Alaska's Chugach Heli-Assisted Touring

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Ethan Kohn, marshall of the mini-golf course, kicks steps up the fairway.PHOTO: J. Rayne

"Don't write anything cheesy about me," Paul Turecki e-mailed from Argentina, where he was spending the off-season ski mountaineering. This from a rhino-necked, sausage-fingered Alaskan guide who tucks his threadbare nylon windpants into broken-down Salomon boots (with maybe three working buckles); a guy who, when he sets his ski helmet on top of his thick mat of dreads and starts downhill, looks like Predator in a bonnet. OK, Paul. I'll hold the cheese.

Paul had come highly recommended by the late Doug Coombs. He was the reason our group of five, including Tim Petrick of K2, and Jim, Ethan, and Peter, three backcountry skiers from the Vail Valley, descended on the Chugach last April for a week of heli-assisted ski mountaineering with Alaska Rendezvous Guides. We would fly into a glacial valley each day, tour and boot-pack up the couloirs that stripe the region, and then ski out to the road at day's end. We wanted Alaskan big-mountain skiing—except cheaper. We'd make our own oatmeal and PB&Js. We'd drink jug vodka over glacial ice. The Vail crew arrived early and reclaimed two of the abandoned cabins at the iconic Tsaina Lodge, near Valdez, where Coombs had based his heli operation. After three days of digging, fetching generators, and running diesel lines, Man Camp was in session.

It started off well enough. But then, kicking steps up a 2,000-foot rock-lined chute loaded with cold, dry, wind-protected fluff, we broke through a thin layer and were suddenly wallowing in bottomless sugar. It was like the rotten continental snowpack we'd left in behind in Colorado, except here it was eight feet deep and impossible to predict. One couloir was bombproof; the next one was full of holes. Paul called it spatial variability. I'd call it trapdoor snow.

There comes a time in every Alaskan frontier tale when the healthy members of the party must either leave their sick mates to fade away in the wilderness—or eat them. This was on my mind the next day when I found two of the Vail skiers shivering with fever chills and wracked with dry, hacking coughs. As their cabin was also our kitchen, this was disconcerting. The snowpack had gone to hell and a plague was upon us. I looked around for a hatchet.

But then a strange thing happened: We kept skiing. For six days, we charged safer mini-golf couloirs under blue skies and floated low-angle turns in feather snow. In a normal snow year we could have knocked off 30 couloirs, but Paul's conservative approach kept us alive and happy. My grand total for six days of guided heli-assisted ski touring was $2,000. That's less than a third of what you'd pay for full heli service. And that's a lot of cheese.

MORE INFO
Guides: Paul Turecki, climber and year-round ski mountaineer, worked extensively as a guide and avalanche forecaster with Valdez Heli Ski Guides before joining Alaska Rendezvous Guides in 2006.
Season: March to early May. In May, you'll likely ski the top 2,000 feet of north-facing slopes.
Terrain: Mostly couloirs (to limit the exposure) that range from 500 to 1,500 feet and tip to 50 degrees.
Weather: Alaska can be brutally cold, socked in, and sunny in the same day.
Book It: The daily guide fee is $350; add the heli rental to that. Meals and lodging, which Alaska Rendezvous Guides does offer, are optional. Or stay in a camper and eat beans. arlinc.com

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