After crash 23 years ago, heli-skiing could return to Aspen area
Relative newcomers to the Aspen area may not know it, but heli-skiing was once permitted in the Elk Mountain Range for a brief 30-day period in the early 1990s. Prior to that, it was allowed in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“It was fabulous,” said Rick Minkoff, who was co-owner of a heli-skiing company. “No one had ever heli-skied the Elk Range before.”
Minkoff’s company, Colorado Heli-Ski, had managed to get a 30-day trial permit for heli-skiing in the Gunnison National Forest from the U.S. Forest Service. The plan was to run trips initially out of the Irwin Lodge near Kebler Pass west of Crested Butte and then hopefully receive a longer permit and run trips out of the Redstone Inn during the summer and winter, Minkoff said.
“Everything went really well,” he said. “Everyone we took (skiing) was thrilled.”
But at the end of the last flight on the last day of the permit — April 1, 1993 — disaster struck. The helicopter’s rotor stopped working, and the machine plunged to the ground 10 miles southwest of Aspen in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, killing three of the four people aboard.
“It was literally the last 10 minutes (of the permit),” Minkoff said.
While a Forest Service official later indicated a willingness to issue a yearlong heli-skiing permit for the area, he ended up denying it because of strong opposition from the Crested Butte community, according to Forest Service documents.
And that was the end of heli-skiing in the Elk Range.
However, that might be about to change. Minkoff said he’s informally consulting with a group of Aspen-based investors who want to start a heli-skiing operation that would fly out of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
“I think they’re very serious,” Minkoff said. “I know they’re willing to proceed. I know they have the funds and a helicopter.”
Minkoff declined to name the investors, but said they haven’t submitted a formal application and are still in the process of putting together a business plan.
Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River National Forest, confirmed last week that no permit has been submitted and said he hasn’t heard about anyone proposing heli-skiing in the area. Still, he said such activities are not banned, though obtaining approval wouldn’t be easy.
“It would be a comprehensive and expensive process,” Fitzwilliams said. “It would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, easy.”
And that kind of money would have to be spent before a permit would even be issued, he said.
Approval would require paying for an environmental analysis and other studies, fully involving the public in the process and coming up with a well-thought-out business plan, Fitzwilliams said.
Monte Lutterman, mountain sports ranger for the Forest Service’s Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said he’s been approached in the past six months by someone asking about starting a heli-skiing operation. He said the person “seemed serious.”
In Colorado, heli-skiing is only allowed in the San Juan National Forest at the Telluride and Silverton ski areas.
Minkoff said that while a majority of people in Crested Butte never liked the heli-skiing plan, residents of Pitkin County were supportive of it. Also, the Elk Range would provide ideal, remote, backcountry heli-skiing, he said.
Minkoff, a lawyer who now lives in Carbondale, became wistful when describing what could have been 23 years ago. At the time, his company had been operating for 12 years in Summit County without any accidents or mishaps, he said, and he was looking forward to expanding into the Aspen area, where he’d been visiting since the ’60s.
That last flight of the day back in April 1993 took off from Irwin Lodge in the late afternoon on the way to the Aspen airport to drop off a client from Chicago, Minkoff said. Two ski guides aboard the helicopter were to be dropped off elsewhere after the Aspen stop, he said.
However, the rotor stopped working about 10 minutes from the airport, and the helicopter went down hard at about 11,000 feet on the northwest side of Sievers Mountain, according to Minkoff and newspaper articles. In fact, it went down so hard, its transponder was destroyed, Minkoff said.
The only survivor, ski guide Toby Cruse, later told an FBI agent investigating the crash, “there was nothing left of the helicopter,” according to a transcript of that interview provided by Minkoff.
After the crash, Cruse said he found himself lying on his right side, pinned underneath the pilot’s seat, “kind of inside the frame of the helicopter, which had become wrapped around both (the pilot) and I,” the transcript states. Some of the wreckage was on top of Cruse, and it took him 20 minutes to extricate himself from it.
The pilot, Ivan Dunn, 48, of Keystone, was dead, as was the other ski guide, Jay Gauthier, 33, of Silverthorne, according to the transcript. Cruse said he had to dig out the other passenger, Paul Miller of Chicago, the transcript states. Minkoff said Miller wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was thrown 20 feet from the wreckage when it landed.
Cruse, who had a dislocated shoulder, a bruised spleen and numerous contusions, was able to locate his ski-guide backpack and a pair of emergency plastic snowshoes, which he put on, and began walking out of the wilderness. He walked about five hours that night, built a snow cave and then made it to the T-Lazy-7 Ranch in the Maroon Creek Valley the next day about noon, according to newspaper articles and the transcript.
The FBI investigated concerns by Miller’s wife that he might have been depressed and possibly suicidal before the crash, according to the transcript. However, Colorado Heli-Ski was later exonerated when the cause was found to be fatigued parts that failed, Minkoff said.
“That was our moment,” Minkoff said. “We would have done very well. It was devastating.”
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