Archive for February, 2012
If you’re a mountain girl, there’s no place like Valdez. I love the ocean but I realized a few years ago I’m ok to just visit the ocean. I need my ocean fixes for sure and my body sends strong signals when I’m overdue but once I sail or dive I’m ok to leave until the next time the urge strikes. But I need and must have mountains. When I come home from the ocean, my soul my bones my muscles and my eyes relax because I am home.
The mountains here are big and plentiful. A couple of days ago, I got my first glimpse of the glaciated terrain that is a hallmark of this area and it took my breath away. So the first thing I thought of was how to share this amazing place with some of my mountain-loving industry friends. Working with my newest mountain mama girlfriend, Karen Cummings, who co-owns the premier heli-ski company in Alaska with her husband, Dean, and with Dean’s full support, we crafted a special package for our industry girlfriends to come join me in Valdez in what looks like it will be the deepest snow year on record for a trip-of-a-lifetime Alaska adventure.
Note, you fly in the first day of the trip. Most airline schedules from major airports around the country can get you to Anchorage by 3 p.m. in time to catch the last flight of the day to Valdez on Grant Air or Era Aviation. The same is true in reverse for your departure. The last day of the trip you’ll get on the last plane from Valdez (VDZ) to Anchorage (ANC) and catch a red-eye back home. If you have any questions or concerns you can ask them in the comment stream or call me at 303.898.4141. If you ever dreamed of coming to Alaska let alone heli skiing in Alaska, there really is no better time to do so than this spring through this program. The snow is deep, the prices are as low as we can go and you’ll go home a better skier, a more accomplished backcountry traveler, and winter sports enthusiast. Hope to see you here in April!
A week or so ago there was a social media epidemic of wry six-pane photo descriptions of various jobs like kayaker, raft guide, ski instructor etc that depict “what my friends think I do,” “what my mom thinks I do,” “what society thinks I do,” “what customers think I do,” “what I think I do” and “what i really do.” I had a similar train of thought when i sat in on the H20 Guides daily morning guide meeting. The team is wrapping up pre-season preparations. It gave me insight into what it takes to be a guide and it’s more than what you might think. If you guess that a heliski guide has to be a high performance skier, trained in backcountry travel and rescue who is great with people, you’d be correct. But there are behind the scenes skills that the most valuable heli-ski guides also possess. This heli-skiing operation takes clients to remote places so it’s super important that guides have all kinds of skills to address any kind of random situation that can come up at any time, any place. Useful skills include carpenter, mechanic, fabricator, innovator, meteorologist, snow scientist, ski tech and of course, snow shoveler. Lots and lots of snow shoveling. For all the logistical needs required to efficiently get guests in and out of the field. Like the smoothest running conferences, weddings or parties, it’s what happened and happens behind the scenes that is key to the participant experience. In the case of a winter sport like heliskiing, that means managing snow and that means getting it out of the way too: shovering off vehicles, shoveling out doorways and stairways, shoveling off roofs, shoveling out landing zones for the helicopters, shoveling out snow pits and that’s just a starter list of things that need shoveling.
Here in Alaska snow is a very different animal than where I’m from. In the Banana Belt region of Colorado where I’m from I usually have the luxury of opting in or out of shoveling. More often than not I can just wait a day. The snow will stop falling, the sun will come out and the snow will melt. Up here in Valdez though, the scale makes for a whole different ballgame. According to the Alaska Tourism Industry Association Valdez gets more snowfall than any other sea-level city in North America, an average of 360 inches — 30 feet — a year. But this is an extraordinary year, on track to set a record. So far this season, Valdez has received 403.5 inches of snow and still plenty of days left to count and more snow in the forecast. According to the National Weather Service, snowfall on nearby Thompson Pass has reached over 600 inches. Sunday alone, 20.9 inches of snow fell, not far off the 1985 one-day record of 24.9 inches. It’s beautiful and awesome and even a little comical. On the plus side, all the snow just keeps priming the surrounding peaks for the heart of the heliski season that is just now getting under way here. On the flip side, snow removal is serious business.
The snow just keeps coming in all it’s delightful fluffiness and beauty. That means snow removal is serious business. Obviously it’s important to keep the roads snow-free and here, the city of Valdez shines, putting a lot of resources and effort into doing just that. It’s a small town with deep municipal treasury pockets so no expense is spared to get snow off the roads and off public buildings. Residents, however, are on their own to get snow off their roofs where all the weight can make ceilings sag causing doors to stick, beams to crack, and the occasional terminal scenario, structural compromise. It doesn’t take long to get these new realities and get with the program. Dealing with snow just a becomes second nature and part of the daily rhythm of life here.
But I digress. The first helicopter arrived last night, it’s a spectacular sunny morning and guide training officially kicks off this morning. Sweet!
This marks the start of the chronicles of my first adventure in Alaska with my client Dean Cummings’ H2o Guides. I had just barely started to scratch the surface of all the amazing in-bounds, side- and backcountry terrain in Revelstoke and then opportunity knocked and poof, gone! So from a 24-hour drive north of Salida, Colorado I’ve landed norther of Colorado. The goal of AK Ingenue is to share with you what I expect to be an amazing introduction to living, working and playing Alaska-style. Watch my Facebook page to find out about the next installments where you’ll join me for the full gamut of winter fun including all kinds of skiing, snow machining, ice-climbing, some insider glimpses of the heliski biz and more.
It’s been a week since I touched down in Valdez thanks to the unflappable piloting skills at Grant Aviation. The day after I landed was a momentous occasion, the official opening day of Salmonberry Ski Hill. I sprang for the $10 season pass and joined Dean’s wife Karen, and kids Wyatt and Tesslina – in breaking in the new rope tow. It’s actually a kind of re-opening since there was a ski hill in the same location in the late ’80′s that’s been dormant until Karen rallied local civic leaders to bring the hill back to life. The four-minute rope tow takes folks 1100 feet to the top of a rolling hill. While Wyatt and Tess did a lap, Karen led me off-piste for a couple fresh turns – literally – a couple.
The next day, I needed to get to town for some shopping – it’s just a 20 minute walk but – but Dean offered to give me a ride. In case you haven’t heard, while many ski areas in the Lower 48 were languishing in drought, Valdez was getting hammered. There’s just under 40 feet of snow in town, about a 100 foot base in the
mountains. Fun to play in, deep snow creates havoc on buildings and roads and big equipment to move it all is a pretty common sight around town so it was little surprise that my commuter vehicle was big and yellow. This past week has been all work work work. So I joined the gym to keep in shape in between ski excursions. Prince William Sound Community College has a public fitness center where you can “rent” nordic ski gear and snowshoes for free which came in handy when I joined Karen and her friend Jen on a quick snowshoe jaunt at Dock Point.
All work and no play, at least no real ski play, was starting to make me and the H2o crew a bit twitchy so when Dean gave the guys – Ryan, Chad, Paul, Elliot and Max - the day off, we all hopped in a van and headed up to Thompson Pass. Quite the views on the way up and we saw two moose (meese?). The ice in Keystone canyon is amazing.
It was a first in many ways today. Just before leaving Revy, I had transferred my Dynafit bindings from my retired Sugar Daddys to my new sweet, fat H2o Outdoor Gear Kodiak 162′s (120 under foot). Today was their first test drive. I was also test driving new skin technology from Gecko. The skis are amazing and the Gecko’s worked just fine. I’m still dialing in my Scarpa Gea’s which I love because they’re so light and comfy and easy to get in/out of but they’re just a wee bit big for me and it became really clear today I still need to work to fill up some volume and get rid of slop.
Couple o’ quick takeaways from today:
Scale is out of whack here: The terrain is bigger than it looks; it’s colder than it seems.
You can gain an astounding amount of vert in just three hours of skinning.
I need to work toward a bit more graceful steep uphill skin track kick turn.
I can’t wait to go again. It’s dumping right now and expected to do so for the next couple days and taper off by the end of the week.
Sorry about the background noise in the video below. It was a little windy on the saddle.