Since I work for a company that sells lift tickets, I feel a bit traitorous writing about my recent experience helicopter skiing in Alaska…but since it was one of the best ski experiences I’ve ever had, I figured I’d risk possible termination to give you the skinny.
Breathtaking mountains jutting out of glaciers, endless lines of untouched “luxury pow,” steeps and couloirs that will make your butt pucker, views that will make you feel like you’re on top of the world…these are just a few things that come to mind when I think about skiing in Alaska. Not to mention the unmatched exhilaration you feel not only while you’re shredding the wild terrain but also every time you take off in the “bird.”
Despite how raw this ski experience is, you don’t have to log a ton of time in the backcountry before going on a heliski adventure. The outfitters will supply the necessary gear (beacon, shovel, probe, avi-pack) if you need it, as well as train you in basic beacon search techniques and avalanche safety. Everything is very controlled in that you ski one at a time, you are in constant radio contact with your guide and your group, someone always has their eyes on you and you watch each other’s backs. It creates quite a bonding experience with your friends and fellow heli-mates.
A typical heli holds four to five adults (depending on collective weight) and the pilot. If you don’t have three or four friends who want to join you on your heliski adventure, no worries, you outfitter will pair you with people of like ability. From what I found, the other people interested in this kind of leisure activity are pretty cool and you all live, eat and ski together for week in one of the wildest places on earth – you will make friends. In fact, I liken a heli-ski vacation to adult camp but with way cooler activities than basket weaving and capture the flag.
The birds can only fly in ideal weather conditions (blue skies, low wind). So you are rolling the dice when you plan your trip, as you will be grounded if there is any inclement weather. But that’s really not so bad – there are many ways to keep busy on a down day. At Points North where I was, you can take a hike on a glacier, kayak in Prince William Sound (with otters), go on a nature walk in search of moose and other wildlife, go snowshoeing, ski touring, or make a trip to the shooting range (that was one of my highlights).
All in all, heliskiing in the Chugach was one of the best vacations I can remember. If you’re interested do some research and find the location and outfitter that is right for you. There are a bunch of great options in British Columbia and Alaska and they all offer different terrain types and experiences. Heliskiing is not an inexpensive hobby, but prices do vary so you may find an option that fits your budget. I can’t speak highly enough of Points North Heliskiing in Cordova, Alaska. It is a top-notch operation from soup to nuts. I’m already planning a return trip next year.
While heli-skiing you learn a whole glossary worth of new words and terms, here are some of my favorites. Study this before you go and you’ll sound as legit as a guide. Happy skiing!
- Slough Management: Slough is the loose layer of snow released from the surface as you ski. It is important to have a strategy to manage this so you don’t get swept off your feet in its path as it picks up momentum as it descends the slope. Your guide will give you appropriate strategies to avoid this but it is very important to stay aware.
- Head on a swivel: Usually talked about in conjunction with slough management, this is one technique involving always looking behind you and watching your own back, literally.
- Bergschrund (ak.a a bergie): These are cracks or clefts that form where moving glacial ice separates from the stagnant ice above. It is important to be aware of these and never approach them with your skis parallel to the crack, but ski across and if necessary, fall on the downhill side.
- Send it: What your guide and group will tell you to do when preparing to ski a tough line or cross a bergie.
- Bird: The helicopter, your chairlift for the week.
- Chronic (or the Chron Chron as I liked to say), Hot Pow!, Luxury Pow: all new terms I learned to describe the amazing Chugach snow.