Tsaina Reborn: Valdez Heli Ski Guides Expands Terrain Options
A new owner, newly-permitted terrain, and continued lodge upgrades mean the AK Heli operation founded by Doug Coombs keeps getting better.
When I first see The Tusk, a Fleetwood Mac drumbeat from the song with the same name starts pounding in my head, perfectly in time with the thud thud thud of the helicopter’s rotor blades. Even in the stunning Chugach Mountains, this peak is on another level, and I can’t stop gaping at it.
“Jon, if you want to ski to the right of my line, just keep it close,” our guide radios from the glacier below after his descent of a slope facing the Tusk. He’s referencing the narrow swath of untouched snow between his tracks and a 2,000-foot cliff. I drop in, the drumbeat in my head stops, and I’m completely focused on the task at hand: A steep, 3,000-foot powdery descent called the Ivory Tusk.
The Tusk and a huge swath of mountains that surround it are chockfull of steep, powdery descents, and most are located on National Forest Service land. Valdez Heli Ski Guides (VHSG) is one of three operations which received a permit to guide skiers here in 2019. But the ace up VHSG’s sleeve is my guide, Mike Hamilton.
From 2006—the year Hamilton started guiding—until it closed, only one operation was permitted to ski in this National Forest terrain: H20 Heli Skiing. Hamilton spent a decade guiding with H20 before joining VHSG in 2016. He has more firsthand knowledge of these mountains than any other guide still working.
“Mike is definitely an asset to our team,” says Kirsten Kremer, a legendary VHSG guide who started as an apprentice under Doug and Emily Coombs in 1994. “I think we all share a deep love and passion for these mountains, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more passionate person than Mike for heli-skiing.” During the first season with the permit, Hamilton’s knowledge of the area proved critical. When a wind event scoured VHSG’s signature terrain on Thompson Pass at the beginning of the heli-skiing season, he knew where to go for better snow, maximizing time skiing steep terrain instead of searching for the right aspect.
“All the other operators on Thompson Pass were hunting around for sheltered areas and places where the wind hadn’t messed up the snow,” Hamilton tells me in the Tsaina Lodge’s cigar lounge. “But after years and years of going out to the Forest Service [terrain], I figured out once we get east of the Tasnuna Glacier, we start to find areas that have received a lot less wind. Sure enough, we went out there, and absolutely crushed it the first couple weeks of the season.”
The new permit is just the latest addition to the upgrades for VHSG and the Tsaina Lodge since both came under the ownership of Jeff Fraser and his wife, Ingrid. Jeff, who first came to VHSG in 1998 after meeting Doug Coombs in Jackson, Wyo., purchased the Tsaina Lodge in 2011, and then VHSG in 2019.
“All I really wanted to do was go heli-skiing,” Fraser says jovially, reflecting on his investments. Both businesses are hardly recognizable compared to the rustic cabins and maverick heli operation of the 1990s. The Tsaina Lodge in particular, which re-opened in 2012 and still has the plush amenities described in the book “Tracking the Wild Coomba”—minus the in-shower champagne option, I’m sad to report—continues to see upgrades, including fiber optic internet and a hot tub with built-in Bluetooth speakers.
The Lodge, combined with VHSG’s history and access to a total of 10,000 square miles of the best steep skiing on earth, continues to raise the bar for pilgrims seeking Alaskan heli-skiing nirvana—which might be the only way to describe the feeling I find skiing away from the Ivory Tusk after “keeping it close” to Hamilton’s tracks.
Hamilton gives a quick fist-bump, mirroring my enormous smile, and we bundle up the gear to move on to another incredibly steep and powdery ski descent in the Chugach. The thud thud thud of the heli’s rotors reach my ears, and, stealing another glance at The Tusk, the Fleetwood Mac drums start all over again.
Valdez Heli Ski Guides Trip Planning
- Getting there: From Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, take a one-hour fl ight to Valdez or drive five hours to the Tsaina Lodge on Thompson Pass. VHSG offers shuttles to and from Valdez Airport, which is 35 miles from the lodge.
- Cost: $5,900 per person for a seven-day package that includes 4.2 hours of Hobbs Time; group memberships also available. Note: Cancellations due to COVID-19 will have a 100-percent rollover to the following season.
- Info: Valdez Heli Ski Guides’ Website