According to The Aspen Times, heli-skiing was once permitted in the Elk Mountain Range for a brief 30-day period in the early 1990s. Before that, it was allowed in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The company was called Colorado Heli-Ski and they had managed to get a 30-day trial permit for heli-skiing in the Gunnison National Forest from the U.S. Forest Service. Their plan was to run trips out of the Irwin Lodge near Kebler Pass west of Crested Butte at the beginning and then hopefully receive a longer permit and run trips out of the Redstone Inn during the summer and winter.
“It was fabulous. No one had ever heli-skied the Elk Range before,” said Rick Minkoff, who was co-owner of a heli-skiing company.
On April 1st, 1993, which was the last flight on the last day of the permit, disaster struck when the helicopter’s rotor stopped working, and the machine plummeted to the ground 10 miles southwest of Aspen in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, killing three of the four people aboard. A Forest Official later indicated that he was willing to issues a year-long heli-skiing permit for the area, but it was denied due to opposition from the Crested Butte community. This decision to deny the permit was the end of heli-skiing in the Elk Range.
“It was literally the last 10 minutes (of the permit),” Minkoff said.
That abrupt end to heli-skiing in the Elk Range could quickly change because Rick Minkoff is currently informally consulting with a group of Aspen-based investors that want to start a heli-skiing operation that would fly out of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. The investors, who haven’t been named, are currently putting together a business plan for the operation. Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River National Forest, said that a permit hasn’t been submitted and that obtaining approval for the operation wouldn’t be easy. In Colorado, heli-skiing is only allowed in the San Juan National Forest at the Telluride and Silverton ski areas.
“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. 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,” stated Fitzwilliams.
The Elk Range has a lot to offer when it comes to skiing, so it’s a real bummer that the accident ruined the endless possibilities that this operation had to offer. Minkoff, a lawyer who now lives in Carbondale, became wistful when describing what could have been 23 years ago. At the time of the crash, his company had been operating for 12 years in Summit County without any accidents or mishaps, he said. He was looking forward to expanding into the Aspen area, where he’d been visiting since the ’60s. It will be very interesting to see how all of this pans out because this operation could be huge if it is reinstated with these new investors and permits.
“That was our moment. We would have done very well. It was devastating,” Minkoff said.