Friday, August 22, 2014

Alaska: Post 4/4 April 11

The last skiing day was by majority vote a day dedicated to heli skiing. The pictures below show some of the great terrain you can hit in the Alaska back country. That may be a bit redundant as I am not sure Alaska has any real front country... In any case if your into skiing this is a place that I recommend. If you are into back country skiing also known as ski mountaineering then I recommend you drop the whole heli skiing thing. It's a mix of, on the one hand, assembly line skiing where quantity (of vertical) and speed of execution will trump quality any time and, on the other hand, spending a fair amount of the day aimlessly sitting around waiting for a chopper to show up... I couldn't help thinking I'd rather be on my skins.

Here are (some of) the pictures (click to enlarge):

The chopper drops you off... going and... gone.

Now you ski some cool slope (Mike in this one)...

...and me here...

Then you get picked up and here is a picture
from within the chopper...

...then you get dropped off and on it goes.
What you don't see here is the wait in between

So, where's the slope?

Spicy traverse...
and cool access..

...then down...

...and further down..

Nice line

The guide pointing out our next landing zone

Winter wonderland...

...and yet more winter magic.

Yours truly skiing God knows what,
just can't remember...
It's not Chamonix but they do have spires and Aiguilles.

Alaska: Post 3/4 April 9 & 10

After the initial one drop and our first ski down we are back to skinning. By far human power is the most satisfying way I know to get up a hill. Having said that and although reticent to be the cause of more choppers getting into the back country, it comes with one benefit that really kicks but: The first downhill run is on perfectly fresh legs!
In my view what sets Alaska apart as a destination is the combination of gnarly terrain - no people. This is one place where there is a lot more ski terrain than population density which makes for a unique and very different experience. The solitude on extraordinary ski terrain and the sheer infinity of it is in my book what makes Alaska such an amazing destination.

Here are some pictures (click to enlarge):

Long meandering skinning sessions.

Those long fun steep runs? Well they are long and steep on the up too...

Spires and more peaks than you can count.

The beauty of rock and ice.

Nothing like some glacier cruising to relax
from those pesky avalanches...

Did I mention Alaska also has powder...

Then there's just hanging out...

This is the kind of stuff you have to get through to make it back
to the Richardson HWY... addition to fording streams...

...but eventually you get there...

In Alaska you don't even have to be good
with a camera to land shots like this one.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Alaska: Post 2/4 - April 8

This is where the fun starts for me, I get out and I get to ski! I popped a fair amount of uppers and got myself convinced that I'm as good as new. If attitude is everything this should be a cakewalk!
It starts off easy enough; we are "one drops" off of the Valdez Heli Ski Guides operation. An operation that I will characterize as efficient and unpleasant. Mostly I experienced a bunch of people taking themselves waaay to seriously and an assembly line approach to skiing that I don't care for. In all fairness it doesn't help that I, in the first place, have an uneasy time embracing choppers in the back-country. Having said that the general ambiance at the Tsina lodge and the heli operation does not help. In any case, there is no arguing that the terrain configuration off of Richardson HWY on or about Thompson Pass is such that it does lend itself to this type of transportation or the approaches are going to be fairly time consuming. The main claim to fame that Valdez Heli skiing has today is that it once, a long time ago, was pioneered by Doug Coombs. Now he pioneered something a lot larger than just Valdez Heli, he pioneered heli skiing in Valdez! He was a towering figure of back-country skiing with remarkable stints in Jackson Hole, Valdez and La Grave, France. He met an untimely end looking to assist a friend down an icy Couloir de Polichinelle at La Grave where he lost his edge and fell 2000 feet down. A truly tragic end for definitely one of the absolutely best skiers that ever lived.

Every day starts at the helipad for a drop of somewhere we like and that the conditions allow (click to enlarge any of the pictures).
Valdez Heli Ski Guides - The heli pad.

...we get pretty intimate with these birds...

...and the reward is that you get to places like this:

In the Iguana Backs

...and the drop zone is not too bad either:

A cosy mountain corner

Now finally after all that travelling, the transiting and prepping we finally GET TO SKI!

In the slope: Mike in blue, me in orange
and Ray with his ski tips still up


...and there's yet a long way to go...

...reaching for the island of safety...

Mike's turn...

...and reaching for the island...


Alaska is huge so one slope each., one to the left..

The other to the right...

 that's a wrap!

After a good ski never neglect the reward upon the reward:

Mike, Adam and Pierre in the art of eating the cake and having it left...

Alaska: Post 1/4 - April 6 & 7, 2014

This post is not really about skiing, this first one deals mostly with the trip in and views mostly from the car. This is a trip I took the initiative too in September of 2013. This was going to be my very first trip to mythical, epic Alaska. For the whole season I couldn't wait for it and two bays before taking off: I get a high fever debilitating flue that I am not sure if its not going to kill it. I figure I have two days till the trip plus two days of traveling to get better so I'll go because not going just does not feel like a viable alternative. This is Valdez we're talking about: heard too much and been anticipating too much and too long to give it up now. So I pop everything I can get my hands on and hope to get better real soon.
The trip from Salt lake to Anchorage, although it's a flight, takes up the most part of a day mainly on account of a longish layover in Seattle. After a day of travel check in to a hotel in Anchorage:

Taking off from the hotel in Anchorage
for a six hour road trip.

...and in the am get the car loaded and its off over Richardson HWY to Valdez. 
That's a 300 mile drive for a distance as the crow flies of maybe 80 miles, see 
below for that efficient route selection:

In any case the group still seems excited half way into the drive.

Excitable bunch on the road

Mount Billy Mitchell where the Rendez Vous Heli guides hang out...

Rendez-vous heli guides a bit before Thompson Pass on the way in.

My buddies do a quick late PM tour - It's daylight forever in AK

Off they go...

And here they are somewhere on or around Billy Mitchell

Nice glacier picture taken by Adam

The Bookends

Girls Mountain...

...and at the end of the road, Valdez and the plush
accommodations we drove all this way here...