Heliskiing Alaskas Last Frontier

Published in The Listener

There’s something disquieting yet strangely satisfying about travelling to places where you’re not at the top of the food chain.  It gives a sense of perspective rare in our comfortable cosseted world.  It’s a feeling Alaska provides in spades.  There are grumpy bears that would smite you with one lazy slap of the paw.  There are wolves that hunt in packs. Even the moose, which look for all the world like something Dr Suess dreamt up, will kick you to death should you get between them and their little mooselets.  But it’s not just the beasts.  The land itself will similarly show you no mercy.  It’s raw, rugged, untamed and vast.  A land of superlatives.  A land that will punish you in a heartbeat should you underestimate it – or overestimate yourself!

All this is precisely what’s going through my head as I stand in my skis atop a snow-plastered 50 degree chute called Skywalker that bisects a 300 metre cliff band high in Alaska’s Chugach (say Chew-Gatch) Range.  50 degrees might not sound steep when you look at your classroom protractor, but believe me standing at the top of a 50 degree slope there seems to be little between your skis and the yawning void below but air. It’s a feeling of serious exposure and looking down your brain most insistently and none too politely demands to know what the hell you are doing there.

What indeed? The answer is that over the last 10 years the Chugach Range has catapulted to cult status as a sort of Mecca for skiers and snowboarders looking for the ultimate ride.  This jagged range running roughly 300 miles South and East from Anchorage towards the Alaskan State Capital of Juneau and rising straight out of the frigid waters of Prince William Sound to heights of 4000 metres has become the snowy equivalent of what Hawaii’s North Shore is to surfing – the proving ground.  The combination of frequent snowfalls, coastal climate, cold temperatures and steep, glaciated terrain make the Chugach unique.  On similar slopes in other mountain ranges the avalanche danger would be prohibitive but here the more moist, dense snow sticks to these precipitous peaks, allowing skiers and snowboarders to push the limits on high©angle slopes that would elsewhere be considered unrideable.

All this is fine in theory, but back at the top of Skywalker my brain is still threatening mutiny.  With the A Star helicopter that dropped us here clattering off into the distance Mike Overcast, lead guide and partner in Chugach Powder Guides, the heliski company that got me into all this, is preparing a rope.  He calmly belays me into the entrance of the chute, a move requiring a tricky traverse above a cliff band.  It’s no place to fall, but once through this crux section the staccato beating of my heart begins to subside.  A fall here would result merely in a long ‘eggbeater’ tumble rather than a life threatening ‘cheese grater’ ride over the rocks and I gingerly take off my rope.  Three turns later and my trepidation turns to elation.  It’s powder heaven, the sort of snow that attracts people from all over the world to the Chugach.  Part controlled fall, part bounding down a pillowy staircase of clouds, it’s a weightless feeling that is surely the closest earth©bound sensation to escaping gravity.  The unbearable lightness of skiing.

Far below sparkling in the crisp March sun I can make out the partially frozen waters of Turnagain Arm, named by Captain Cook who sailed down this 80 kilometre fiord with its vicious 25 foot tidal drop only to be forced to turn again when he hit a dead end where the Portage Glacier spills into the ocean.  Half way down the Arm the town of Girdwood, where Chugach Powder Guides is based, nestles into the worlds most northern rain forest.  If, as I did, you envisage Alaska in winter as being nothing but bleak, windswept tundra, freezing cold and endless night then think again.  The upper half of Alaska, including the North Slope which George Dubya is currently and controversially trying to open up for oil exploration, is primarily treeless tundra.  But the southern half of this State that is 2 and a half times larger than Texas is forested and nothing short of majestic.  And in the Chugach the proximity to the ocean means the average March temperatures is a relatively mild 2 degrees Celsius and there are over 13 hours of daylight.

Girdwood, originally settled when gold was discovered in the surrounding hills in 1888 is today experiencing a somewhat more measured gold rush of the tourist variety.  It’s a funky and vibrant town of 2000 characters many of whom could have provided the inspiration for the leads in the popular and quirky television comedy Northern Exposure.  Just 40 miles south of Anchorage, Girdwood lies on the spectacular Seward Highway, named for then Secretary of State William Seward who had the foresight to buy Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for the princely sum of $7,200,000 – an amount that roughly translates to 2 cents an acre!  Girdwood also lies on the original Iditarod trail.  This was the route followed by a relay of dogsled teams who made a now-famous 1925 mid-winter dash to carry diphtheria serum to prevent a breaking epidemic in the town of Nome nearly 1000 km to the north.  Today their mercy mission is celebrated in Alaska’s most famous sporting event, the annual Iditarod dogsled race.

As a tourist town they don’t come much better or with a much bigger range of activities than Girdwood.  In summer when the Beluga whales frolic in Turnagain Arm you can amuse yourself hiking, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, golfing, or simply watching the caribou and bears that wander through town.  In winter you can snowmobile, dogsled, cross country ski or downhill ski on Mt Alyeska, Alaska’s premier ski resort.  Opened in the early 50s Alyeska now boast a 60 person tram that whisks you out of the luxurious Alyeska Prince hotel and up nearly 1000 vertical metres to the spectacular slopes overlooking Turnagain Arm.  But if you’re a reasonably strong skier or snowboarder with a healthy credit limit and a desire to give your adrenal glands a workout, the ultimate experience is heliskiing in the Chugach.

The heliski fraternity that frequents Alaska is something of a Boys Club.  Joining us at lunch after our successful descent of Skywalker were a jovial group of Long Island property developers who between them boasted enough boats, planes and automobiles to defend their home island against attack.  Although the guides will match their clients to suitable terrain, meaning that intermediate skiers or riders aren’t dropped into a chute like Skywalker, the Chugach’s reputation tends to attract experienced heliskiers.  These are predominantly Type A personalities wealthy enough to afford the heli-time and athletic enough to push their physical limits.  It’s an exclusive and eclectic group completely unrepresentative of normal society.  Bankers, tax attorneys, orthopaedic surgeons, minor European royalty, dotcommers, trustafarians, and the occasional divorcee make up the typical client profile with the odd working stiff splashing out on the holiday of a lifetime thrown in for good measure.  I spent three bluebird days heliskiing with 2 Austrian IT consultants, both fanatical skiers who were on their third visit to the Chugach, and a Manhattan banker who flew from New York to Utah most weekends to get his regular powder fix.  Indeed it’s a strange addiction, powder snow.  At least as expensive and probably no less addictive than other types of powder with which humans form habitual and dependent relationships but, avalanche danger aside, much better for you.

Whilst Canada is generally considered the spiritual home of heliskiing, Girdwood locals actually claim the first helicopter-accessed skiing was done there.  In 1958 Alyeska founder Francois de Gunzberg and a couple of brave souls including US Olympic skiers Betsy Snite and Penny Patou used a helicopter to explore some of the peaks surrounding Girdwood.  Established 7 years ago by Overcast, Tommy Moe, a Girdwood local and winner of Downhill at the 1994 Winter Olympics, and Dave Marshall an experienced avalanche forecaster who has worked all over the globe, Chugach Powder Guides today has over 1000 square miles of pristine terrain under permit.  It’s a seemingly unlimited bounty of powder in a land of jawdropping beauty and every untouched peak seems to extend an invitation to carve your signature down the untouched snow on its flanks.

But it’s far more than the skiing.  It’s the spirit of the place. Alaska attracts people as raw, rugged and individual as the landscape itself, only far warmer!  And it’s a place that seems at odds with the rest of America, gridlocked by it’s obsession with litigation and failure to take responsibility for personal actions.  Alaska is still a place where you are welcome to take a risk.  It is a place where you are limited only by your own imagination.  Where you can pit yourself against nature and test your limits.  That is how we learn and grow in this life.  And that, I reflect as we fly home in a crimson sky looking at our tracks down Skywalker high above a glacier spilling into Turnagain Arm, is a very good thing.