AK Ingenue: Heli guides have hidden talents
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!
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