By Chris Anthony chrisanthony.com
Cordova heli-camp: living large in Alaska's Chugach Mountains
April 7, 2008 —
The epic Alaskan heli-skiing story unfolded before my eyes this past week at my 13th annual heli-camp with Points North Heli Adventures in Cordova. After 10 down days, which thankfully were split between two separate sessions of camps over two weeks (see previous blogs), the skies blew open, the winds subsided and the conditions were stable – plus, we had blower powder all the way to the glacier floors on almost every run.
My group, which consisted of some very close friends, arrived Friday evening to rain and snow. The group consisted of 16-year-old Jesse Hoffman (his second time at heli-camp), his 18-year-old sister, Haley, their mother, Lizzie, and friend Sue Ann Latterman - all very accomplished skiers from Aspen Colorado.
This was a trip of a lifetime for any family, but to do this together before Haley rushes off to college is a dream come true. I mean, how cool is this mother? No beaches here. Heli-skiing to bond the family.
The day after they arrived it was still raining out, so I took up the entire day by running the group and some others through backcountry drills, a very detailed helicopter briefing and then more practice with their avalanche beacons.
By the next day Lizzie and Sue Ann were just about to lose it, as it was still raining outside. Haley spent the day talking to her boyfriend online. Lizzie was already prepared to head home at the end of the week without making a heli-turn. Sue Ann kept asking me if we were going to fly the moment a tiny blue patch crossed the sky.
Day three things got worse, but we ate up some time by skiing the local ski hill and hiking around in waist-deep snow and high winds. Haley did not really understand why they had come all the way to Alaska to hike up a mountain and ski short runs.
Then day four arrived, and so did the sun! This became the day of days and would lead into the next several days.
Living the dream
My well-oiled and trained heli-group consisting of the Hoffman Clan and friends loaded into the heli with precision military technique. Not only that, but my group was the lightest heli group in the field. This makes the pilots really happy. The helicopters fly much easier and can land safer with lighter loads.
We lifted off base and flew into the field headed for one of my favorite zones: the Ate The Worm Valley. Later we hit South Park and Velvet Valley. Over the next few days we would get to ski several other zones, but on this day, this was the right choice.
When we flew over the last ridgeline into the Ate the Worm Valley, it was apparent that all the tracks that had been laid down the week prior were long gone. Now only a few other groups were sitting like dots on a variety of peaks. Some had already descended toward the valley floors, and from what it looked like, conditions were perfect.
I landed our group on a good warm-up run called Lower Guilt Trip. Then we flew up to a landing zone above a giant, steep rollover called The Wave. A week earlier I had pulled my group off this run when I went in to ski cut it and realized it was loaded with wind-slabbed and wind-scoured conditions. We wound up skiing a line near it called the The Tube, where I fell into a crevasse (see previous blog). But on this day, The Wave looked like it might be good.
The Wave is an awesome run but can be scary. It is very, very steep over a large rollover and has cracks, ice falls and cliffs surrounding it. But it has a large section that is completely unexposed to any of those dangers but still lends itself to massive avalanche potential if the conditions are wrong. This is where the guide comes in.
From a guide perspective this slope is a nightmare to guide and ski cut. The guide is the first on slope and will leave the clients in a safe zone and drop out of sight to ski cut this massive slope. Ideally, if a one group is on this slope and the first ones to cut it, they will call for backup or ask for someone to keep an eye on them from across the valley.
In this case I landed my group right behind another group so I could provide support. We could leave both our groups in a safe zone and I could move to a safe spot on a spine above a cliff to watch the other guide cut the slope.
When the other guide, Kelly Gray, dropped in to cut the slope it looked amazing. He dug out a quick hand pit, then did a ski cut. The entire slope sloughed to the bottom, and Kelly waited it out and then dropped in to set a ski line that would provide guidance for the clients to follow and not only rip the slope up but safely avoid the cliffs and crevasses. This, along with the fact we give our clients radios and talk to them in detail while they are dropping in, helps to alleviate a lot of variables.
From where the clients are sitting safely preparing to drop in, The Wave just appears to fall off the end of the earth. And basically they have no idea where they are going until they are on the final pitch.
Now that Kelly was safely on the glacier several thousand feet below we could send our clients one at a time onto the slope. They skied it like champs! Eighteen-year-old high school senior Haley surprised me the most, but all of them just crushed it. The snow looked amazing. And now I was left on top all alone, but happy they were all down safely.
When they all reach the bottom I’m always relieved, except for now I had to get myself down, and where I positioned myself was on spine next to an open slope above a cliff, ice fall and crevasse. In order to get to a safe part of the slope from my position, I would be cutting this slope with a massive volume of snow above me and above all the previously mentioned hazards. So I was a bit nervous.
As a guide you really do not want to show off, for a variety of reasons. You crash and get hurt, and, well, that is bad for everyone. Plus, you have a pack that weighs a much as a small child, so it is kind of constricting.
As I left my safe zone and tried to do a speedy cut. the entire slope let loose below me on the wind crust that was holding the new snow. It was really only a small fracture, but enough to take a skier off his feet and over the hazards below. It was expected, and I tried to move as fast as I could across slope and then into the fall line. As I was doing so, the snow I had cut loose cascaded over the cliffs and ice falls below to my left. It was an adrenaline rush as I pointed my skis toward the glacier and to safety.
The rest of the day, run after run, we matched the snow quality of the first two runs. At some points we even upped the ante, while on other runs we just milked the less stressful open powder fields.
Near the end of the day we switched zones and took two runs on the southwest-facing slopes of a zone called South Park, and watched the sun fall to the horizon over the Scott Glacier.
The helicopter flight home was unreal. I looked around at my group and felt so satisfied, as Lizzie had just spent one of the most spectacular days with her family bouncing from one Alaskan peak to another while dropping big lines under a clear sky with perfect conditions.
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