Speak to most skiers or snowboarders and heli skiing in Alaska is usually high up on their bucket list. It was up there on mine, bracketed in the section of things that I’d love to do but would probably never get to do. I first became aware of the Chugach mountains and their reputation after watching ‘Steep’, my favourite ski documentary following the stories of pioneering skiers such as Bill Briggs and Doug Coombs. In the Chugach wet snow falls, sticks to the mountains and a cold wind sweeps in from the North drawing moisture from the snow. This leaves a light soft powder that sticks to the steepest of faces. It’s this light, effortless, velvety snow of the steeps of the Chugach that skiers dream of; a maritime snow pack unrivalled anywhere else in the world.
So when our good friend Gavin Davis came to the Wheelers and I with the proposition of a once in a lifetime trip to Alaska this March you can imagine it didn’t take much persuasion* to get it booked (*it took no persuasion).
We came to Alaska with an open mind. We didn’t know what the snow and weather conditions would provide and, as we’re all well accustomed with the unpredictability of the weather when it comes to this sport, we weren’t going to hang all of our hopes on it. We didn’t know what the guiding would be like and if they’d be able to take us to the steep open faces, narrow couloirs and often exposed areas that Alaska is famous for. We just came to make the most of whatever experiences it would throw at us.
We arrived to a period of low pressure, resulting in bad weather and a lot of rain. We got orientated and trained up in avalanche safety, helicopter safety, sluff management and a refresher in ‘beacon’ searches. After that, we waited. Day 3 in Alaska and we got what we were waiting for… Heli Time.
Within the first morning Alaska had reached and far exceeded all expectations. The snow was the most perfect snow you could imagine skiing and our guide, Andrew quickly read the group’s ability and desires for the week and promptly took us on a hair-raising heli drop for the second run. We ticked off some great runs, including ‘Alzie’s’ couloir and ‘The Funnel’ and skied from 10am until 6pm, flying back to base to a setting sun. Perfect.
I had two aims for the trip:
- To experience some classic Alaskan steeps
- To scare myself.
We managed to do both of these every day we flew, several times a day. Gavin had emailed ahead with strict instructions that we wanted to ski lots of steeps and consequently we were given Andrew as our guide. We were informed he was one of the best and that he’d take us to some ‘cool spots’. With a combination of Andrew as our guide and Dave as our pilot, it felt that no cornice was too small and no ridge was too narrow land on!
The Friday in particular was a day on skis I’ll never forget. It was the first time anyone had skied the Worm Glacier in the last two seasons and from start to finish it was exhilarating, challenging and at times just down right intimidating. Donkey Kong set the tone in the morning: a steep entrance into a couloir with a choke at the bottom you had to straight-line out of with a blind run out. Without a doubt the craziest thing I’ve ever done on skis, resulting in a forward flip after hitting a small compression.
The day carried on along the same lines: Nailed it; Hourglass; a variation of Hourglass; The Shoulder and last but not least, Buddy Loves Spines. Buddy Loves Spines was one of those ‘cool spots’ we’d been told about. When we got dropped at the top my fight or flight response kicked in and I was ready to fly away! If it wasn’t for the support of the boys, I’d have been back in that helicopter quicker than you can say ‘no fall zone’. It was my Everest. With a side-slip entrance off what felt like a postage stamp sized landing onto an exposed face scattered with rocks, it felt like we were thousands of metres from the glacier. Andrew was as cool and as calm as ever reassuring me that I was more than capable and after a cautious descent I made it top to bottom (with a few breathers in between!). I may not have felt it at the time, but I sure am glad they didn’t let me get back in that heli! It was nothing short of mind-blowing.
Of course, this kind of skiing comes with some risks. Collectively, the four of us have suffered a torn ACL and MCL, whiplash, a broken wrist, damaged ligaments in the ankle and a burst nose requiring 12 stitches. In fact, by Monday afternoon we were regulars at the Cordova Medical Centre. One more injury and I think we’d have qualified for a loyalty card! It’s safe to say that Alaska has well and truly broken us!
Despite the unlucky injuries, would I recommend it? Undoubtedly. I can’t fault the whole set up at Points North Heli and we are all in agreement that Andrew is arguably the best guide we’ve ever skied with, allowing us to open up many runs that hadn’t yet been skied this season (thanks Andrew!). The only problem, and I have a feeling this may count for all ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences… I’m not sure we’ll be able to keep it as just the once!
I could write all day about our time in Alaska, but instead here’s a taste of life in the Chugach: