So I was lucky enough to score 4 weeks off work recently and invested it in a long dreamt of trip to AK. Did a bit of everything from resort riding in Alyeska, touring THompson Pass and getting some rock star (kind of) treatment with Heli out of Haines.
So I thought I'd share a little stoke with the world..
There were 3 of us on the trip, me, my wife and a mate -all flying over from our 9-5's in Australia. The trip from Oz to AK is pretty rubbish to be honest, requiring 5 seperate flights to get to Anchorage, and we were pretty burnt out by the time we got on that final flight, and moral was not running high. But then the cloud parted.. there is just nothing (at least not that I've seen) that prepares you for the vastness of the Alaskan coastline... sea ice packed up around small archipeligos, inlets and fjords preventing so much as a mile of straight coast line, and mountains rising directly from the shoreline. And the mountains just keep going, and going.. and going...
So we negotiated all the arrival logistics and headed down the Alyeska Highway to our first stop at Alyeska resort. Meandering beside Turnagain Arm, there were iceflows running through the inlet, with snow covered icebergs pushed up onto the banks, and everywhere we looked there were steep, soaring mountains, with seemingly perfect ridge line approaches and steep, pow covered flanks.
We spent the next 3 days just exploring the resort which is one of the better laid out ski fields I've ever been to. Incredible steeps accessible from the top of the tram, and all runs ending up back at the one point at the bottom, with very little traversing.. excellent snowboarders hill and plenty to keep you busy for a few days
After a couple of days we were ready to go exploring further afield. A short drive down the road took us to Turnagain Pass. The setup here is just amazing and we just picked the first patch of highway that had enough snow cleared to allow us to pull the car over and just started skinning up.
The result was some amazing snow on perfect rolling terrain. Stability was very good and the snow quality superb and we checked in for a few 2500 feet laps of light, dry and bottomless powder.. I can't stress how amazing the setup here was, just over an hours drive from Anchorage, and a lifetime of skiing without having to venture off the highway... and every time we reached the top of a peak there were 100s more, soaring ever higher and stacked to the distance... freakin amazing place.
So after a week we headed out to an island in Prince William Sound. No roads, no people, no power, no running water, just a forest service cabin and a water taxi to get there piloted by a gun toting fisherman who didn't rate our island choice that highly because there wasn't a lot of things to kill on it.. which suited us just fine.
Culross Island was a ski touring dream. Guaranteed no one else there, options on all aspects, stunning scenery and a real wild Alaska experience. Unfortunately the weather did not play the game.. it proceeded to sleet / rain for the next day and a half so the snow got very sticky and wet. Still it was an amazing few days, and worth it just for the scenery, though we still managed some fun spring corn runs on a couple of days. I think we all came away wishing we had a bit longer and that it was 5 degrees colder.. and that we'd packed more booze!
After the island we headed down to Valdez for 6 days of touring! Just down the Richardson Highway, through a couple of stunning slot canyons takes you to Thompsons Pass, probably the most impressive stretch of highway I've seen. For around 15 miles the road snakes between some majestic scenery, with peaks rising up to 8000 feet on boath sides of the road.
There was a lot of people around as Tailgate was on, which meant lots of noisy 2-stroke motors ruining the ambiance somewhat, but even then it only took an hour or so of skinning to leave them all behind and find ourselves heading up into untouched terrain. It didn't snow again the whole time we were there but every day we rode pretty much perfect snow, by ourselves in stunning surrounds.
After the leg burning week that was Valdez and Thompsons pass we were ready for a relaxing change with a week of Heli in Haines having being booked with Alaskan Helisking after about 5 years of saving our pennies.
After an impressive flight from Juneau to Haines over the icefields we headed 33 miles out of town to the helipad where we were a little surprised to see that the heliski operation was a little bit more “cowboy” than we had anticipated. A few lean to shacks, a couple of converted ex-school busses and a couple of temporary buildings all set up next to a gas station seemed to comprise the whole affair.
There were a few sly glances amongst the staff and we were informed that we wouldn’t exactly be staying by the helipad as promised, as that shack had burnt down during the summer. Instead we would be getting a “slice of the real Alaska” and staying at the Big Nugget Mine at Porcupine Creek.
Anyway, long story short, staying at the Porcupine Mine was not the luxury heli ski experience that you may get in other parts of the world, but I think we made it work. The average day would start around 7am, fill up the generator, make some breakfast, make lunch for the day, then either jump in the van for the hour long trip to the heli pad, or on occasion get towed across the frozen river on our snowboards by guides on snowmachines or on a couple of mornings actually get given a snowmobile ourselves to make our own way across to the helipad... For the return journey at the end of the day we could either wait until everyone else who was staying out at porcupine was done for the day or we could walk across the river, ford the streams where the melt had begun and then run back to the hut to quickly get a fire started to get the blood flowing again. So yeah – it was a pretty wild experience and very different from what we were promised in the brochure.. but hey – its not the cheapest heli ski outfit in America for no reason!
Luckily once we got in the air most of the cowboy nature was left on the ground and everyone was very professional. Unfortunately it hadn’t snowed for 2-3 weeks before we got there and it was starting to warm up. This greatly reduced the terrain we could safely access, with all south facing slopes being off limits for Avalanche risk any time after about 11am. Still we were amazed at the quality of the snow and the terrain we could still get access to. The first 3 days particularly were just amazing, with huge runs of 4000 vertical feet+ down steep ridges, through chutes and running out into big glacial bowls. The guides were amazing and managed to find us fresh tracks most days, and because the snow fall wasn’t playing the game they were forced to explore new terrain, with our group managing to ride 2 or 3 first decents (or so they were claimed) on the fringes of the heli lease which was a pretty amazing experience. They weren’t necessarily the gnarliest runs of my life, but they were certainly some of the more enjoyable ones. Plus its hard to beat that feeling of coming hooning into a distant peak in the heli, spiralling around the summit looking for a suitable drop zone, and then having the pilot put it in on the tips of a single skid and the guide calling through the intercom to “watch your step when you get out” because there were shear drops on 3 sides, and a 50 degree slope on the other... it didn’t matter how many times they did that.. it was still exceptionally cool... a real rock star experience. And on that note, it must be said that the heli pilots were simply amazing. They would put us onto anything we pointed out, barely touching down in some cases. One time we were checking out the approach to a new run when the pilot veered suddenly to one side, banking the chopper into a steep dive which had us all freaking out until we saw what he was pointing at... a black bear was on the slope below (one we had planned on skiing) and you could clearly see where he had just left his den about 10 steps away from where he was now, looking very angry and sleepy at the helicopter that kept buzzing overhead – this was a definite highlight and a pretty rare experience according to our guides who had never seen such a thing in 8 seasons.
So all in all a pretty positive heliski experience. But I think we all agreed that while it makes you feel like a pro being whisked straight into the top of the line, it was a slightly empty feeling. Its all over so quickly, there’s not much anticipation (other than the preceeding 6 months of course) and at the end of the day I’ll remember the runs that we climbed ourselves in Valdez much more than I’ll recall most of those heli-lines... with the exception of maybe those first descents, and one exceptionally nasty fall that saw my tomahawk over a bergshrund at mach speed... OK so I’ll remember a few – but its just not the same as earning your turns..
So AK - I'll be back... when I've paid off this credit card (or defaulted Euro style)