Alaska: Go for a spin to the slopes
Alaska is the perfect place for skiers to take to the skies, says Arnie Wilson
Saturday 15 October 2011
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."
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.
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.
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