Flying to the freshest powder

John A. Vukich, MD, a refractive surgeon and cataract specialist in private practice in Madison, WI, explores another dimension of his personality away from ophthalmology in a sport that many consider extreme: heli-skiing.

"Ophthalmology is controlled, exact, has no tolerance for error, and is executed in tight confines," said Dr. Vukich. "In my personal life, I break out a little. I am drawn to the thrill and crave the unknown."

A lifelong skier, Dr. Vukich said he was introduced to heli-skiing through the work of legendary ski filmmaker Warren Miller and found the concept of skiing mountains that had never been skied before enticing. He's been heli-skiing for 10 years now.

Each year, Dr. Vukich takes a week-long trip, usually through Canadian Mountain Holidays ( http://www.canadianmountainholidays.com/) in British Columbia, though he also has traveled to New Zealand to heli-ski.

The adventure usually begins in a parking lot. Skiers meet a helicopter that flies them 35 minutes into the wilderness to their ski-trip accommodations.

The wilderness is "very pristine," said Dr. Vukich. "The wilderness expanse available through Canadian Mountain Holidays is larger than the total area of the ski areas in Colorado."

It is routine to see moose, elk, and wolverines.

The guided trip usually includes 11 skiers, a professional guide, and the helicopter pilot. The group makes nine to 12 runs per day. Dr. Vukich said he skis 100,000 vertical feet during this week. He has skied 1 million vertical feet cumulatively.

The guide and the skiers disembark, the guide unloads the skis, and then the helicopter takes off. "It's a violent effect," said Dr. Vukich. "And then, it's perfectly quiet looking out over beautiful vistas."

The group skis together, through the spaces between very large trees. "You always ski with a buddy and have a sophisticated two-way radio to call for help," he said. Skiers also have avalanche transponders, which provide a way to locate a lost skier.

The physical challenges

"Physical conditioning is important," Dr. Vukich said. "You must be comfortable on any slope, at any time, in any conditions. There are no options to go in.

"It's a huge mistake to overestimate your ability. It's hard on everyone, and dangerous. You should be, at minimum, a level 8 skier. If you are bored with blue runs and seek black runs, heli-skiing might be for you. If you like groomed, intermediate runs, don't go."