SALT LAKE CITY — On a crisp, clear, blue-sky day this past April, a helicopter belonging to Powderbird Helicopter Skiing dropped Junior Bounous atop the American Fork Twin Peaks, at 11,489 feet the highest point on the Little Cottonwood Canyon ridge.
When he set off down the mountain he skied straight into a Guinness World Record.
No one his age had ever done something like this. Bounous was 95 years and 224 days old on April 5 — 230 days older than the existing heli-skiing record-holder, a Canadian named Gordon Precious, who checked in at 94 years 306 days when he made his run in 2019.
Bounous accepted high-fives from members of his family, who made the historic run with him. It was an achievement for the ages, literally.
But in truth, chasing a world record was just an excuse to accomplish something much more grand.
In the early summer of 2020, along with everything else that was going on, Junior lost the love of his life, his wife of nearly 70 years, Maxine, who everyone called Fast Max.
The nickname was well deserved. Maxine Bounous, like her husband, could ski like the wind. She and Junior, who both grew up in Provo, were among the first certified ski instructors in the country. They pioneered the art of powder skiing, under the tutelage of no less than Alf Engen, and taught skiing at Timp Haven/Sundance, Alta, Sugar Bowl and Snowbird, where Junior was the first director of skiing when the resort opened in 1971.
Everywhere Junior went — a man who was inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Intermountain Ski Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 2002; a man who has been featured in numerous Warren Miller films; a man who has ski runs named after him at Sundance, Alta and Snowbird; a man who has been called "The Godfather of Powder Skiing" — Maxine was right there with him.
Losing her left a broken heart and an unfillable void. Life was not going to be easy without her.
Junior's son Steve knew this. He knew his dad was going to need help negotiating the grief. They needed a plan. And of course the plan involved skiing.
"The idea was to give my dad something to work for and look forward to," says Steve, a former U.S. Ski Team member, in reflecting on his effort to help his father get out and moving last fall.
As soon as the snow flew in November, just before Thanksgiving, he had Junior on the slopes at Alta.
The long summer had indeed taken its toll. A couple of runs on Sunnyside wiped the Godfather of Powder Skiing out.
But it was a start. The fresh air, the movement, the joy of skiing, it all began to methodically work its magic.
Then, shortly after 2020 turned into 2021, the idea of using a world record for extra motivation entered the picture.
Ayja Bounous, Steve and Suzanne's daughter, was doing some research on her grandfather's life — for a biography she's writing about him — and discovered that such a thing as a record for "world's oldest heli-skier" actually existed.
And grandpa was older than the man who held it.
The Bounous family contacted the Guinness people to see how one went about qualifying for the record. Turned out, there was a lot of documentation to be done. Suzanne rolled up her sleeves and waded through the red tape. It took time, the heli-skiing season was drawing to a close, but finally they were able to nail down a date to go for it.
On Tuesday, April 5, the Powderbird helicopter lifted off from its Snowbird helipad and delivered Junior, Steve, Suzanne, Ayja and her sister Tyndall, along with a few friends and photographer Sam Watson, to the top of Twin Peaks.
The hard part was getting Junior out of the chopper. At 95, his legs don't bend like they did at 35.
"The skiing was the easy part," he said.
After he smoothly glided his way over corn snow into the record book, the group took another run, and another, and another. As an added bonus, the chopper took the long way back, treating Junior to an up-close loop around Mount Timpanogos.
It was more than appropriate. In 1961, a mere 60 years ago, Junior and Maxine, along with Jim McConkey and Elfriede Shane, skied down the face of Mount Timpanogos for a Ski Magazine photo shoot (you can see them on the cover of the January 1962 edition) after being ferried to the summit via helicopter.
In 1961, commercial helicopters had barely come into existence. It is believed to be the first heli-skiing flight in history.
"Beyond belief," was Junior's description when he touched down from his record-setting flight. "I stand here and feel so sentimental that it's almost hard to talk about it. It was such a special day that was never anticipated or expected."
One that was far more about where he'd been than what he'd just done.
"It was the most incredible experience, to see him skiing like that after one of the most tragic events of his life," said his granddaughter Ayja. "You could just tell he was on cloud nine. We all felt that way, just watching him."
Ayja is sure her grandmother was there, too, and as happy as her husband.
"Skiing and being in the mountains was what they shared from the get-go," she said. "I'm sure she was watching from somewhere, thrilled to see him rebound the way he did, doing what they both loved so much."
After the heli-ski, the new world record-holder kept right on going. Junior skied well into May, racking up 72 days for the year. It wasn't the 160 ski days he used to average during his career, but he is 95.
What's next on the horizon?
"Well, he could do it again next year," offered Steve. "He could break his own record. Once he gets on snow, he's 30 years younger." At least.