(Last Updated On: March 14, 2012)
My Alaska stories occasionally come up, and I thought they were worth sharing for those of you who haven’t seen or heard them. All photos by Dev Finley…
In spring of ’05, a group of us convened in Valdez, pilgrims to Mecca, the “North Shore” of skiing. It was a strong group, one which would allow us to fulfill our dreams of Alaska Heliskiing, without being held back in any way. We had enough people for a fully private heli, meaning that we were calling the shots as much as the guides were. Things were looking good. But it was not to be…
We arrived at the heli-op headquarters with $1,200 worth of food and booze from the Anchorage Costco packed into the RV for the 10 of us. We were the first group of the year, and the heli had not yet arrived. The ATCO trailers were just beginning to thaw out, and smelled heavily of diesel and dampness. The first day was gray, so we decided to make some laps off Thompson pass. This was entertaining, but certainly not why we were there. Thankfully we got a good workout pushing the rear-wheel drive van around:
The following day was partially cloudy. Sadly, this meant that our heli would still not be making the trip up-valley to us. So we decided to skin up across the valley for a much bigger run than the pass shuttles were offering. Plus, we knew the snow would be better up high. Being a large group, we split up into 2 groups for the skin. My group of 5 headed climber’s right, eventually skinning our way up a large gully. Jay, Adam and I all voiced our concerns about the skintrack location, thinking it would be safer on a nearby ridge. Quite stupidly, we continued up the same way, rationalizing that we were in a nice safe coastal snowpack, and it wasn’t anything to worry about. About that time, a cornice failed above us and sent a huge natural avalanche barreling towards us. Jay, Adam, Rob and I were all able to move to our right, where a terrain feature provided safety. Spencer, on the other hand, was behind us and unable to reach safety. He was caught in the avalanche and took a ride for a few hundred vertical feet, eventually stopping unharmed and buried up to his chest. We were able to quickly dig him out, although one ski was never recovered.
A couple of observations: We were all using Alpine Trekkers, since our main goal was heli-skiing, not touring. We were not caught, but we were left in an awkward position since we needed to deal with the Trekkers before we could even begin looking for the skier caught in the slide. Trekkers have their place for side-country and the like, but it sucks when you know that the first couple minutes of your search will be wasted dealing with trekkers. 2- The older style Tracker beacons were attached with plastic D-rings. These all shattered in the force of the avalanche, so the skier caught was wearing his beacon by literally a thread down by his boot. If the skier had been buried and the beacon had been totally ripped off, we wouldn’t have found him, just the beacon. The new Tracker beacons have a sweet harness, and the old ones can have the plastic D-rings easily replaced by key rings. Most new beacons have a good harness system, but it’s a point to consider when shopping for avalanche beacons.
After that little bit of excitement, we weren’t exactly in the mood to tour, and the days passed without the arrival of our helicopter, which made it hard to go heli-skiing. One rainy, snowy day, we decided to rebuild the trailers’ deck (disassembled during summer and early winter), in case fair weather ever returned and we wished to have a BBQ. We had some carpenters in our crew, and plenty of hands to complete the project. You would think that with all the money we were spending that the guides or somebody would help, but no, we would tackle the project ourselves:
Sadly, in my non-skiing life, I am the very worst kind of idiot known as a drywaller. So, naturally, I was nominated to screw the deck boards off once they were in position. Now, a sheet of drywall needs to be tacked off pretty quickly or it will fall on your head. But a deck board can just sit there. The only thing you need to be careful of is that you NEVER EVER step on a board that isn’t screwed down. Despite triple checking where I was walking, I did it anyway. WHAM!, right in the nose. I’m sprawled out in the joists, blood dripping from my nose, when one of the guides thinks I’m really hurt and comes running to save me. WHACK!, he goes down, too. Thankfully, neither of us were hurt that badly, though my nose looked a bit swollen:
The deck was completed and the days continued to pass by, always raining or snowing, and still without a heli to even pretend that we were heli-skiing. This shot, more than any other, sums up my AK experience:
One night Adam took it upon himself to “take one for the team”. The theory goes like this: If you get so drunk that you guarantee a nasty hangover the following day, the next day will dawn bluebird and you will be flying. Everyone not hungover will have the day of their lives. I think he shot gunned a case of beer by himself. Adam was very animated and gestured wildly with his steak knife, which was thoroughly amusing and slightly scary at the same time.
Eventually, our day came. Pedro made the call: “Could we get a helicopter here, STAT!”
Our first fly day was short, by the time we did our heli safety lesson and all that good stuff. Since we were the first group of the year, the guides hadn’t even had the chance to get familiar with the snowpack, so we started off pretty slow. The only good run that I remember: RFS, which stands for Really F@#$ing Steep, though another guide mockingly said it also stood for Really F@#$ing Short. Sorry for the lack of action pics. But I love this photo. See the rotors?
I think a couple of gray days passed before we were able to fly again. At this point, we had hardly used any of our fly time at all, and many of us were scrambling to change our return plans. We had been there for about two weeks. But then we were greeted with a beautiful bluebird day, and the game was officially “on”. We were off to ski runs I had long dreamed of: The Books, the Library, and the Valley of the Tusk. The first group took off, and then we were in the air as well. Here’s some shots:
At this point, my trip to AK really hadn’t been going that well. I had taken a 2×6 to the nose, and had narrowly averted being caught in an avalanche or having a friend killed in one, and had just a half day of flying in two weeks of sitting around in an RV to show for it. But my luck was to remain bad.
We landed on a big, flat plateau above some nice looking runs. The guide got out, but the helicopter was really shaking, and the pilot motioned to us to stay where we were at. I already had my four-point harness (seatbelt) off at that point, when the pilot took off again. He landed a second time, not far from the first landing. I got out first, and by the time Jordan got out, the heli was really shaking. The pilot tried to take off again, but the helicopter was really having difficulty by now. We’re all huddled on the snow near the body of the helicopter, while the heli desperately tries to gain altitude and stop shaking and lurching all around. It only gets worse. The heli is shaking violently, like a 30 year old washing machine, and the blades are angled towards us, maybe four feet above our heads. Standing up would have been a fatal move. I really thought it was the end for me, and I remember thinking that it had been a pretty good run. People say that time slows down in a situation like that, and I can say that it does.
Meanwhile, the pilot was fighting valiantly for our lives as well as his own. He was fighting ground resonance, when the air from the blades bounces off the ground and back into the blades, making flight unstable. The shaking was so violent that one of the control levers was ripped out of his hands. Despite this, he was somehow able to fly backwards away from us and crash into the snow. He was not hurt.
It was worse than it looks. After making some radio contact and getting a plan, it was time to ski our final run and get picked up by another company. Here’s Pedro, making the best of it:
We were reunited with the other members of our group, who thought that the problem with the heli was simply mechanical, since nobody was talking over the radio about crashed helis. We made our way back to base and negotiated for our remaining flight time, etc. Then we were out of there.
The trip back in the RV to Anchorage was nuts, and we’ll leave it at that. My fun wasn’t over yet, though- I was starting to feel pretty crappy.
Our (the 3 of us from Crested Butte) flight that night was overbooked, so we volunteered to get bumped, earning ourselves a $600 voucher and a hotel room for the night. When I woke up the next day, I was wishing that the rotor blades had gotten me the day before. I went to the clinic, where the nurse informed me that I was “really sick”, with a fever of 104. Full-blown flu. How nobody else got sick is beyond me. We showed up at the airport again that night, and promptly volunteered again. $600, cha-ching! The flight was overbooked again on the third night, but Jay and Adam had to get back home so we stopped at $1200 worth of vouchers. Five short months later, I found myself on a flight to Argentina, thanks to the vouchers- in the end this was the only bright spot of my trip to Alaska. Perhaps a video TR from Las Lenas somewhere down the road…