After a long week at Arctic Man, James and I loaded up the rig and drove 4 hours south to Valdez, AK. I was glued to the window almost the entire way. Going from the interior Alaska Range to the coastal Chugach Range, I witnessed the amazing sight that has become the standard for pretty much every ski movie made over the last 20 years. The Church are every bit as big, awe inspiring and intimidating as you may have heard.
Once we rolled into town, James made a phone call to his good friend Sonny Hamilton who is a guide at H2O Guides. After speaking to Sonny and looking over the weather, it looked like we were only going to have one day of good weather for the next week.
We arrived at the guide office, did a meet and greet, signed paperwork, received our safety briefing, did a beacon test and search and finally headed to the hotel restaurant for food and drinks. Sonny joined us and informed us that her husband Mike would be our guide the next day and that our Arctic Man crew (James, Nick, Sylvan and myself) would have the bird to ourselves. Nick is a lineman with James who is also a skier and speed flyer while Sylvan is a French Olympic boarder-cross snowboarder (Turin, Italy, 2006). With one last minute addition, Sammy a Valdez native, we set off for our rooms to get rest before what would become one of the top 5 most unforgettable experiences of my life.
The next morning we all converge at the hotel continental breakfast area to put some grub down our throats. I’m no expert, but when it’s a bluebird day in Valdez and you run into Mark Abma, Sean Pettit and Richard Permin out front loading their gear into the guide vans, it’s going to be a good day. After marking and loading our gear into the van, we set off for the airport to meet the bird. Upon arrival, we take the required group photo and load up. The flight our to our first drop off, was amazing. Looking at these massive mountains and glaciers that go on for miles and miles left me nearly speechless. It was so hard to take it all in.
The next thing I know, we are hovering above a thin ridge line with a 50 degree slope on one side and a 1000 foot cliff on the other. Mike and our pilot chat on the radio about the landing before the pilot sets the skids down on the cornice and “shimmies” the bird back and forth testing its stability. Everything was a go and we all pile out of the bird, hug our gear and wait for the bird to fly away. After the snow settled, we all stood up to revel in the raw beauty and reality of our unique situation. Mike brings us all back to reality to explain the line and the “don’t go this way or you’ll have a long time to think about things before you die” speech. We all click in to our skis and one by one we skied the most unimaginably amazing steep powder that Alaska had to offer. This is what dreams are made of!!! One buttery smooth turn after another, I made my way down the mountain face to the link up spot were we would wait for the
bird. High-fives and hugs were aplenty! Looking back up the mountain at our lines, it was still a little hard to believe this was all happening. I’m heli-skiing in the Church Range in Alaska. Please do not pinch me, because I do not want to wake up.
Just before the bird arrived, Mike explained that he wanted to see how steep the snow conditions would let us go for the day. Our next bump would take us up to an even gnarlier LZ on an even sketchier ridge line. Before stepping out of the bird, Mike looks at all of us and yelled, “Do NOT step that way!!” He pointed in the direction of another 1000+ foot cliff that started about halfway back on the skids of the helicopter. I HATE heights and I HATE exposure. I did the usual: obeyed the guide and didn’t look down. The bird took off and Mike took us on a traverse of the aforementioned ridge line (which was just as scary as anything else I have ever done) to the spot where we would drop in. Again there was the, “you can’t go that way, because there is a 100 foot cliff and you can’t go that way because that’s the 1000 foot cliff.” Mike continued to explain the terrain and that he would go down a little bit more to a vantage point where he could view each skier better on their runs. About 75 feet and three turns into Mike’s descent, he fired off a huge avy that we watched rip down the full 3000 feet of the run. The stakes had just been raised.
Acknowledging the situation of the terrain and the hangfire that was still present, we one-by-one skied the bed surface of the slide to our link up site and then down to the pick up area. We wouldn’t be skiing anything more than 40 degrees the rest of the day. To be honest, I didn’t even care. Four more runs including one that ended with a mile run on the Worthington Glacier made this day difficult to fully describe. It was much like I am told first time skydives are for many students. A complete overload of all of the senses. Regardless, this was a dream come true.
That evening we drink plenty of beer and ate amazing food while sharing videos and stories with all of our friends, new and old. We looked at the weather for the rest of the week and realized that we had just bagged the best day possible. James and I decided that we would take advantage of one more day of reasonable weather for sled bumps up in Thompson Pass. Visibility was low, but the snow and the winds were great. I managed three speedfly runs before things went south in the weather department. One last throw down of a party at the Alaska Rendezvous Lounge was had before James and I headed back north to Fairbanks. My trip to Alaska was over, but the memories and friends will surely last a lifetime. I know now why Alaska has lured explorers, adventurers and lovers of the outdoors for more than a century. It holds the possibility of something new and wild and is one of the best places in the world to test and find yourself. Thank you for the wild ride Alaska, I will be back (already planning next year’s trip!).