Not really sure where to start to describe the skiing so will just start with the facts and muddle into it as I fly home from Anchorage while I type this. It was Big Alaskan mtn skiing at its best and I was lucky to hit it at the right time. It had not snowed for 10 + days but the temps stayed cold, 15 degrees up high to 25 at the valley floors and the sky was crystal clear blue with not even a hint of wind. Snow was well settled but soft. Spoke with others who had been here in prior years who described weather down days that dragged on for days while the heli stayed grounded and they passed time away in the lobby of the hotel or seeing the town on Valdez which takes about an hour. Two weeks earlier they had been grounded for 8 straight days.
Wake up, eat breakfast, heli ski, drink beer, have dinner and then repeat. Nice hot breakfast in hotel and then jump in the vans around 9:30 ish. Not exactly an early fast start and of course you are frothing at the mouth to go. Pretty slow start with lots of standing around. If you are lucky you go right to the airport(I did the first 2 days) and jump in the chopper, 4 or 5 skiers and a guide in the chopper plus pilot. The other few groups jump in vans and drive up to Thompson Pass which is 30+ minutes away and a beautiful drive especially when you get to check out up close the Damalanche that plugged that pass a few months ago and backed the river up. Unbelievable avy field.
The chopper that leaves the airport gets a killer ride of about 30 minutes only to get dropped off on some remote peak 50 miles from the nearest road. Then the chopper goes back to Thompson pass to ferry in the other 3 or 4 groups into the particular zone you are skiing that day which was typically around a certain glacier. If you are the last group in to be dropped on some peak you might not be skiing till close to noon but if you are the last group then you also ride the chopper all the way back to Valdez. Like I said a pretty slow start for some but its light till 8 PM and they will fly as long as you want too and can pay for.
The drop offs were nothing short of spectacular. Many times on knife edge ridges with just enough room for the chopper skids with the nose and tail hanging out over cliffs. Barely enough room for 5 guys and ski's to unload. Everywhere you look for as far as you can see is rock and ice and glaciers and crevasses and couloirs. The size and grandeur is impossible to describe and pictures do not do it justice. It is incredibly overwhelming not just the first time but everytime you look up. What is really conflicting is how loud your visual sensors are overloaded but when nobody is moving or talking and the chopper is gone... it is completely quiet. I mean there is no wind and absolutely no sound yet everything is so big and so loud. Perspective was impossible. Pitches that looked so small as you choppered toward them just grew and grew. You stood at the top of a run and thought maybe a 1000 feet to the valley glacier floor but it was 4000. Features that looked small like cliffs you would drop were 100 footers.
First run was a test run for your ability and was pretty tame with creamy boot top powder that was just great for making high speed turns as you followed the guides tracks weaving down thru a labyrinth of roll over short steep pitches and low angle runs. Guide would set the track and you would stay tight or loose depending on instructions on either side going one at a time sometime spacing at 1-300 foot lengths. He would warn of cliffs and crevasses and snow bridges and you best listen. When he said stay in my tracks it meant stay in his tracks. Each run got progressively steeper and more technical depending on how well he thought the group could handle and then the last few runs would taper down to runs similar to the first runs which was smart as your legs would tire. You would do 6 runs in all and could add more if you wanted to pay. The record is 18 runs.
It was great to be there 10 days after the storms as the slopes were very stable and we were able to ski much steeper runs than I expect would have been safe to ski shortly after big storms. I think this is what sums up this big mountain Alaskan skiing. Skiing big dumps here I think means lower angle slopes and the true beauty of these mountains is to really experience its steep lines(2000 foot drop averaging a 48 degree pitch with a 400 foot section pushing 55 degrees which we skied as an example). I don't think you woul have been able to ski these safely if there was waist deep powder on them. As it was, the snow on these steep pitches was calf to knee deep and the sloughs you would kick off skiing were huge mini avys to the point that you either skied faster than them or you got 3-5 turns and would have to break right or left 5-10 feet to avoid your slough and watching it chunder down next to you as you skied 4-5 more turns and worked your way across the slope. Sometimes terrain would not allow this and you would just have to stop and let it rumble by or else it could sweep your feet out from right underneath you and you would not stop for awhile. We named this slough management and actually named a run this. It was key to determine the fall line this slough would go and the real thriller was to ride a spine so the slough broke off each side of you. Riding spines oh yeah, where do you get to practice that. It was way cool.
Sitting at the top of the really steeps runs looking at a blind rollover to nothing was nervous and a definite pucker factor. You would go one by one and that person would disappear and you would not see them for 5-10 minutes until they came out in a safe zone towards the valley floor 3000 feet below. Typically the guide went first and it was good and bad if you were the last person as you were standing there alone. All by yourself in complete silence in complete awe of your surroundings. Some people go to a church for their religion, I find my chapel in the outdoors and this was a hellava chapel. We would scout the slope by chopper so you had some idea but it never looked the same when you dropped in and the guide would give you some advice on the run but other than that it was game on and your responsibility.
Definitely the steepest and most challenging and technical skiing I have ever done. From pucker factor drop ins to adrenaline bursting runs and exhilarating finishes it was everything I would have hoped for in this Alaskan experience and glad I did it while I had the ability to do it.
The guides and operation were top notch. I was lucky to ski with owner Dean Cummings the first day and the stories he told of the early years and crazy pistol packing, alcohol drug crazy chopper pilot Chet Simmons could fill a book. He also pointed out famous ski movie pitches and first and only descent lines that he has skied as we flew near them that would brown your shorts. We went into the Pencil and Woodward glacier area the first day. My partners that day were 3 skiers from Switzerland, Jyoun, Andreas and Bernie. Solid skiers and Dean ran us on a run called .Fukemgood. 3 of our 6 runs in different spots by a mountain called Ice King that was way steep and Fukengreat. We did have a Code Brown from a frenchman in another group this day that is a whole other story.
Second day was a less stronger group with 2 guys from LA and 2 guys from Seattle. Of our 6 runs only 1 was really steep and big with the others great skiing and killer but really no pucker factor. I so wanted to do that one again but Mike who was a very cool guide pulled me aside and said he was not comfortable with the other guys as they struggled with it and there were chutes at the bottom that would ping pong you off rocks before spitting you out if you crashed and were not able to stop at the bottom of a 1500 foot run and cut skiers right to exit the area. I charged this run hard and in control and at the very bottom waiting for the chopper just fell over in the snow laughing my head off as the others just looked at me like I was on drugs. I was, a potent cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins and exhilaration. Our last run was pretty mellow and when he asked if we wanted to do extra runs I would have maxed out the credit card but the others in my group were not in the same mode I was.
I spoke with Mike that night to put me with a stronger group the next day. Prior to this night I was having a few beers and hitting the bed by 10 ish so I was feeling good and strong the next day. Then the Prop man took me over. I did not know he traveled all the way to Alaska from the Bomber cliffs. I ended up having dinner with 5 swiss guys and 2 aussies with me being the lone American. Yes I had to show them that Americans know how to drink beer .peeecchers. as they called them. I introduced them to PBR which they called .sheeeet. beer. We settled on pitchers of Alaskan Amber until it got pretty silly with a bunch of us going right out in front of the bar and jumping in Valdez Harbor. No, it was not that cold considering the shape we were in. I ended the night in the bar with the Aussies introducing them to Fireball. Word of caution, never hang out with Aussies late. Not sure when late was except day 3 morning I was not in top shape.
I got 3 other 30 year old swiss guys, Louie, Sevy and Andreas and a new guide Eric for day three. They were all on snowboards including the guide with me being the lone skier. It was an awesome group and they all ripped. My head was foggy but rotor wash and 3000 foot descents will wake you up real fast. We went into the Shwan Glacier area. Cannot describe how great the first three runs were as he had ridden with the swiss guys already and knew their capability and had seen me ski a run prior when his group backed up ours on a real steep run. Right out of the gate our warm up run, a 2800 foot drop, was high speed turns in soft powder but then turned to variable conditions with some sun crust in places as we neared the bottom. Run 2 was just plain awesome as we stared in a huge bowl with corn snow GS turns and then threaded thru a cliff line with an angled slot maybe 30 feet wide and a 1500 foot drop. I was last and Eric told me to run the ridge line as the swiss dudes tore up the middle first. It was way good snow and rip city and only at the bottom did I see that if I had lost it on the skiers right of the ridge I would have gone off a 500 foot cliff and into a glacier hole. We had looked at this other wicked pitch prior that was part of an area called Detention Center made famous in a ski movie called TB5? As we were waiting for the chopper for our bump Eric pointed at it across the other side of the glacier and said lets go ski that. We were all in. That is the way it was. The guide just looked at stuff and said lets ski it. The landing was a postage stamp. Just standing there after the chopper left made me light headed. I got a good video of this with it being about a 2000 foot steep ass descent around 45 degrees riding multiple spines with an ending 1500 feet drop of high speed big turns over rolling terrain. Hard to tell but this might have been the run of the trip. Run 4 called clam shell just kicked my ass. It started out pretty calm but midway down we got in some tight areas with lots of rocks and tight chutes. On top of that the snow was really funky and chunky. From above everything looked cool but once you got in, the terrain just changed. I was glad to get out of there . Luckily we broke for lunch at the bottom as the chopper needed to get fuel. I was sweating beer and needed food, water and rest to recover and lunch on a glacier in the bright sun hit the ticket. Our last two runs were Clam Shell south which were rocking GS turns in easy soft pow over rolling terrain features. The swiss guys were grabbing air all over the place.
The chopper pilots were amazing. Multiple times the chopper dropped us and just backed up off the ridge. Did a half turn and then just plummeted down the fall line we were about to ski 20 feet above the snow and just disappeared in the steepness only to reappear at the bottom of the run just like he was a skier.
Total cost was $4000 which covered three days of heli skiing, 5 nights of lodging, all transfers to/from airport, hot breakfast and lunch, trip cancellation and emergency evacuation insurance. Dinner and beers you paid for yourself. I tipped the each guide $50 each day and bought the pilots dinner one night. I was able to get roundtrip Seattle to Valdez for only 25K miles. There are other operations in Valdez but H20 has an exclusive permit for almost 2 million acres that the other guys can't get to. This is due to their perfect saftey record. This is big because many of the other operators were running out of terrain since it had not snowed in so long. I feel very fortunate that the weather cooperated for this trip after hearing stories of long down times . One note is that we bounced from 3 to 5 groups while there so I am sure they take any last minute people they can get. In fact they were taking groups from the Tailgate Alaska event at the end of our day from Thompson pass for 3 bumps at $500 which tells me that you can do last minute trips up there no problem.
It was pretty weird taking a ski vacation all by myself but was almost kind of cool as I ended up meeting some really fun like minded people. H2O will take you into any terrain you want to ski from mellow runs kids could ski or to scare the pants off you terrain.
I was able to get out a day earlier over to Anchorage as the clouds moved in overnight which led to flat light conditions for Friday and they did not run a chopper that day but I did get my full three days and all the other guys got their full 5 days. Spent the weekend with my little sisters family and built a nice treehouse platform for the nieces and enjoyed the weekend with them.