Craig Calonica was one of the first humans to sky down Mount Everest. He was a US Ski Team racer for 15 years. He has risked life and limb testing thresholds on the most remote and dangerous mountains on the planet. And he wants to take you along for the ride.
“I targeted being the first person to ski down Everest because I thought it would be great to make that ‘first descent’, so I was willing to risk quite a bit to do that,” sighs Craig Calonica, recalling his three years trying to ski the mythical North Face. “To me or anybody that’s willing to do anything like that, you have to accept the fact that what you’re doing you may not come back from — it’s something you don’t really know. Of course, you’re going to do everything possible to not have [disaster] happen, but if you spend as much time as I have in these places you’re just kidding yourself if you think it won’t.”
That mythical first descent: the white whale of exploratory skiers. Being the first human to strap sticks to his feet and carve down not only virgin snow, but an entire virgin mountain. It is the Great Unknown, the Moby Dick that has compelled many a madman down an unchartered slope, to face personal glory and also potential death.
Calonica spent each summer between 1996 and 1998 in Nepal, hoping for the precise window of time that would allow him to climb the mountain locals call Sagarmāthā, or goddess of the sky. “If you wanna ski the thing you have to do it during the monsoon season, because that’s the only time there’s snow on it,” he explains. “There’s avalanches coming down nonstop, it’s snowing 3-4 feet a day. It’s pretty dangerous, and that’s why nobody climbs Everest during the monsoon season. You’re wading in drifts; everything gets dirty. If the snow kicks in, then the ropes are gone the next day.
“It’s a chore, and why nobody had yet done it yet.”
But the two-week window never came, and he was never able to make that first descent down the world’s tallest mountain. Then the next year some other guy went up there and got lucky with the weather. “And so, I went, ‘OK, that’s over,’” Calonica remembers unemotionally. “The first descent got made, and that was the end of my attempts.”
But Calonica had already invested so much time in Nepal, and skied many other less famous mountains, that he saw another opportunity forming. Wanting to find a way to circumvent the fickle weather gods he sourced a helicopter outfit in Katmandu, and his vision took shape. “From there on out, I just focused on heliskiing.” In 2001 Calonica launched his Heliski Nepal operation, and this winter will be celebrating his 17th season running trips in the Himalayas.
For those who have never experienced the corporal pleasures of heli-skiing, preferring the more traditional route of chairlifts and gondolas, Calonica can only shake his head in bemusement. “First of all, there’s only fresh tracks, and zero crowds. It’s like a private trip out in the middle of nowhere,” Craig says when asked to elucidate upon the many benefits of skipping the megaresorts. “With our trips, because they’re in such unusual and unique areas, it adds a special twist. It’s not just about skiing, it’s about the culture; it’s about where we’re at. It’s one of the reasons I chose these places.”
Presently Calonica organizes trips in such exotic locales as Greece, Chile, and Iceland, beyond his regular Alpine stomping grounds in Chamonix, Switzerland, and throughout the Himalayas, centered in the Annapurna region.
“I’ve been in the ski industry my entire life and one of the last things I can tell you is you get tired of the same peanut-butter and jelly scenarios — you want something unique and exotic and different, and all the places I chose are in that category. And that’s what interested me in doing it. There’s just no way you could get me to go to Alaska or Canada anymore. There’s absolutely no way.”
When Craig tells you something about skiing, you listen. His adventures in some of the harshest, most dangerous landscapes on the planet have taught him invaluable lessons on how to engage playfully with the mountain — not test her ability to steal your life.
“I see these photos of guys heli-skiing and there’s 10 people all skiing together on the same slope, and it just gives me nightmares. I can’t believe that anybody would do that!” he shudders. “It’s crazy because if the thing avalanched and you got 10 people skiing at the same time, somebody’s gonna die because you’re not gonna find them all in the 15 to 20-minute window you have. You’re not gonna find all 10.”
So Calonica has carefully crafted a system, one he swears by.
“I’m speeding well over, I don’t know 60, 70 miles an hour, cranking down these big slopes, hitting the faces and trying to get them to slide. And if they do, I’m going so fast that they’re never gonna touch me. Then I go to the next waiting spot, and [my clients] all come down to me one-by-one. Everybody else is cutting along about 15 or 20 miles an hour, making slow turn after turn after turn.”
His method of skiing solo trying to trigger avalanches, and then racing to the next safe zone, limits the chances of it happening to one of his less skilled clients. And if they happen to him, his near Olympian speed gives him the best chances of outrunning the cascading mountain of snow. In between, just in case something were to slide, having only one person at a time ski down ensures they would only have to look for a single soul in those critical first moments of rescue.
After almost two decades continuously running heli-ski operations in Nepal and across the globe, Calonica boasts zero injuries or deaths. “That’s a pretty good track record,” he exhales. “I must be doing something right.”
He then pauses, thoughtfully. “To be honest, I have a little bit of a horseshoe up my ass. Because there were a lot of times I shouldn’t have gotten away with it, but I did. You walk through an area and 5 minutes later the whole thing just avalanches, and anybody that was near or under it would’ve been gone. And you get a little cold chill down your spine, thinking Oh god.
“Because you can control technical errors, but when you’re in the wrong place/wrong time you just can’t, and that’s basically when your time is up. Obviously, it hasn’t been mine. Trust me, I’m knocking on wood, all the time.”
A LIFE DOWNHILL
Fresh powder and skis have been elements as vital to the life of Craig Calonica as oxygen and water. The Lake Tahoe native started skiing at the age of 4, was racing nationally at 12, and by 17 was traveling the world on the edge of his skis. A Slalom GS specialist, the young athlete soon transitioned to speed skiing and competed with the US Ski Team from 1974 to 1987, podiuming often, and almost always finishing in the top 10.
His skiing prowess was only matched by his love of climbing, dovetailing impeccably with his lofty Everest goals (besides his time in the Himalayas, Calonica has completed 28 big wall routes on Yosemite National Park’s famed El Capitan dome).
And while he may have failed to be the first guy to descend Everest on skis, don’t feel too bad for him. In his time in Nepal Craig has now made hundreds of first descents down other Himalayan peaks — so many that he literally has lost count. He has skied almost all of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks in each of the continents, including Kilimanjaro, Denali, Mount Blanc, Australia’s Kosciuszko and Aconcagua in Chile. The Seven Summits pursuit had its own risks, even those non-avalanche related: In Kilimanjaro they almost arrested Calonica when they thought the ski bag he stashed in a bush was a dead body (skis are illegal on Africa’s highest peak).
When he couldn’t gather the significant funds needed to ski Mount Vinson in Antarctica, his Seven Summit quest ended. “You accept it, the fact that you gave it your best and came back with all your fingers and toes,” he says of the reluctant end to another ski-related pursuit. “If you’re still alive and nobody else got killed, it’s almost as much of a success as pulling it off, to be honest.”
As if he needed any more bonafides, Calonica has also made two movies with legendary filmmaker/ski porn director Warren Miller, including 2016’s Chasing Shadows.
4 MINDLBOWING PLACES TO HELISKI
Number one would be Nepal. Just going there by itself is going to be one of your most memorable trips. There’s a full-on food chain jungle over there, Chitwan National Park, where you ride around elephants and there’s wild Bengal tigers, leopards, rhinos, crocodiles, alligators, fresh water dolphins, monkeys, all kinds of birds. It’s this unreal place, and it’s only a 30-minute flight from Everest, the world’s highest mountain. Then you have the people: the Buddhism, the Hinduism.
And skiing there in the middle of winter there’s nobody around! I keep pinching myself to see I’m not dreaming because it’s unbelievable. Yeah, I’m partial, but it’s true. If you go to Alaska, if you go to Canada, you’re gonna sit in a cabin with a bunch of people and that’s it. In Nepal, after you’re done skiing you’re walking around, it’s like 75 degrees in your sandals, shorts and T-shirts. It’s the same latitude as Miami; it’s sub-tropical.
The hotel is right on Aegean Sea. The helicopter leaves from the water and four minutes later you’re 10,000 feet up ready to ski. And not just anywhere, mind you — you’re skiing with Zeus and all the Gods on Mount Olympus. It’s legendary. There’s endless amounts of skiing to be had, too; it’s huge. You could spend the next 10 lifetimes skiing every day, all winter long, and never ski the same place twice.
And Greece gets a lot of snow — it’s maritime snow pack so it’s quite stable. Last year when the Alps were only dusted, Greece got 12 feet of snow. When you fly over it in winter it’s like you’re flying over the Alps. Not as high, but high doesn’t mean that much.
Then you have the Greek culture, atmosphere and food. It’s unique and nobody even knows about it. In fact, it’s like everybody else in the world thinks of California — they ask me, “How can you be a skier from California?” They’re just thinking of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, palm trees. And I’m like, “Wow. You’ve never heard of the Sierra Nevadas, or Lake Tahoe?” Greece is like a tightly held secret or something. People don’t think of it.
Chile on its own is a very unique area; it’s a very diverse country and culture. Places down in Patagonia are kind of like southeast Alaska, and further north you have this full-on Atacama Desert that’s like the deserts in California. And then you have the Andes and they’re massive. I mean, there’s Aconcagua there, all these big peaks, and there’s a lot of snow normally. You get the culture again, good wine, great snow.
There’s probably five to six really good ski destinations to choose from: Pucón is the most famous, and then there’s La Parva and Valle Nevado, all in the Santiago area. They’re all unique in their own way, but Portillo near Los Andes is unique because it’s pretty high, it’s out in the middle of nowhere on the Argentina border. They had some little championship races back in the ‘50s.
We run a heli-ski operation way down at the very bottom out of Puerto Williams, which is on the Beagle Channel. It’s straight across from Ushuaia and that one is really remote and quite unique in its own way. It’s way at the bottom of the world, the last village before Antarctica.
I know I was talking shit about it, but I have to include Haines, Alaska. I mean there are so many operators now over there because anybody can just go and rent helicopters and start running trips. Everywhere we’re running we’re the only ones, and that’s what I try to do. I don’t like to go where other people go. I avoid it like the plague.
Other than the crowds the bad side of Alaska is the weather’s really bad. The good side is when it’s good they’ve got some of the best powder you can find. You can ski really steep stuff and it’s really stable because like Greece it’s a maritime snow pack, so it just sticks in these places.
I’ve been told stories where six weeks in a row, you never get a single run in. One of our clients who was coming to ski with us went two times and didn’t ski once, either trip. And finally, the third time he skied, and he said it was the best skiing of his life, so… that’s what Alaska is.
BEST OF PINK: How To Organize a Lady’s Only Trip
Please don’t get the idea that heli-skiing is strictly a man’s sport — there’s plenty of space on these epic mountains for ladies who want to plunge hip-deep in virgin powder as well. And while mixed crews are fine and dandy, Best Of White is here to organize trips in Italy and Switzerland that focus solely on the fairer sex. Founded in 2009 by esteemed adventurer/world-class photographer David Schnell — you can see many of his stunning images on these pages — the self-professed ‘Powder Snow Guru’ boasts more than 30 years of experience leading trips worldwide.
Why ladies only, you may ask? Sure it’s a smart marketing strategy, but there’s more: “Because the future is pink! Ladies have a big potential and are a new market for adventure skiing,” argues Schnell. “The important thing about working with ladies only is that they do not want to do the same as the boys are doing. There’s no competition, so that means more quality than quantity — and more runs a day, etc.”
So how do you book a trip with Best of White? Schnell is quite selective in his process. “I prefer the personal encounter to meet my client if that is logistically possible. The best approach is to start with a ‘small event’ — like a 1-3 day warm-up in the Dolomites — to get to know each other before we share a bigger adventure in the world.”