The rotor wash blasts our faces with stinging snow as we crouch on one knee, huddled together in front of the A-Star B3’s nose. The landing zone is the size of a small car, with a 500-foot cliff on one side and a 50-degree slope rolling away on the other. Besides the mini-storm caused by the heli blades, it’s almost windless, without a cloud to mar the bluebird skies. I’ve had plenty of days riding from a snowcat and even helis, but standing on a jagged Alaskan peak on a clear day? That’s a lifelong goal fulfilled–a checked box on a slowly shrinking list.
If any individual represents Alaskan heliskiing, it’s Dean Cummings, our guide and owner of H2O Guides Heliskiing in Valdez, AK. Cummings has been hosting this TSKJ trip for years and has all the essentials you’d hope to find in a mountain guide: calm, professional and encouraging, he throws in a few pointed warnings during his pre-run instructions to inspire a bit of fear and keep our heads in the game. He does so for good reason. This ain’t your local ski hill, and the reality and gravity of the Chugach Mountains deserve respect.
There are few people as familiar with that as Cummings, who has been opening new lines all over coastal Alaska for over two decades. That experience—combined with H2O’s huge tenure—is one of the reasons the operation’s slogan is “Access the Goods.” Though there’s been little snow in the weeks before our arrival, and the area recently saw a heavy wind event, a long flight to the corners of the tenure means endless views of glaciers and eye-popping, photo demanding geography. Accessing the goods, indeed.
The trip began with two perfect fly days in a row. Bluebird skies and not a hint of wind made for ideal conditions in the whirly bird machine. We soar through and past Thompson Pass, which holds much of the classic terrain you see in the movie segments. Our pilot, Pete, is a veteran and there’s moments when looking out of the window that I’m slightly shocked at the chosen landing zone. The toe-in landings never cease to amaze me.
Some runs are a good 4,000 vertical feet and we watch the bird land far below; a little spec on a big featured glacier. “Were headed that way” Dean says pointing to the first of a series of ever connecting pockets of goodness. The terrain is generally wide open and we follow his lead. I keep thinking of his warnings: “Those depressions are crevasses–stay away from them.” Arriving back at the bird, Pete is waiting with a big smile. He seems to get a kick out of watching us come down. Looking back up is sometimes a bit trippy. Really, we came down that far? It’s hard to wrap my mind around the scale of things.
One of Cummings’ key bits of advice is about speed, noting that you’re often going a lot faster than you think due to the massive size of the terrain. The dry powder makes for good photos and some great steep skiing, but what feels like an average pace can quickly become cheeks-flapping-in-the-wind fast, and whenever I hit a bit of crud I struggle to hang on. Somehow, I maintain control, if just barely. It’s enough to get the blood pumping, and more.
Runs with names like Hammer, Spanish Coffee, Brazilian Spaghetti and Ice King are burned into our memories to be savored later. Average per run vertical seems to be around 2,500 feet and we do about eight per day.
At last, we have used up our blade time–all good things come to an end I suppose. Our final run is a true leg-burner and starts at what seems like 60 degrees. We thread the needle through a series of crevasses and pitches. I assume Dean is trying to send us off with a bit of a bang. At the bottom the heli is waiting to take us home, and we exchange high fives as we look back at the freshly descended lines. Even after a few days, it’s hard to believe this is real. My cerebral memory card is working overtime.
There is a certain satisfaction when your legs have been well used, your adrenal glad is empty, and your memory is full of dramatic mountain skylines. I now fully understand the addictive draw of Alaska and the Chugach Mountains. I get why various ski film companies need an obligatory film segment from here. I feel that rare sensation of gratification and fulfillment, and of time well spent.