Addicted to white powder and speed

Small-town Alaska might not offer luxury but it's still drawing heliboarders looking for the ultimate high, says Tam Leach

Gary says that heliboarding is an addiction. That it's just like an injection to the veins: after that first line of unbelievably pure powder, the sensation is forever locked into the bloodstream, and the rider will keep coming back for a $100 shot after $100 shot, on an endless quest for fresh tracks. As an eminent pharmacologist, Gary should know. The phrase "designer drug" was coined in his laboratory at the University of California, in the days before he lost his soul to the mountains; he was one of the clients I met when I visited 33 Mile, Alaska. There's not much that's designer about heliboarding - unless you count the price tag.

So where is 33 Mile? Well, it's 33 miles north-west of the small town of Haines, on the only road out: the two-lane highway that links Southwestern Alaska with the Canadian Yukon. A couple of houses stand either side of a large log cabin roadhouse. The roadhouse has been run by the same couple since the Seventies, and they serve up excellent greasy breakfasts and burgers to truckers and snowmobilers. For the past couple of years they've been catering to international skiers and snowboarders, too, top athletes visiting the local mountains to film and be filmed - but the menu hasn't changed. No smoothies or Power Bars here; people eat big in Alaska, they figure, whatever their profession.

The impromptu helipad at 33 Mile essentially consists of a flat patch of snow next to a fuel tank. The guys who run the guide outfit here don't much believe in five-star lodges, Ralph Lauren furnishings, or wealthy clients who need their hands held down the mountain. There are adventure organisations catering to those types, but frankly, that's not what heliskiing at 33 Mile is all about. At $450 to $800 (£270-£480) a day, providing between four and eight runs, most big mountain disciples don't have money left for a luxury vacation. Besides, in the opinion of Sean Dog (never just Sean) and the other Out of Bounds boys, luxury isn't the true Alaska experience.

What Gary and the rest of us get is powder, and plenty of it: snow-engorged mountains stretching into the horizon, the vast unexplored expanses of the Chilkat, Tashunuk and Takhinsha ranges. And unhurried, relaxed heliskiing or boarding, the antithesis of the crowded bunfight that can be Valdez. Further to the north, the epicentre of Alaskan heliskiing is now home to at least five guide services with throngs of heli-hungry riders jostling for spots on fair-weather flight days in early spring. In Haines, there's just Out of Bounds.

Accommodation is simple: Haines motels, or fishing shacks and hunting cabins out along the highway. There are two cars available to rent in town: one red, one blue. Having arrived in a minute four-seater plane stuffed to the tail with snowboard bags, flight delayed on account of a sick ferret - unaccompanied but anxiously awaited - misplaced somewhere between Juneau airport and the tiny Haines airstrip, Gary went to fill out a rental form for the blue car. He had no contact information for the cabin we were to share other than a mobile number and the knowledge it was mile up the road from the helipad. "Oh, just put 34 Mile," said the clerk, as she handed over the keys. "We'll find you."

It's different here in summer and fall, when cruise ships anchor in the fjord to deposit hordes of visitors eager to catch a glimpse of a bald eagle - the Chilkat eagle preserve is just outside of town. But winter is a quiet time in Haines. On days when it's too cloudy for the helicopters to fly, Sean Dog will take clients fishing out on his boat, and snowmobiling is available right out of 33 Mile - providing Jeff of Northern Nights, who owns the snowmobile, is up and about. Occasionally riders make the trip into town to drink at the Fogcutter, though the most inspiring night-time activity is just gazing up at the Northern Lights, a regular feature in the sky during the heliseason (late February to early May).

But the primary attraction lies in the mountains. Like Gary says, heliboarding - or skiing - has a way of getting into your blood. It's hard to describe the elation of being dropped atop an untracked ridge, white meringue peaks stretching out in every direction, the whuta-whuta-whuta of your helicopter receding into the pure, blustery silence of the frozen Alaskan wilderness. Surrounded by snow-encrusted pinnacles straight out of a Dr Seuss picturebook, it's hard to believe you're in the same world as Tube derailments, postal strikes and D-list celebrities. There's a theory that recreational drugs provide not an escape from reality, but rather a distillation of life to its most primordial elements. No wonder, then, that 33 Mile lures back its devotees, winter after powdery winter.

Getting there: British Airways and partner Alaska Air fly to Juneau via Seattle for around £459 return. From Juneau, four small airlines (including LAB and Wings of Alaska) run multiple daily flights to Haines for around £100. The other option is to fly to Whitehorse in the Canadian Yukon with Air Canada, which costs around £595, where you can pick up a rental car to make the 350 mile-trip south to 33 Mile.

Staying there: accommodation starts at about $45 (£27) for a shared cabin, or $65 (£40) for a room in the Captain's Choice or Eagle's Nest motel in Haines. Out of Bounds (001 907 767 5745, www.alaskaheliskiing.com) can arrange accommodation for clients, and will make daily pick-ups from Haines for those without a rental car ($20/£12). The Haines tourist board is on 001 907 766 2234, www.haines.ak.us.

Tam Leach is co-author of the Rough Guide to Skiing and Snowboarding in North America (£14.99)

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