David O. Williams
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December 15, 2007 — CORDOVA, Alaska – The longer we stood on our skis on the parking-spot-sized landing zone atop an unnamed pinnacle of rock and ice in southeastern Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, the louder and more insistent my inner voice became: “Just where the hell are we supposed to ski?”
By the time I vocalized my concern to our Points North heli-guide, Will Paden, a 35-year-old avalanche forecaster from Squaw Valley, Calif., he had already begun cautiously but confidently making his way down a 50-degree pitch that dropped 4,000 vertical feet to the glacier below.
So this is what they meant by a “no-fall zone.”
No new snow in eight days dictated that catching an edge on the recycled, windblown powder and taking a tumble simply was not an option. Such a mistake would result in a headlong, three-quarters-of-a-mile ride into a bergschrund – a 70-foot-deep crevasse where mountain meets glacier.
Points North Heli-Adventures
Cost: Helicopter time is typically purchased in advance and averages around $800 per person a day. It is usually non-refundable or partially refundable due to inclement weather, which is a constant in the Chugach Mountains of southeastern Alaska.
Lodging: Points North is one of the only truly all-inclusive operations, and the only outfit based out of Cordova, which cannot be accessed by car. Based on a minimum one-week stay, Points North charges $150 per person per night, which includes three meals a day (heavy on the fresh halibut). Motels in Valdez are fairly reasonable ($70 a night for a double at the Best Western).
Heli-skiing season: Begins in late February (when it starts staying light until 4:30 p.m.) and runs through the last week of April (when it’s light until 10:30 and you can ski until 8 p.m..
Equipment: Most reputable backcountry skiing outfits of any kind (especially in Alaska) will require you to ski with an avalanche transceiver, which you’ll be briefed on operating, a shovel and a probe in your pack. Alaskan operations also require climbing harnesses for crevasse rescues. Recommended: fat powder skis and a helmet.
Ability levels: Several Alaskan operations say they’ll accommodate strong intermediate skiers, but I don’t recommend considering it unless you’re at least an advanced skier in relatively good shape. If it’s your first time heli-skiing, I strongly suggest trying Helitrax in Telluride or one of the Canadian operations first. Alaska is very much the real deal.
That possibility was why we wore climbing harnesses over our powder pants: so our broken bodies could be extracted from the icy depths.
These are not thoughts you want to have crashing around inside your skull as you tentatively traverse out across a 4,000-foot elevator shaft of hard-packed snow. But the subconscious whispers were hard to beat back.
Noting the fear in my voice, one of my helicopter mates, John Alfond of Vail, calmly advised me to be aggressive then executed a series of solid jump turns, triggering a mini-slide of loose snow before ducking into a “safe” zone below a rock outcropping several hundred feet below.
Welcome to helicopter skiing in the Chugach.
“You can’t be afraid,” another of my heli-mates explained that night after several beers at heli-camp near the coastal fishing village of Cordova. He was precariously balancing a boogie board atop a large wooden cylinder at the time. “Fear leads to pain and pain leads to suffering and suffering leads to death,” said Mark Manley, 35, a corporate attorney for Vail Resorts.
Indeed. So why were we all here in late April - 40 or so skiing-obsessed souls shelling out several thousand dollars a head to ski scared on the steepest, nastiest terrain any of us had ever pointed our boards down?
“We came up here looking for the kind of terrain you can’t ski anywhere else,” said Marc Beasley, a 33-year-old commercial insurance broker from Denver. “Backcountry skiing in Colorado just gives you the potential to get caught in an avalanche; you don’t necessarily get significantly better terrain (than at ski areas).”
But with the bigger terrain (the area of the Chugach we were skiing tops out at 7,000 feet, but the mountains start at sea level and timberline is at 1,500 feet) comes the potential for bigger injuries. A member of Beasley’s group, Bart Spaulding of Denver, broke through crusty snow on a glacier at high speeds at the end of his first run, crashed hard and broke his leg and hand.
And there’s also the potential for moments of life-altering terror.
Rich Brooks, 43, a Miami financial manager, caught an edge and started to tumble down a 3,000-foot, 52-degree slope before self-arresting by digging an arm into the snow.
“You’re going to go back home and things are just going to seem a little bit less traumatic because here you’re looking at some of the biggest, harshest, mountain terrain around, landing on it in helicopters and skiing down it. It’s going to change your perspective on the world,” said Brooks, whom I first met in Telluride after he had just skied with Colorado’s only heli operation, Helitrax. Brooks says there’s no comparing the terrain.
Nor is there any way to really prepare for the scale of the Chugach. I skied 50 days in the lower 48 to get ready for Alaska but was still pushed to my physical limit by the length of the runs and psychological limit by their steepness.
Despite what one of my ski buddies would describe as my “cow-on-ice” moment, I made it down my unnamed 50-degree nemesis without falling, which made the 40- to 45-degree runs we took next (about the steepest you’ll encounter at most Colorado ski areas) seem moderate by comparison.
Then the clouds rolled in and shut us down for the rest of the week. Even flat light is enough to ground helicopters in the treeless Chugach. One pilot described it to me as “trying to fly in a bowl of milk.”
Over the next week it snowed more than five feet high in “The Zone” where the best skiing is and rained relentlessly on us down at the Orca Adventure Lodge, a converted cannery two miles from Cordova on the shores of Orca Inlet.
In a strange 180 from Colorado skiing, we found ourselves begging the snow gods to make it stop, amusing ourselves with dodge ball at the local gym, very soggy ice climbing expeditions to the nearby Sheridan Glacier and hours of pool at the Reluctant Fisherman.
“It’s a very expensive adult summer camp,” remarked Beasley after three days of waiting out the rain. “Or I should say, ‘winter camp?’ But it’s got a great vibe.”
For skiers, hanging out in heli-camp is akin to fantasy camp for baseball fans. Playing ping pong and lounging in the “Hippy Sauna” right along with their fellow campers were big-mountain ski film stars Dan Treadway and Hugo Harrison, grounded with the rest of a Warren Miller film crew.
We all tried hard to “drink it blue,” a heli-camp catchphrase for ensuring blue skies by being hung-over, but to no avail. My week of lodging and space on Points North’s three helicopters was up after just one fly day and five runs on marginal snow – a fairly typical result in the Chugach.
So my friend John and I caught a flight to nearby Valdez, another town on Prince William Sound – one made famous by the Exxon-Valdez oil spill and in the ski world by a half-dozen heli operations.
There the skies cleared and we were guided one epic, seven-run day by the dean of Alaskan heli-skiing, former World Cup mogul skier and ski-film legend Dean Cummings, who owns H2O Heli-Guides.
I discovered that bombing down 50-degree slopes choked with thick, imminently carveable maritime powder is a far more relaxing experience. Until the weather got too nice the next day.
Melting snow adds water weight to the snowpack, and huge avalanches – even on north-facing slopes in the shade – became a very real possibility. In fact, the day before we got to Valdez, six people were partially buried in non-fatal slides at three other heli operations.
Despite carrying shovels, avalanche transceivers and probes, the enjoyment factor was greatly reduced for me by the awesome sound of slides crashing down south- and west-facing slopes all around us.
Cummings’ H2O operation impressed me by lifting us off the top of a run after determining the avalanche danger had progressed from “considerable” to “high.” I greeted the decision with a palpable sense of relief. I had promised my wife, who bought me the trip for my 40th birthday, that I would live to ski another day.
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