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It’s the first day of spring, deep in the Alaskan bush, and I’ve walked into a celebration. Sitting at a long dinner table inside a log cabin, 24 people clink wine glasses full of pinot noir and feast on wild-caught king salmon, kale, potatoes, and couscous, all of it swimming in a tomato-saffron sauce. The lights are dimmed inside the lodge and the glow from the star-shaped chandeliers reflect in the wine glasses, creating a sparkly galaxy along the length of the table. A Marvin Gaye tune plays over the speakers.
The revelers here, including an Internet tycoon and the owner of the largest horseradish producer in the United States, are on a seven-day vacation at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge (TML), the country’s swankiest and most remote heli-ski operation. TML, which is located about 60 miles northwest of Anchorage and is only accessible via a single- engine ski plane that lands on a frozen lake (just steps from the lodge we’re sitting in), is a campus of opulence, complete with spa-like amenities and five-star dining. The nearby Tordrillo Mountains are also flush with some of the world’s best skiing: a mecca of everything from mellow bowls to couloirs and classic Alaskan spines. But this crews’ first few days have been rough.
A giant windstorm whipped through these mountains, blowing at 100 miles per hour, scrubbing the peaks of fresh snow and leaving a crusty surface behind. That’s obviously not good for skiing. TML, however, has access to 1.2 million acres of terrain on the surrounding 11,000-foot peaks, and the guides here—including owners Tommy Moe, the 1994 Olympic downhill gold medalist, and Mike Overcast, one of Alaska’s original heli-ski guides—can typically sniff out light, fresh snow even in the bleakest conditions. That was the case today, and the patrons are pumped.
I pull up a seat next to Andy Price, a 47-year-old executive recruiter and venture capitalist, and Chris Fragakis, 46, who works in finance. The two men, friends and fathers from the San Francisco area here on furlough from their families, arrived together five days ago and have the look of recent castaways: sun-cooked faces and salt-and-pepper stubble.
Between bites, both men gush over their day in the mountains. “Great snow,” says Fragakis. Price, who seems perma-stoked, is a bit more effusive and, for emphasis, generously sprinkles F-bombs throughout his sentences. “The crust vaporized and turned into angel dust,” he says. “It was f#$%ing amazing.”
I’d arrived here a few hours earlier in search of some of that—but this isn’t my first trip to TML. A year earlier I’d been invited here, along with several other journalists, to check out the lodge’s vast improvements. Overcast and Moe were celebrating TML’s 12th anniversary with a huge addition to the original lodge, including a new dining room and a bar (complete with fluorescent mood lighting, beer on tap, and a wide selection of whiskey); two chalets, each with twin beds, a living space with a wood-burning stove, and granite-tiled bathrooms; and a large home that would fit right in at Deer Valley—a home that had been built for the two Wall Street investors that had made all of these renovations possible.
Over the course of a week, we’d gorged on king crab and rack of lamb, gotten rub downs from the on-staff massage therapist, hot tubbed, saunaed, polar plunged, and skied more vertical feet than most serious skiers ski in a year. It was so indulgent and surreal that I left feeling cranked out on endorphins, so high on life that I was bracing for the inevitable crash. When this magazine asked me if I’d return to profile TML, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Because you can’t overdose on decadence, right?
Earlier that day, I’d boarded a six-seat plane for the 45-minute flight from Anchorage. Overcast and Moe sometimes host pro skiers and snowboarders who film movie segments on some of the gnarlier Tordrillo lines (the viral footage of Cody Townsend skiing “The Crack” was filmed here), and on this trip, I’m joined by pro skiers Jess McMillan and Forrest Jillson, along with Warren Miller Entertainment director Chris Patterson and photographer Cam McLeod, who are here to shoot a segment for this season’s annual ski film, Face of Winter.
Patterson had mentioned to the pilot that he’d like to shoot some footage during the flight in. “You won’t want that camera,” said the pilot. “You’ll want a barf bag. It’s a little rough out there.”
Despite the chop, plenty of people would throw down just for the scenic flight to the lodge, which passes over forests and open fields that teem with moose, deer, and wolves. All the while, views of Denali are visible out of the right side of the airplane. As soon as we’d touched down on Judd Lake, the memories from the previous year’s trip came flooding back.
We’d landed under much different conditions. The Tordrillos had been locked in a storm cycle that had given way to high pressure. That meant ideal conditions: blue skies and deep snow. Our AStar helicopter took off the next day and, after a 15-minute flight into the mountains, over ice floes and jagged mountains, we’d landed on the purest sea of white. I stepped out of the helicopter and sank in up to my waist. I grinned at Moe, who looked back at me with his eyes and mouth wide open, something I’d come to find out he does when he’s excited. “I knew it was gonna be deep,” he said. “I didn’t think it’d be this deep.” He then led us down a gentle slope, barely steep enough to gain the speed needed to make it through so much powder.
At the bottom, I told him that I came to Alaska to scare myself. “You want to ski some coulies?” he asked. “Don’t worry. We’ll get there.”
We did. Over the next seven days, poor visibility only prevented us from flying once. We skied up to 30,000 vertical feet of bottomless powder each day, including steep couloirs and spines, only stopping to eat lunch beside tractor-trailer size chunks of blue ice on the Triumvirate Glacier. And we hardly ever skied the same line twice.
One day, in an area called Spinal Tap, Moe stopped above a 60-degree descent, then coached me through the art of slough management. “Ski about 20 feet and then make a hard turn and stop,” he said. Feeling a little nervous, I followed his instructions and watched as the surface layer of snow let loose and cascaded down the face. “There you go,” said Moe. “Now get it, buddy.”
I took a deep breath, then sent it down one of the steeper faces I’ve ever skied. More slough followed me and nipped at my ankles, throwing me off balance. After successfully skiing out of it and coming to a stop, I could feel adrenaline pulsing through my body and my heart pounding through my chest. It was exactly the rush I’d been looking for.
After skiing each day, I’d grab an hors d’oeuvre—tasty dishes like raclette served alongside TML signature cocktails, such as the Tordrillo Mountain Mule (a Moscow mule made with Alaskan Vodka)—and go hang out in the lodge’s lounge, a room with a wood-burning stove, leather couches, and a mounted moose head. One afternoon, I’d indulged in a massage. Another afternoon, the massage therapist, who’s also a professional musician, serenaded the guests as we sipped on wine and wrapped ourselves in blankets.
Before passing out in a puddle of bliss, I’d head to the sauna and cook for 10 minutes before going outside to the polar plunge, a small hole cut into the ice in Judd Lake. I’d quickly scurry down the ladder into the freezing water, dunk my head, and bolt back out like I’d been electrocuted. Meanwhile, I’d watch Overcast, a barrel of a man with cornsilk blond hair and eyes bluer than those of a White Walker, gently ease into the water, staying there for several minutes. “We think he’s part polar bear,” one of the lodge staffers said to me one day. Part polar bear, part visionary, I thought.
In 1997, when Overcast, a native of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, helped found Chugach Powder Guides (CPG), a heli-ski enterprise that was based in Girdwood, Alaska and operated in the Chugach Mountain Range, he helped bring Alaskan heli-skiing to the well-heeled masses. Pro skiers had been buzzing around the Alaskan backcountry for years, but CPG was the first operation that really opened the door to stockbrokers and doctors. “We saw a market for mainstream destination heli-skiing,” says Overcast.
Just a year later, during a June river trip in the Tordrillos, a mountain range just west of the Chugach, Overcast began dreaming. “I started looking up into the mountains and looking at all the snow,” he says. “I thought, boy, that’s gotta be good corn skiing.” Thus was born one of skiing’s most iconic, most coveted trips: Kings and Corn, a weeklong excursion during which guests heli-ski on corn snow in the morning, then fish for king salmon in the afternoon. For several years, CPG operated Kings and Corn out of Winterlake Lodge, a rustic former hunting camp that they’d partner with for the season.
In 2004, Overcast invited a few of the guides on a fishing trip. “It was at the end of the Kings and Corn season and Mike says grab a few beers and some fishing gear,” says Mike Davidson, one of the guides. “It wasn’t until halfway through the day that I realized that this was a lot more than a fishing trip. That’s the way Mike is. He’s always thinking a few steps ahead.”
In fact, Overcast was scouting locations in the Tordrillos for a new lodge. Toward the end of the day, the group floated past a run-down building on Judd Lake. “There was high grass growing all around it,” says Davidson. “But the view of the mountains was incredible. Mike knew this was it.”
Overcast incorporated Tordrillo Mountain Lodge and signed a separate agreement with CPG to operate out of TML. Then, in 2012, Overcast and Moe split with CPG completely. Since then, the two have continued to improve the lodge. That includes everything from the new buildings to the installation of Internet routers that are strong enough to complete a TML-to-London stock trade in 11 milliseconds. “It’s the fastest Internet in Alaska,” says Overcast.
That’s the type of service that TML guests, which include Hollywood actors and Dutch royalty, expect. One day, I overhear Overcast on a phone call with a client. “Oh yeah,” he says “We do sushi weekly.”
The combination of high-end amenities and world-class skiing causes people to come back to Tordrillo year after year. Of the guests I spoke to the night I’d arrived, most were returning to the lodge and everybody said they’d come back next year. That despite a price tag of $14,000 per person (bar tab not included).
“I keep coming back for the whole thing, not just the skiing,” Nancy Bartusch, from Olympic Valley, Calif., tells me. “Some years I’ve been shut out. But last year was my best year. We just kept going out farther and skiing first descents—and first descents are fun.”
For the second year in a row, I’m about to experience some of those mind-blowing descents. High winds have kept helicopters from flying for a few days, but now the sky is calm and I’m standing outside the lodge, waiting to load into an AStar and fly into the mountains. Joining me is Alberto Alesina, an acclaimed Harvard economics professor, his wife Susan, a vice president at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Jeff Smith, an investor who splits his time between the Bay Area and Park City.
“You’re crabby,” Susan says to her husband.
“I want to ski!” Alesina says.
Everybody here shares that sentiment. During down days, when helicopters can’t fly due to bad weather, the lodge offers other forms of entertainment. There are fat tire bikes to ride around the lake and through the woods, cross-country skis, and even a shooting range. But after a while, cabin fever sets in, and the only cure is skiing.
Along with Steve Hall, our guide for the day, we pile into the helicopter and take off into a clear blue sky, flying over a few narrow gorges and massive glaciers. As we begin circling the mountains, Smith, whose face is white with caked-on sunscreen, reaches over to me and gives me a fist bump.
The helicopter lands and we stare down at a moderately-pitched slope. “See that orange peel on the surface?” Hall asks us, referring to a layer of snow that looks dotted and wrinkly. “Head for that. It’ll be the softest snow.”
It’s a solid piece of advice. A few times during the run, I veer away from the orange peel (aka grandma skin) and chatter on a solid, wind-buffed crust. But the wrinkled snow provides for creamy turns. At the bottom of the run, Hall has more advice for Susan. “Feel your shins against the front of the boots,” he says. “Like a linebacker. And keep your hands forward.”
As I’d found out a year earlier while skiing with Moe, the guides—which includes guys like Dave Hahn, who’s summited Everest 15 times—aren’t just there to show you where to go. They’re also instructors. Smith, who’s on his seventh trip to TML, recalls a time when Overcast was guiding him and, to get him to remember to keep his hands forward, told him to get his thumb out of his ass. “It was funny,” says Smith. “And it helped.”
We lap several more runs, stopping occasionally to take in the views. “It’s un believable,” says Alesina, as we peer out on Capps Glacier, a wavy expanse of snow dunes. Beyond it, we can see boats bobbing on Cook Inlet. “That’s part of the fun,” says Smith.
As lunchtime nears, we ski a run in an area known as the Badlands, a 35-degree bowl that’s 1,500 feet long. I push off and smile all the way down, carving turns on a soft surface of crystals. When I get to the bottom, the other guests have congregated for lunch, and have had a similar experience, causing them to yelp and high-five each other. Even the guides are impressed. As Brad Cosgrove, a guide who lives in Hope, Alaska, skis to the bottom, I can hear him singing “Hallelujah.”
The guides use their avalanche shovels to build us benches in the snow, and we sit in the sun and feast on miso soup and salami sandwiches. Then we head back out and continue farming the Badlands for perfect snow.
On the last run of the day, Hall, who typically skis first to make sure there are no dangers lurking below, tells the group that he feels bad always taking first turns. “So who wants to go?” he asks. The group nominates me. “It might be your last run here ever,” says Smith.
On a writer’s income, that’s probably true. So I push off and slash buttery turns to the bottom, then look back up at the steep face. You can’t overdose on decadence—but you can become addicted to it. I decide that, some day, I’ll find a way back here.
Steal this Adventure
Getting to Tordrillo Mountain Lodge
Visitors fly into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, then transfer to the lodge via float plane.
Eat + Drink
Dinner is the star of the show here. Expect Alaska seafood and regional game entrées, all paired with wines from the 500-bottle cellar and capped off with homemade desserts.
Tordrillo is comprised of three lodges. Main Lodge 1 has 12 luxurious rooms and two cabins; Lodge 2 has four rooms and sleeps eight people; and Winterlake Lodge at Tordrillo has fours rooms and also sleeps eight.
Tordrillo’s permitted terrain includes 1.2 million acres in the Tordrillo range, where the runs average 5,000 vertical feet. Guests are guaranteed five Hobbs hours per group of four.
No-fly days are always a possibility; other diversions are snowmobiling, Nordic or skate skiing, ice fishing, snowshoeing, target shooting, and indoor options such as yoga and massage.
Pricing + Contact
$14,000 per person, all inclusive. Visit tordrillomountainlodge.com to book.
Originally published in the December 2018 issue of SKI Magazine.