Flying down glacier country

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2008

At least four feet of fresh Alaska powder from back-to-back storms stuck to every slope, spire and ridgeline in sight - including the 40-degree headwall leading into the glacier far below riders strapped to big powder boards. The snow was mind-bogglingly stable.

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Greg Skinner / Juneau Empire
Greg Skinner / Juneau Empire

"Only in Alaska," heli guide Julian Hanna said after the second top-to-bottom-run through a powder-soaked glacier on a run called Deflowered.

Two shots at the half-vertical-mile run of unmolested powder left clients with burning thighs, picking snow from their teeth and wanting more. Each person dropped solo through the glacier, only showing as a giant Alaska puffball with each turn.

Deflowered is just one of more than 500 runs with names like "Buns of Steel," "Caffeine," and "Hangover Helper."

Smiling in the sun, off-duty Guide Cody Taylor said, "That's the best Deflower I ever had."

In relation to traditional backcountry skiing, heli-skiing is a zero-to-90 mph in three seconds flat kind of experience. A skier or snowboarder can find himself or herself standing on top of a line or descent that would take two days to climb, if they could, 10 minutes after leaving the parking lot.

The combined effect left me stupefied, shuddering and wondering if I was the kind of snowboarder to be surrounded by people who chomp so hard at gravity. A week and many other runs, mostly done on human power, would pass before I snapped out of it.

In modest numbers skiers and boarders from mountain towns all over the world, including Juneau, travel to Haines each spring hoping for a crack at one of the greatest and most mythical ski rodeos on the planet. Some book a year in advance others just show up and get in line.

Hard-core ski flicks have turned Haines into an Alaska Shangri-La with helicopter service to endless lines in the Chilkat Mountains between town and Glacier National Park to the west. Like James Hilton's 1933 novel "Lost Horizon," the "Haines" that production companies sell to people in New York and Los Angeles is partly fantasy.

Unlike the films of endless sunny days of ridiculously steep and deep powder where no one ever gets hurt and everyone is a rock star, heli skiing in Haines is really a fickle situation. Like everything affected by Southeast Alaska's pulsing storm systems, it's a totally weather-dependent game, and uncertainty rules. No one in the Haines ski business guarantees anything because whiteouts aren't fun to fly or ski through.

No matter how bad a guide or skier wants to fly, the final decision is the pilot's.

On a daily basis during the last week of March, British snowboarder Adrian Knowles paced around near the helicopter pad at Mile 33 on the Haines Highway waiting for word of a weather window to the west that would allow him a run or two. Other skiers choose a less amped approach and get "heli belly" sitting around at the nearby 33-Mile Roadhouse eating pie and burgers as a two-day storm lays down four-feet of snow in 70 mph winds.

For the most part, 33-mile is the place to wait with the strange international mix of skiers and boarders who swap ski lies, eat and drink, waiting for word that the ski mission is a go.

During six days of off-and-on weather before the big bluebird break that closed March, a group of Californian mortals managed to squeeze 30 big-mountain runs into weather holes by getting in the heli any time the pilot would fly.

With past experience "heliing" in Valdez and Girdwood, Craig Johnson, from Humboldt, Calif., said other ski operations would have been on "weather hold" back at base instead of flying. His group of free skiers took their "get 'er done" approach from their homeland's surfer mentality and flew into the mountains whenever a chance presented.

"We're motivated," Johnson said. "You can't see it from the beach."

A day later, in melting sunshine at the bottom of Deflowered, Knowles, who winters in Whistler, British Columbia, displayed a narcotic-like a glare in his eye and a foolish grin as he popped out of the lower glacier. Subtly Knowles looked back over the big mountain and with a Notting Hill accent said, "I think that was the best run of my life."

No one argued.

The terrain ridden by most of the clients flying with Haines' two helicopter ski operations is separated by a steep degree of complexity and anxiety compared to the terrain consumed by the big pro names flying with the Teton Gravity Research crew.

A second sunny day led mortals from Utah and Maine to ride dream lines down steep but doable chutes in a heli-served area called "Old Faithful" on Porcupine Mountain, while famous names such as snowboarder Jeremy Jones, and skier Seth Morrison stomped steeper lines meant for the gods in "undisclosed" locations for TGR's cameras

"They're on a separate program," Taylor said. The famous action sports film company operates under its own permits, with their own safety crew and out of a different heli pad, he said.

In late March, a European pro rider was shuttled from Haines to Seattle with back and leg injuries after crashing into a rock wall while trying to ride a near vertical chute.

"When you go that big, sooner or later something is going to happen," said lead guide Ted Purdy.

Guides evaluate their clients with an initial run and then begin to consider weather conditions and snow stability before deciding what runs to offer or taking them on "no fall" routes.

"We don't want to get people in over their heads," Hanna said.

Once, during the week, Randy Baker, a telemark skier from Freeport, Maine, saw the TGR crew fly past a fin of plastered white 60-degree rock near the head of Garrison Glacier.

Dropped by ski-plane pilot Drake Olsen, Baker spent a day ski touring near the fin at the 5,700-foot level of upper Garrison. Olsen said crews always fly by and look at the lines on the unnamed fin, but to his knowledge it remains unridden.

Skiers and boarders who pack touring gear or splitboards along with heli gear for the trip to Haines have about the only chance to ski every day, cloudy or clear.

Baker's activity of unguided touring is definitely the road less traveled out of Haines. Most snow hounds go for the heli over human power, which is about the only way to ski on storm days if the local snow cat operation is not running. A drive up the Haines Highway past the Canadian border will put skinners into good snow at 2,000 and 3,000 feet. Steep tree skiing and pillow lines are found on the benches above the right side of the highway, big mountains to the left.

Olsen is clear when dropping people off in glacier country, where escape without air support is a complicated and daunting prospect. Unlike the heli scene with guides watching and coaxing clients safely through, skiers are responsible for their own safety when touring.

"I'm not a guide, I'm transport only," Olsen said. Before sparking his custom Cessna 180 and skipping off the glacier's top, Olsen smiled and said, "You're on your own program."

By taking the chance, Baker skied five nice lines in absolute silence during his tour under the bluest skies Southeast Alaska could ever offer.

• Contact reporter Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or

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