Alaska: Go for a spin to the slopes

Alaska is the perfect place for skiers to take to the skies, says Arnie Wilson

Tommy Moe, the 1994 Olympic downhill champion, is skiing fluently on steep terrain on a descent called Bermuda Triangle in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet he's on one ski, and clutching a broken pole. And it's all my fault. I'm the one who broke a pole, and lost a ski. As a "guest" guide with Chugach Powder Guides, he's looking after me to a fault.

Conditions are superb but a bit unstable, as I just discovered. I triggered a big slide of snow and took a couple of somersaults, losing a ski in the process. In these cases, it's safer to leave the ski wherever it is, get back in the helicopter, and leave quickly. There are plenty more runs to be skied where conditions are more stable. Moe insists on giving me his ski and one of his poles. "Your lost ski is a gift to the snow gods," he says cheerfully. But then, Moe is always cheerful.

There could be no complaints. We'd had a marvellous and thrilling day in near-perfect conditions, with Tommy urging us on. "Slay that snow!" he'd cry. "It's diamond dust! It's mystical out there!" Occasionally, when wisps of cloud drifted across our tracks, he'd say: "It's misty and mellow." And when we occasionally hit the wrong side of a long, flowing gully and found the snow had a hard, difficult-to-ski surface, which caused our skis to make a rasping sound, he'd say: "That's the crust talking to you! Let's switch to the other side of the gully." And sure enough, once we've switched sides, the snow is sublime.

Then there's Scott. Like all heli-skiing pilots, he combines great skill with seemingly effortless fun as he chucks his machine around the sky. But on one occasion he lands "astride" a corniced ridge, leaving us feeling as though we are on big see-saw or rocking chair as the five of us (four skiers plus Moe) clamber gingerly out. "Wow!" I say, naively, as he the helicopter takes off sideways. "Did he mean to do that?" As if he had landed there by accident. "Yup," says Moe. "He's good. He got us in there!"

These days, Moe has a variety of jobs. He's a ski ambassador for Jackson Hole, Wyoming and he also guides for Chugach Powder Guides. This enterprise is partly based at Girdwood, an old gold-rush camp in the state's only serious ski area, Alyeska. It also has an outpost at the remote Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, tucked between Mount McKinley (America's highest peak at 20,327ft) and the smouldering volcanic peaks of Mount Gerdine (11,258ft) and Mount Torbert (11,413ft). Here there's not just heli-skiing, but summer skiing too. And something called "Kings and Corn", a combination of spring skiing and salmon fishing.

Back at Girdwood, a spectacular hour-long flight away in a fixed-wing aircraft, the weather has changed. "It's soggy dog weather," says Moe. "Pretty typical Girdwood weather. It's moist out there – you can almost smell the sea." But Chugach Power Guides have a great Plan B to cope with Alaska's notorious meteorological quirkiness: two "all-weather" snowcats. Unlike the helicopter, these cats are always on back-up duty, even in the foulest of conditions. Some guests opt to cat-ski the whole week – it's cheaper than heli-skiing. But should the weather clear later – by 2pm at the latest – there are arrangements for cat-skiers who would really rather be heli-skiing to be picked up on the mountain and given the chance of a few heli-drops.

Each morning, the guide company appeals to its guests to be to ready to fly sharp at 10am. "Please be on time with all your gear," it urges. "Your delay delays everyone." But when the weather grounds the helicopter, this desire for promptness can lead to a series of holding episodes. Sometimes it's a question of "hurry up and wait". If you've had a late night, or you're still tired from the previous day's exertions, you can even grab 40 winks in your room, still in your ski clothes, like a Second World War pilot on stand-by to scramble.

It's always worth waiting for. Out in the wilderness of the Chugach mountains is some of the best heli-skiing around. That doesn't mean it's the steepest, although Alaska is known for its fearsomely steep terrain. Not everyone wants to take their lives into their hands to ski the places only professionals and gung-ho amateurs dare to go. To attract a broader range of skiers, the options need to include terrain that mortals such as myself can cope with. There's hardly a shortage of heli-skiing operations, with several flying from the Valdez area (Alaska's traditional heli-skiing centre), Haines, and Girdwood, where I was based.

When heli-skiing got started in Alaska in the 1980s, some of the original pilots included Vietnam veterans. One of the pioneers, Chet Simmons, carried a gun which he kept on the seat next to him. His helicopter was his number one priority. It's said that if anyone threatened its safety – or his – the gun was ready.

"This heli-skiing thing in Alaska blew up into a wonderful thing," he said. "People from all over the world started coming. And they're still coming. In the good old days there were no rules. We'd take you wherever you wanted to go; it was up to us to thrill you. It was up to you to get back to somewhere we could meet you. The great thing is you're working with happy people all the time – and that can't help but rub off on you. The only unhappy heli-skiers are the ones who run out of money."

Travel essentials

Getting there

Anchorage is no longer connected directly to UK airports. The main gateway is Seattle, served daily from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Other possible gateways include Vancouver and Chicago.

Skiing there

Pure Powder (020-7736 8191; purepowder.com) offers five-day trips with Chugach Powder Guides at their Girdwood base in Alyeska ski resort. Priced from $5,050 (£3,367) per person, based on two sharing, including five days of heli-skiing, six nights of accommodation in the Alyeska Resort, and ground transfers from Anchorage. Meals, drinks and international flights are not included in the price.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Guru Careers: .NET Developers / Software Developers

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: our .NET Developers / Software Dev...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat