Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hella-skiing



I spent the last week heli-skiing in the Chugach mountains of Alaska, near Valdez. My friend Mark had called me up a month previously and asked if I wanted to go, offering to pay my way in exchange for talking physics with him. I think I thought it over for about a tenth of a second before saying yes. This was definitely among the more crazy things I've done in my life.

I knew I was in over my head on the first flight. We hopped in the helicopter and were quickly looking out at fifty-degree plus faces and couloirs.

I didn't think we were actually going to ride these... but, sure enough, the helicopter half-landed, half-hovered into the ridge top, and we crawled out of the ship onto a patch of snow the size of a queen-sized bed, with sheer drops on both sides. I damn near dropped a brick in my ski pants looking down that first run. But I managed to persuade myself over the edge and down the face, and the snow quality was good. This is me kicking up some slough on that first run, with our very experienced guide looking on unconcerned:

The week pretty much continued like this. Every once in a while we'd be riding the kind of steep faces or chutes, near rocky cliffs, where if you fell at the wrong moment and started sliding... you were going to die. Then it would flatten out a bit, and we'd have big, fun, swoopy turns in corn snow for a few thousand feet. A few minutes after you reach the glacier floor, the helicopter comes and lands near your head, to take you to the next peak.

It was also very, very beautiful. Nothing but mountains for hundreds of miles.

There were a few moments of true fear--the kind I haven't encountered in quite a long time. The first was on that first run. The second was when a less experienced guide put us down on the wrong peak, surrounded by cliffs. We rode a few hundred feet down through some of the best snow of the trip before realizing we were fux0r3d, stuck on a hillside with cornices and rocks on all sides. The guide called in the heli to evacuate us, and we had to build an LZ by digging the snow out from higher up and piling it lower to make a landing pad. When the helicopter nosed in to the mountain next to us, the blades where whizzing by inside the hole we had dug for them, beneath the natural slope of the mountain side. The five of us clambered in, but the ship struggled and couldn't take off. I think it was a combination of the dicy aerodynamics of having that blade basically inside a hole, and having the skids stuck in the piled snow. We emptied out the heli one by one, until it was able to take off with just me in the last passenger seat. Sitting there by myself, with the ship wobbling back and forth, struggling, on the side of a hill, with the blades whizzing by in a blur only inches from the snow... I thought there was a good chance things were about to go very, very badly. But it got up, dropped me off with the gear on the next peak over, and went back to pick up the others. I snapped this photo of the pickup:

On the second day I buried the nose of my old powder board, took a short tumble, and buckled the board in half. The helicopter flew me back to the road, and I spent the rest of the afternoon hitchhiking the sixty miles back to Valdez. Guess nobody wanted to pick up a big, burly looking snowboarder dude... but the scenery was beautiful, and I enjoyed walking for a couple hours before I finally caught a lift. Fortunately, Mark had a spare board I was able to ride the rest of the trip.

Overall, it was a hell of a lot of fun. A lot like a surf trip to a spot with heavier waves than you're used to. I don't know if I'd ever pay my own way, because it's absurdly expensive. But, if someone asked me to go again, I'd have to think about it... for about a tenth of a second.

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gar@lisi.com