Heli-skiing adventures in Alaska's Chugach Mountains

Heli-skiing is like nothing else - the highest highs, the lowest lows. Literally. As you can imagine, the Chugach has some killer pow and terrain, but also the potential for long bouts of crap weather which will ground the heli while you sit about watching your precious vacation days pass you by. Alaska Backcountry Adventures (ABA) did their best to make the most of any weather windows (aka "sucker-holes") that occurred, even to the extent of squeezing in one quick run at 6pm like they did on our final day (only run of the day). Funny story really, we were five minutes from sticking the keys in the ignition for the five-hour drive back to Anchorage, when suddenly... "The pilot's here, we're flyin'!!" Talk about a Chinese fire drill! To add insult to injury, five of our party of nine elected to extend their stay by a couple days and as fate would have it the weather broke. Ain't that typical?

Long story short - although we found the 'down day activities' and 'self-serve BBQ lunch' promised by ABA to be curiously absent; the staff and guides did what they could make us feel welcome and to ensure that we enjoyed our time skiing/boarding at Thompson Pass. Owner Dave "Happy" always managed to put a positive spin on the rather ambiguous weather forecasts and gave us hope that the weather would "pop". Who could forget our ex-military pilot Frank with his ass-kicking attitude and his roller coaster flying antics? A certain knife-edge ridge landing with skids hanging off either side comes to mind. The wind was really beginning to whip, and being second-to-last to disembark I could have sworn that Frank was sweating it just trying to keep the heli in position. And finally, we all took exception to 'Badger's seemingly harsh warning - "...there's nothing but death for you there", referring to the rear heli rotor during our initial orientation, but hey...this is Alaska after all!

We spent a couple days around Anchorage, skied at Alyeska resort then drove the very scenic loop over to Thompson Pass (about 30 minutes outside of Valdez) where we RV'd it for the next week or so. We skied in all conditions, from low light to blinding sunshine and dust-on-crust to bottomless Chugach blower pow. It dumped about a foot while we were there, but unfortunately the heli was grounded for most of that period. Definitely a learning experience, all of it, and with Anchorage only a 3 hour flight from SeaTac it's a lot closer than one might think. Considering that about half of our group still has a credit for a day-and-a-half of heli runs, I guess we have no choice but to come back.

Interestingly, for only two months out of the year (March/April) this valley is where many skiing/boarding superstars get it done. In fact, Mack Dawg and Warren Miller were flying and filming with ABA while we were there (look for a cameo appearance in the after-hours bonfire scene in their upcoming movies)! We hung out with pro riders DCP and Jussi (among others) on ABA's porch while the heli was grounded, and spotted skier Jeremy Nobis downing brewskis at the Alaska Rendezvous restaurant and pub a few miles down the valley. What a privilege to be rubbing elbows with celebrities, even if they out-prioritize us un-sponsored types. Down-days are a great equalizer though - sponsored or un-sponsored, nobody flies. While we took to drinking beer and sessioning a backcountry booter, Jussi and company were engrossing themselves in back-to-back episodes of Lost Season 3 which they apparently downloaded via the RV's satellite dish. Whatever it takes to pass the time, eh? In the interest of traveling light, all but two of us decided to leave our backcountry gear behind - a decision I would come to regret, as backcountry skiing around Thompson Pass is limited only by one's imagination.

We took a lot of photos and even more video clips. Given the flat light that was prevalent most days we skied, and having to ski slopes in pitches and/or glacier spacing, this did not lend itself to very good ski footage. In other words, I won't be making a movie. For that, you might want to tune-in sometime after April 2008! In the mean time, I'll be accruing air miles and dreaming of next spring.

Click thumbnails below to view photos from various stages of our trip...
Welcome to Alyeska! On the road to Valdez Afternoon on top of the RV Descending 'Stale Fish'
Anchorage, Turnagain Arm, Alyeska
On the road to Valdez
Our home at Thompson Pass
What we came for - heli skiing!

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