Powder Launch

Guides fill Juneau's heli-ski niche with advent of Alaska Powder Descents

Posted: Sunday, December 21, 2008

The economy's melting, but the snowpack still builds. Sean Janes is optimistic that the reasonably well-heeled still have the money to go skiing this year.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Come Feb. 1, heli-skiing season starts in Juneau with the advent of Alaska Powder Descents, a new start-up from co-owners Janes, Cedar Dumont and Kevin Krein. Despite the obviously favorable terrain, Juneau hasn't had a heli-ski guiding operation in several years.

The bureaucratic hoops partly explain why. It's taken the company three years to get U.S. Forest Service permits; now it's authorized to ski about 1 million acres of Tongass terrain, one of the largest areas in the country allowed to a heli-ski operation.

That limits the size of the business. So does the fact that the co-owners put their own money into the start-up instead of taking on debt or finding investors.

"We had to take the long and slow road, and that's fine," Dumont said.

Helicopter tourism has caused controversy in Alaska for its effects on people and wildlife. These guides say they want to go easy on the environment by buying carbon credits and planet-friendly ski wax and avoiding wildlife.

They also say their business will be a lot less noisy than the cruise-passenger flightseeing Juneau residents hear all day long in the summers. Part of that is the low volume: The Forest Service is allowing them 350 skier days this year, less than 1 percent of the flightseeing landings allowed.

It's also intrinsically quieter. A heli-skiing group leaves in the morning, comes back in the afternoon, and isn't heard in town the rest of the day.

But Janes and Dumont expressed a desire not to "steamroll" over people.

"We're selling people a dream, something very few people get to. And we want to protect that," Dumont said.

The coastal weather is another deterrent to a heli-ski business plan - although to be fair, it's both blessing and bane, since it makes the snow that sticks to everything.

Heli-skiers' expectations by now have been managed, industrywide. Dumont pointed to a recent ski magazine glossy ad for Salomon that described the sweetness of a run experienced only after holing up through two weeks of bad weather.

"People are used to spending 17 days playing video games, or in mind-numbing boredom," said Dumont.

Which doesn't need to happen in Juneau, he added, a town of many diversions. On the no-fly days, they'll take skiers to Eaglecrest - "Don't be fooled by the number of lifts and relative unknown stature of the ski area," says the Alaska Powder Descents' Web site. "This is Alaska, and our home mountain is for rippers." Or they'll go backcountry skiing, out in a boat, or anything else they want to do.

So far, the company is composed of just its three co-owners. Janes said he'd like to grow the company to 15 people over the next several years. Without its own helicopters, the company will hire local companies.

Janes is the third generation in a Juneau dynasty of outdoor guides and powder hounds.

Dumont has guided 25 major mountain expeditions and trained U.S. Special Forces in skiing and climbing.

Krein is a longtime guide and a professor at University of Alaska Southeast. He publishes on the philosophy of sport and ran the school's outdoor program for seven years.

They're hoping their Juneau network will serve them in the tricky business of figuring out where to fly their clients. They're gathering data from avalanche experts, the National Weather Service, Eaglecrest and the helicopter pilots, among others.

Their Web site has links to every forecast and webcam in town (<a href="http://www.alaskapowder.com/weathercenter.html" target=_new>http://www.alaskapowder.com/weathercenter.html</a>).

People are sharing more information than they used to, according to Dumont.

"You can't translate Eaglecrest to the Icefield to Mount Juneau," he said. "But they're all pieces of the puzzle. You can start to see what's happening: This area's been really hit with wind, this area hasn't."

Knowing where to go, and planning runs carefully, has the double benefit of mitigating costs, said Janes and Dumont. There is an art to using a helicopter efficiently, and guesswork burns a lot of fuel.

• Contact reporter Kate Goldenat 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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