Try a shorter pole, suggests Doug Workman. It’s a trick he learned from Doug and Emily Coombs, founders of Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, where he’s been guiding since 2004. “It encourages you to lean forward. Dropping down five centimeters can make a big difference.”
Another simple tip: Get in shape. Spend the winter skiing long runs on tough terrain. Alaska’s no place to show up with rubber legs and rusty technique.
In fact, the techniques you’ll use in the vast spaces of Alaska are the same you employ skiing lift-served powder. And Workman emphasizes that despite Alaska’s scary reputation, a solid skier with a capable guide can handle it. “Everyone thinks you need to be an extreme skier, but the Chugach has vast terrain with something for almost all abilities. There are tremendous areas for advanced-intermediate skiers.”
“What matters most is that you ski in control. It has a lot less to do with aptitude than with self-awareness and a willingness to ski within your limits. We can take an advanced intermediate who demonstrates he’s willing to ski in control down very big terrain, whereas a strong-willed 22-year-old male who wants to always ski at the edge of his ability—that kind of skier will get reined in quickly; the guide will have to limit where he can go.”
On the topic: How To Ski Steeps
Workman’s clients learn to ski the way a guide skis: deliberately, well within ability, breaking Alaska’s huge vert into manageable sections, planning each descent in advance, sticking to that plan, stopping often to reassess and “check back in with your surroundings.”
“Even as you get better—and it’s the same for a client or a guide—the goal is not to be Sage [Cattabriga-Alosa, ski-film star]. That’s not what we want from clients; it’s not how we ski ourselves. Learn to ski more like a ski mountaineer, where the goal is to safely ski long descents.”
Finally, the fun part: slough management. Alaska’s deep powder and steep terrain add up to constantly moving snow—mini avalanches that can knock you off your feet if you don’t have a plan.
“People often don’t have experience with it, and we spend time on that. There are three ways to deal with slough, and only two ways we recommend. What we don’t recommend is trying to ski faster than your slough. People see that in movies and think they can do it, but that’s rarely what happens.”
A better approach is to ski out to the side of your slough, or check speed and stay behind it.
“We’ll teach you to make a few turns to test the slough and see how fast it is and how voluminous, check out its speed and size and direction. If it’s slow, sometimes you can ski ahead of it. But once you determine the speed, volume, and trajectory of your slough, then you can ski off that trajectory and get clear of it. That’s why spines are fun: You can ski something steeper because the snow is always falling away on either side of the spine.”
Doug Workman, who grew up skiing Powder Ridge, Conn., is a senior guide at Valdez Heli-Ski Guides. Based in Jackson, he also guides for High Mountain Heli-Skiing, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and runs ski/sail expeditions in Antarctica, Iceland, and Norway.
Originally written by Joe Cutts, this article was updated in March 2020 to include the newest gear and up-to-date information.
Gear: AK Essentials
Go big or go home when it comes to choosing the right ski for Alaska. While snow conditions can be hit or miss even in AK, a wider ski will give you more confidence to tackle powder, crud, and execute big turns on steep terrain. Check out these top-performing 2020 deep snow skis with at least 110mm underfoot.
View all the top-scoring deep snow skis of 2020 here.
Atomic Bent Chetler 120
- Gender: Men
- Lengths: 176, 184, 192
- Dimensions: 143-120-134
- Radius: 19m (184)
- Tester verdict: With spoon-shaped tips and tails—which Atomic calls HRZN tech—and a light wood core with integrated carbon, the redesigned Bent Chetler 120 earned the highest marks for quickness and maneuverability, a paradox considering its girthy 120mm waist. Nearly every tester commended its playfulness but found the ski could still charge hard when needed.
- Price: $562-$600 [BUY NOW]
Nordica Santa Ana 110
- Gender: Women
- Lengths: 161, 169, 177
- Dimensions: 139-110-128
- Radius: 15.5m (169)
- Tester verdict: A wide-waisted ski that excels in both flotation and hard snow performance is a unicorn, something believed to only exist in a skier’s fantasy. And yet, here is the Santa Ana 110, a women’s-specific powder charger with a balsa wood core sandwiched between two sheets of metal that took home top scores in seven out of nine skill departments. The most versatile ski in powder skiing.
- Price: $510-$640 [BUY NOW]
Elan Ripstick 116
- Gender: Men
- Lengths: 185, 193
- Dimensions: 143-116-132
- Radius: 20.3m (185)
- Tester verdict: When pushed hard at high velocity, these big planks’ performance lived up to their name, but testers also found that the skis were just as happy at moderate paces. Thanks to the hollow tubes that run longitudinally through the core, the Ripstick 116 remains manageable and nimble in all conditions, with a number of testers claiming the skis are easy like Sunday morning.
- Price: $675 with bindings [BUY NOW]
Armada ARW 116 VJJ
- Gender: Women
- Lengths: 165, 175
- Dimensions: 137-116-133
- Radius: 16m (165)
- Tester verdict: This fat ski got major props for how well it handled less than favorable snow conditions (read: the days between storms). The VJJ can smear even in crud, while a poplar-ash wood core makes the ski light yet damp and powerful. Fans of the Armada Trace 108 who are looking for something a little fatter and with more backbone will dig the reinvented ARW 116 VJJ.
- Price: $480 [BUY NOW]