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?
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
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
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

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?