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This is a view of a region called the Iguana Backs. Valdez Heli-Ski Guides can you to this terrain, to ski 1,500-foot-long couloirs of creamy Chugach powder. I’m currently spending two weeks parked in an RV at Valdez Heli-Ski Guides with two of the best telemark skiers in the country—Paul Kimbrough and Jake Sakson, who recently first and second, respectively, in the Telemark Freeskiing World Championships, which was held at Alyeska, Alaska, last weekend. Also with us is in the RV is Jonah Howell, who is filming footage for Powderwhore Productions, a telemark-specific ski movie. During downtime in the RV, I asked Paul and Jake for some pointers on skiing steep terrain on telemark gear. Find out their tips and check out photos from our trip in the next few slides.
If you don’t pay up for heli-skiing, there is another way to access the ski terrain near Valdez: Hiking up it. Find a trailhead along the side of Thompson Pass, and skin up to the nearest peaks (most of which are a good hour or two hike away). From the basins, you can bootpack up steep couloirs by the dozens.
Dylan Freed, shown here, is a guide at Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, the outfitter Doug Coombs founded in 1993. An accomplished ski mountaineer, Freed has knocked off first ski descents on some of the highest peaks in the Almorz mountains of Iran and on the Trolaskagi Pennisula in Northern Iceland. All that, and the Salt Lake City, Utah-based guide is only 23 years old.
In this photo, telemark skier Jake Sakson—who is in Valdez filming with Powderwhore Productions, a telemark-specific ski movie company—rips a couloir. Jake’s tip for skiing this kind of steep terrain on telemark gear? “Be aggressive,” the 20-year-old Aspen-based skier says. “Telemarking isn’t something you should do passively. Get passive and it’ll put you in the back seat.”
Jake Sakson shredding the lower elevation powder off Thompson Pass. The pass itself rises to just below 2,800 feet in elevation, which means the low-level terrain can often hold wet, heavy snow. But this year, the storms have been plentiful and there’s powder all the way to sea level.
Jake Sakson getting it done on the shoulder of the Python, near Valdez. Jake placed second in the Telemark Freeskiing World Championships held at Alyeska, Alaska, a week ago. Another tele tip from Jake: “There’s no right or wrong way to telemark,” he says. “But the taller you stand, the more suspension you have. An upright stance gives you more room to absorb shock and features in the terrain.”
Here’s Paul Kimbrough, a Mount Baker, Washington-based telemark skier, watching his sluff off Thompson Pass. Kimbrough has been throwing 360s and front flips off massive cliff bands all week, so I asked him for some pointers on how to stomp airs. “You want to land aggressively, with your hands out in front,” Paul says. “Land too back seat and you’ll fall back. Your tendency will be to lean back, so be aggressive and stay forward.”
Paul Kimbrough bush-wacks his through the powder. Here’s another tele tip from Paul: “If you’re on icy or inconsistent snow, don’t be afraid to not telemark turn,” he says. “When you’re tired or the snow is bad, it’s OK to just do an alpine turn sometimes.”
Jake and Paul scout their lines off the Python shoulder. In Alaska, the terrain is unpredictable and the consequences can be extreme, so you definitely want to follow your guide’s instructions carefully. If you’re skiing on your own, scout the lines by using binoculars or a digital camera which you can bring up to the top with you. Terrain looks different from above than it did below, so it helps to have that image from the bottom when you’re standing at the top about to drop in.
Setting a skin track below The Diamond, a massive peak that Doug Coombs was rumored to ski on a near daily basis.
The RV has been our home for the past week. It’s got no running water, so we use the shower for ski boot storage and the bathroom for drying out wet ski gear. Here, Jake Sakson puts his skins on for a sunrise tour up to the Python shoulder.
Paul Kimbrough makes it look easy on a steep shot in the Iguana Back region. Here’s a steep skiing tip from Paul: “There’s something about being on a steep slope that forces you into better technique,” Paul says. “When skiing steeps, really try to get your shoulders in the fall line. Your skis might be horizontal to the fall line because you’re trying to slow yourself down, but keep your upper body facing downhill to help initiate that next turn.”