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Chris Anthony's Corner
Cordova heli-camp: living large in Alaska's Chugach Mountains
Our group of Aspen skiers looks out over Scott Glacier in the heart of Alaska's Chugach Mountains on a truly epic days with Points North Heli Adventures.
By Chris Anthony chrisanthony.com

Cordova heli-camp: living large in Alaska's Chugach Mountains

Steep and deep powder dreams finally come true for one family
By Chris Anthony

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 Ė 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.

Cordova heli-camp: living large in Alaska's Chugach Mountains
Looking toward the Ice Box Landing Zone from the top of the Ate the Worm run.
By Chris Anthony chrisanthony.com

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.

Cordova heli-camp: living large in Alaska's Chugach Mountains
Jesse Hoffman, 16, of Aspen, rips a line deep in Alaska's Chugach Mountains.
By Chris Anthony chrisanthony.com

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 Iím 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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Heli Camp Day 4: Chris Anthony's crevasse encounter
A heli's eye view of the Wave Tube crevasse in the fly zone of Points North Heli Adventures near Cordova, Alaska.
By Chris Anthony 

Heli Camp Day 4: Chris Anthony's crevasse encounter

The blogger plunges 20 feet into an icy abyss
By Chris Anthony

March 22, 2008 —  It was supposed to be a down day. All the weather reports looked bad. Our morning meeting was spent trying to come up with ways we were going to entertain the clients for the day. Just as I went out to meet with my group of four campers and let them know this might be another day of sitting in the lodge or thinking of other ways to occupy our time, the sky started to clear. It wasn’t supposed to, but it started to.


Fifteen minutes later Kevin Quinn radioed the guides that we needed to have another meeting. He activated the fire drill still thinking it would be a false alarm, but we needed to play the roll anyway. A half an hour after that the helicopters were firing up engines and I was scrambling to get all my gear together, as well as get my campers together and ready to fly.


It kind of reminded me of scramble time on the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier I visited with the Warren Miller Team.


With every minute the skies grew clearer and made it apparent why you have to be in Alaska and hanging close to the helicopters for this to happen. When Mother Nature lets us, she is going to let us, but it is all on her terms.

Heli Camp Day 4: Chris Anthony's crevasse encounter
The crack that almost got the blogger is the third one up that looks like it's smiling.
By Chris Anthony 

My group of four, which included Greg Cook, David Noble, CJ Wolf and Geoff Beard, loaded into the heli like seasoned pros. A few rookie mistakes, but all in all they were awesome. This means good things for the day as the pilots will gain confidence in us and feel comfortable in putting us almost anywhere.  


Our flight out to the zone is always thrilling, especially for first-timers. To watch their eyes light up the moment the helicopter leaves the ground is awesome. For as far as the eye can see, snow-covered peaks cover the landscape as we float in a heli amongst them. As we fly from one valley to the next, it just gets better and better.


For me, there is so much going on. I have the headset on so I can communicate with the pilot and try to collect as much information as possible from reports coming from other guides in the field. In the meantime, I’m looking out the window, not at the views but at the snow and different aspects of the snow, trying to access what it may be like or if it looks stable.


My mind is going a thousand mph collecting this data so I can make a decision on where to ask our pilot to try and land us. Meanwhile, sitting behind me I have four clients I have not skied with before, so I need to try and figure out their ability as well.


Up to this point I’m just going off what they have told me and from emails and watching their mannerisms around base camp. Unlike a ski resort, where the trails are marked and you can ride a chairlift to multiple options, landing on one of these peaks is a commitment.


There is no one that is going to get you down but yourself, so you better not have exaggerated your ability. Everything you have in the toolbox will be used at some point during the day, and the truth will be told.


We are not able to go for the first landing I wanted. The light was too flat on it and our pilot didn’t feel secure with that. Fine with me. So as to not waste too much fuel and time poking around, I chose to land us where a couple of other groups had landed and just follow tracks.  


We headed to the “Struddle” landing - one of the highest zones and with a great view - and skied into a run we call “Upper Guilt Trip.” It’s a multi-pitch line with a ton of variations on it. We skied it in three sections., with a total vertical of around 3,000 feet. It had some pretty decent snow on it.


I really wanted to put the guys on something fun, with good snow and no tracks. They showed they had the ability, so we went to a run called “Ice Box.” This is a very difficult one to guide because it runs through a hanging glacier with multiple holes and crevasses on it. We landed the peak just behind another group, and their guide wanted me to back him up as he said the visibility was tough.


When I looked in I could see what he meant. Between the partially cloudy day and the fact the sun had not completely come up enough to illuminate the sky or create any shadows, we were flying blind around land mines. In fact, a blind man might have had a better view of what we were about to ski into than we did.


Needless to say, it took us forever to move down through the route. At one point we had three groups actually stacked up on one another, making it a bit of a cluster. But the reason was legit. The light was so flat you could not see. The last thing we needed was someone falling into a crevasse or off an icefall.


When we were done, I sensed a bunch of frustration, so I needed to try and pull out an ace. The heli picked us up and I requested one of my favorites. In the past, I’ve been turned away from this landing, “Ate the Worm,” several times, pulled a fellow guide from a slide and even walked a client down who got so gripped on it he could not ski.


The landing is just a little larger than the helicopter itself and sits like a crow’s nest with several thousand feet of exposure around it. The run is one of my favorites because I can keep an eye on my clients the entire way down, which makes me feel so much more secure. The snow is usually pretty good, while at the same time it is a big, exposed face. The group was thrilled about this landing and they skied it like champs.


This one was going to be a tough one to beat, but I tried. I flew us to an easy landing where we could drop into a run called “THE WAVE.” I had an amazing time on this run once and never again, but I was hoping today would be the day. Nope.


When I went to ski cut it, I did not like what I saw. If anyone fell down the hard surface, they would go over rocks and into a crevasse, so I hiked out. I had to take them down another option that Kevin’s wife named “Jesse’s Run.” She had already skied it with her group that day, so I figured, What the heck?  I was wrong again.


Her group had skied all the good snow out of it and left me with a very steep narrow chute of broken and crusted snow over a hard surface surrounded by rocks - along with the fact the bottom had two large cracks running across the entire outrun.


So basically, if you fell at the top, you would not stop on the hard snow and then you would bounce off the rocks and be sent down the steep pitch into a crevasse. Not a good scenario. All I wanted to do was get my guys through this and out it as soon as possible, and I made it clear this was not a place to screw up. 


One at a time I had them ski down to me, slowly an confidently, and then I than gave them further instructions to ski around to the far right, hug the cliff and ski over the two cracks quickly. To the left the two cracks were much too large to ski over. 


They did it, all of them successfully, and I was completely relieved to have them off the slope and safe. I felt like an overstressed parent watching his kids do something very risky and just trying to be supportive instead of telling them not to do it.  


Then it was my turn. I skied fall line from my safe spot, just to the left of everyone else’s tracks and still above the two visually apparent cracks (bergstroms) that I had everyone avoid and I definitely wanted to avoid myself.  Then all of a sudden the world gave away. I was falling. The sound was familiar, but nothing I could relate to here. It was as if a ton of snow had just let loose from a metal roof. It did not compute.


It happened so fast I didn’t realize what had just occurred until I came to a dead stop. I had fallen in a crevasse, and now I was lying on a shelf 20 feet from the surface. Both my skis had blown off and I was sprawled on my stomach like a cat that had been thrown into the bathtub.


Behind me was a big bottomless abyss. Above me blue ice. In front of me a snow ramp that I thought I might be able to climb out of. But it was still settling.


I made a call on my radio that I was in a hole, and one of our heli pilots and a fellow guide picked it up. My group also noticed from below that I had disappeared, and they had started calling me on my Motorola radio that we all carry.


Once I was able to get my bearings I was able to free up one of one of my skis without too much of a problem or too much extra movement. I used it to make a shelf I could use for some security and hold onto an anchor. From that point I was able to pull out my other ski. I used it to create another platform to anchor onto.


Then I started to inch my way up away from the brink of the abyss. I crawled slowly for a while towards the surface, put one of my skis on to push upwards, and eventually reached the rim of the crack. I inched my way over and crawled out of the hole still above two other bergstroms exposed further down the slope.


I put my gear on gently and skied off towards the rocks on the side of the chute and started to shake, but I knew I just needed to keep going, so I skied quickly down the remainder of the slope to my group and tried to collect my thoughts.


I wanted to go home, but I needed to keep going. The heli picked us up, the pilots were all checking on me and we flew to a nice sunny “Struddle” landing again. The sun had risen and softened the snow going into an area called the “Velvet Valley.” The rest of the day was spent there skiing the velvet. It was amazing. Run after run just got better and better.


When night came and it was time for me to lay my head down on my pillow, my dreams started to download what had taken place over the day, then turned into falling dreams over and over. But I never hit the ground.

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Day 2 in Alaska heli camp: settling into  the routine
The blogger enjoys the ride on the way back to camp after a scouting mission the second day of heli camp near Cordova, Alaska.
Courtesy of Points North 

Day 2 in Alaska heli camp: settling into the routine

First fly day reveals wind-affected snow, guides pull the plug
By Chris Anthony

March 21, 2008 —  I woke up to Owen the black lab breathing on my face. My first night of sleep in the guide house was a little rough, even with the help of Ambien. My head seemed to be in directly lined up with a draft of cold air coming in through the window.

I felt like crap, and it was 6:30 a.m. It was time for the guide meeting just a few feet away from my bed, which was nice since I was sleeping in all my clothes and all I had to do was stand up, put on some fuzzy Crocs and walk a couple of feet.



Outside it was clear but still dark. The immediate indication was that today was going to be a fly day, and my energy and nerves jumped as I imagined we would soon be hovering over the Chugach Mountain range in a helicopter.

Kevin Quinn, owner and operator of Points North Heli Adventures, along with his wife Jessica, started off the guide meeting by reading a letter from the fire chief and signed by the mayor of nearby Cordova, Alaska.


The letter thanked Points North as well as a few of the guides for their assistance in helping with the retrieval of an avalanche victim a few days prior to my arrival. It was tragedy that took place right above town and had nothing to do with the heli operation.


Apparently a couple of well-known and snow-savvy locals had hiked a mountain above town with their dogs to get some fresh tracks. They had a few successful runs until one of the dogs, or perhaps both, triggered a huge avalanche (15-foot crown) that wound up taking the life of one of the skiers.



Iím officially in Alaska Ö and like all big, wild places, it needs to be respected.



After the debriefing of the incident and the reading of the letter we went into our daily schedule and procedures: groups, what zones we would be flying into and what approach to make on the terrain.


Since Walker Milhoan and I had just arrived, we would be holding down the base camp. This meant a combination of working in the kitchen cleaning dishes and peeling potatoes to manning the aircraft radio and setting up gear for the next fly day. We were basically part of base operations while groups took off the deck and into the field.


At this camp everyone pitches in to help keep the place functioning. Since itís only up and running a few months a year, everyone who works here is from a very tight-knit group of Quinnerís friends. He only chooses people with a great work ethic and great skills. Itís an amazing group of friends to work with while Iím here.



Day 3 (I fly!)



We prayed the winds would calm down on Day 3. They didnít. But I got to go up in the heli anyway - on a recon. We were hoping that we could find something with good snow that hadnít been abused by the wind. As we gained elevation, it was evident that the wind was still pumping, as banners of snow were blasting off the high peaks.


The snow texture as we flew from one valley to the next indicated that almost every aspect had been wind affected. Ugghh! We landed a ridge, unloaded and skied one run on a variety of aspects.



It was a mix of a slight velvet powder and a breakable crust - the kind of conditions where every turn youíre just trying not to instantly flip upside down Ö or blow out a knee. It was good, but not incredible. Not worth flying the clients out onto it.


Since we couldnít land up high because of the winds and the lower landings had the conditions I just described going on, we decided to pull the plug under clear skies but windy conditions. It was a hard one to explain to clients when we got back to base Ė but it was the right decision.


Next blog: a big fly day on Day 4!

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18 years of steep and deep, Alaska-style
Points North's three helicopters sit right by the water next to the Orca Lodge, ready to whisk eagler heli-skiers into the zone in a matter of minutes.
By Chris Anthony 

18 years of steep and deep, Alaska-style

The more things change in Cordova, the more they stay the same
By Chris Anthony

March 14, 2008 —  I just flew back up to Alaska for the 18th year in a row. Eighteen years Ö man, time flies by. I canít believe Iíve been making this trip for so long.


Some things have changed dramatically, while others have stayed exactly the same. The Anchorage airport, for example, has tripled in size, while some of the glaciers Iíve flown over for years have shrunken.


My tolerance for travel headaches has decreased as well, as I find myself more high maintenance than I was in the past when it comes to accommodations and where I sit on the plane. I need to get over that, because my accommodations as a guide are usually pretty rough.


I remember the first year I arrived in Alaska. I was headed to Valdez, one of the first ones to ever show up there as a skier. It was raw, and none of us really had a clue what we were getting into.

The recent movie ďSTEEPĒ does a pretty good job of documenting a few of the stories from the early Valdez heli-skiing years. It left out more than it documented, which is hard to watch since I witnessed those first years, but no matter, because from those early days a new world of skiing was born.


And, as I walk through the new Anchorage airport on my way to catch a short flight to Cordova, Iím reminded just how small this community of skiers is. A voice calls out my name. Itís a friend and fellow guide at Points North Heli Skiing, Walker Milhoan. Iím surprised to see him since the last time I talked to Walker he said he wasnít going to be heading up this season. But there he is.


Our friend Kevin Quinn, the owner of Points North, where Iíve been holding my Heli Camps (www.chrisanthony.com ) the past several years (prior to Cordova I did them in Girdwood, Alaska, at Chugach Powder Guides) called Walker up from the lower 48 to fill the shoes of another guide that who hurt himself before ever making it to Alaska. Iím happy to see him, and nothing more really needs to be said. We both know the routine of what the next couple of weeks holds in store for us.


Eighteen years ago the plane I flew from Anchorage to the satellite town was jalopy compared to this luxury liner headed to Cordova. I still remember that flight. Three attempted and very scary landings before we headed back to Anchorage and gave it another shot the next day. I eventually made it.


The Cordova airport is small. Very small. I love it. Right out the front door of the airport is a mildew-smelling van left for me with the keys in the ignition. I flip the switch, the engine turns over, and like all the years before, all the warning lights come on and never go off. Perfect.


I walk back into baggage claim. Walker has pulled our bags and points out that we have a cell signal. Now thatís new, but it wonít last much beyond the airport.


The drive across the wetlands toward the town of Cordova and eventually base camp, surrounded by the Chugach Range, is amazing. And it reminds me how incredibly big Alaska is and how small I am.


After 10 miles we reach the small fishing town of Cordova, where one of the liquor stores has acquired a very new and modern looking sign with a new digital screen. But the sign for the bar next door still hangs upside down and has a burnt-out light. Some things never change.


Walker and I stop at the local AC to pick up bedding, as we know the guide quarters at base camp can be pretty sketchy. And since weíre considered late arrivers, as well as short-timers, we arenít going to get the pick of accommodations.


Every year I arrive hoping a building they started four years ago is done and the guides would be housed in it instead of the rickety old drafty building we have stayed in for the past few years. Nope. Not to be.


But our old building - the one right next to the vacant buildings where a few hundred Filipino cannery workers died 50 some years ago of an epidemic - has at least been painted on the outside. I think the fresh coat of paint is holding it together. This will be our home and the location of our guide meetings the next couple of week. Itís like camping, inside.


Outside are our three beautiful helicopters, perfectly maintained and covered for the night. The sight of those and the mountains in the background reminds me why I have chosen to come back year after year.


Jessica Quinn greets Walker and me. She takes us into the guideís quarters, wishes us good luck in finding a place to settle in, tells us a few enlightening stories about what has taken place over the past few days and weeks, then tells us dinner is at 7.


Inside, some familiar faces and some new ones greet us. One of those faces I unburied from an avalanche two years ago. The incident changed my entire outlook on life and how I approach the mountains. We talk about it. He hugs me. I smile. We crack a beer, and I move on to find a bed I can settle into that hasnít been made a home of by one of the token dogs wandering base camp.


Outside the sun is setting, the clouds are blowing off and the northern lights have greeted me for my first night back. Heli Camp has begun.


commnet icon  3 Comments on "18 years of steep and deep, Alaska-style"

 

Reid — March 16, 2008

Chris, sounds great. Isn't Walker Milhoan a true local. Son of Randy and Susan? Thought I talked to Randy about it a few years back at the Minturn C.C. said that Walker was doing his avi' training in AK. Good hockey player if I remember. Anyway, sounds like the skiing is worth the shabby accomadations. Have fun, be safe. Reid

 

Kent — March 16, 2008

Your writing brings it all back. I can't believe I'll be up there the week after your gone. Maybe I'll see you in the airport. Rip it up and stay away from Buddy Love's!!!

 

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