.
I never tire of the deep and the steep. As a young boy growing up in the shadows of these peaks, I wasn’t captivated just by their visual magnificence; it was the blow-away powder snow that would draw me there and keep me coming back. Every Saturday morning from mid-November to March, my friends and I would juggle our skis and sack lunches and climb on a bus for a glorious day of schussing down groomed and ungroomed runs in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons at the ski resorts of Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, and Brighton.
Later in life, with more demands on my time, I became more selective regarding which days I would ski. My love for the mountains was just as strong, but my priorities and responsibilities had changed somewhat. I would wait for the perfect snowstorm so I could ski in fresh, deep, untracked powder snow. The depth of the powder snow allowed me to face straight down the mountain and seek “first tracks” in the untouched pure powder slopes of the Wasatch. The steep chutes bordered by rock outcroppings and rugged cliffs certainly increased the depth of my admiration for God’s creations and for all they meant in storing living water for the warmer days of spring and summer.
Growing older, I also found myself becoming more cautious of both the conditions and the terrain. I learned to respect the powerful rush of snow in an avalanche and always carried a transponder in the event of being caught in a slide. I learned that these magnificent peaks and open bowls of snow could become treacherous with high wind and storms that could create a total whiteout in minutes, making it impossible to see and occasionally creating a serious case of vertigo.
It wasn’t until years later, while traveling in the Canadian Rockies during the winter of 1988, that I learned a whole new level of respect for the terrain that had brought me so much happiness in earlier years. Jan and I had gone to Banff, Canada, to experience the Calgary Winter Olympics with some dear friends. We loved the spectacular beauty of Lake Louise and of the Canadian peaks in the Monashee, Purcell, and Selkirk mountains.
I was able to ski many of those pristine areas by helicopter, and it was exhilarating. The vertical drop and the conditions were ideal, and we relished our days in that scenic and popular skiing mecca.
On one memorable day we left early in the morning from a heliport in Canmore, Alberta, just outside Banff National Park. Our pilot and our mountain guide were the very best. They both had thousands of hours in the air and in the mountain ranges of the Purcells.
On this particular day we went prepared with sufficient food and fuel for the entire day and beyond, but our plan was to return to Banff that same February evening. Six very experienced skiers, a fine helicopter pilot, the finest jet helicopter available, and a very experienced mountain guide left in the dark of the morning for our first ascent to the peaks and bowls of the Canadian Rockies.
We were subdued and respectful as we made our initial climb out of the beautiful Banff National Park and found ourselves surrounded by nothing but white jagged peaks and beautiful open powder bowls. We had timed our skiing perfectly! We knew we were in for a very memorable day of open powder skiing, and we were thrilled and humbled to witness such indescribable beauty.
The first drop on a peak was exhilarating. As the chopper hovered just barely off the snow, we six skiers and our guide made our way onto the cornice, where we would take our first plunge down into the white face of powder snow. It was euphoric and so completely breathtaking to be making effortless turns in bottomless powder snow. I experienced such a wonderful feeling that I will never forget offering a prayer of thanks for such a splendid morning in God’s creations.
Each of our eight beautiful drops of more than 2,500 vertical feet was unforgettable. We were having such a wonderful time that we did not want to stop. But fatigue was taking its toll, and our bodies were telling us it was time to take a break.
We settled into a beautiful valley surrounded by huge fir trees, and seated inside our Bell Ranger Helicopter, we felt very comfortable. We did not sense any imminent danger.
Within thirty minutes of settling in our restful spot, however, heavy cloud cover quickly moved in. Suddenly big, beautiful flakes were coming down at a rate of about four inches per hour. Within minutes, the helicopter was covered. Our pilot, Jed, said the unexpected change in weather genuinely concerned him.
He thought we should put protective canvas covers on the blades and wait out the storm. But he also realized that the storm could continue for hours, and he was concerned about the helicopter icing up. We faced a total whiteout at ten thousand feet above sea level and snow covering us at a rapid rate. The only contact we had with the outside world was by FM radio, which other aircraft would receive as an SOS. As darkness settled in, I knew that my wife and the wives of the other seven men would be concerned that we had not returned to Canmore as planned. I also knew my wife well enough to know that within another hour she would be joining the first dogsled team to go out looking for us.
Under Jed’s capable command, we decided we would make one attempt to climb out of the storm. We had sufficient fuel and plenty of power to do it. The only problem was the zero visibility. The snowfall had turned everything white, and we could not see six feet in any direction. It was quiet, but our hearts were pounding loudly.
We prayed that the equipment would function well and that the elements would be calmed. We prayed that our wives would be comforted in the event we were unable to get out of the mountains that night. We prayed that we would be alert to danger and that we would be united in our efforts.
Jed suggested that the sounds outside the chopper would be our protection. Our task was to listen carefully for danger.
We removed both large doors and stowed them behind the seats, leaving the helicopter wide open. That way we would be able to hear the air beat off rock or trees if we got too close to them, alerting us to danger. We dropped a thick rope with a heavy weight attached so we could watch and listen for it to touch anything below the craft. It was difficult to listen because of the noise of the helicopter, but we listened intently with our ears as well as our hearts.
All went well, and within forty minutes we were safely on the ground in Canmore. We were grateful and expressed that gratitude in a humble prayer of thanksgiving.
Just as we had tried to listen for the sound of passing air over the roar of the helicopter, I have learned that we must listen for the voice of the Spirit over the noises and distractions of the world. Just as we had taken off both doors of the helicopter, we must rid ourselves of anything in our lives that detracts from our ability to hear the whispering of the Spirit.
Sometimes we need only do something simple such as turning off the radio, television, computer, or cell phone. Other times we need to get rid of spiritual interference caused by contention, gossip, criticism, materialism, dishonesty, or impurity in our lives. Remember, the voice of the Spirit can be both still and small (see D&C 85:6), being discerned only with great effort.
My grandchildren love to hear this story. When I conclude telling it, I usually ask them what they learned. On one occasion, five-year-old Joey said, “Grandpa, I learned that I don’t want to ride in a helicopter unless they take the doors off!”