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Northern Rockies

Fear and Loving In Alaska

A first-time heli skier takes to the air. Verdict: She'll be back.

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I’m buckling the seat belt in an A Star helicopter, trying to keep my act together—and the struggle is real. The magnitude of the unknown lying before me has become palpable. Not only am I about to make my first turns in Alaska with veteran operator H2O Guides, but I’m getting a heli lift to those turns. A friend who’s an Alaska heli-skiing veteran suggested trying to get into a helicopter before my first day of heli skiing to avoid soiling my pants on my rookie flight. Smart man. But it’s too late now, and I reach for something to hold on to, then realize it’s fiberglass and I’m a hundred feet in the air—and climbing. New pants on my shopping list. Check.

The endless Alaskan Chugach range reaches as far as I can see in every direction and begs to be skied, but chairlifts are few in the biggest state in the union. (Alaska is about six times bigger than Texas, the second largest state. Take that, Texas.) With the lowest population density of all 50 states, local skier and rider demand hasn’t even maxed out the state’s lone resort, Alyeska. Even so, skiers look for other, more adventurous ways to get up in the mountains, ranging from human-powered to heli-assisted.

To be fair, skiing the most epic lines of your life would feel decidedly less epic if they were accessed by chairlift. (Not to mention being mechanically doubtful, as no one has quite made a chairlift yet with the vertical reach of a helicopter.)

Dave, my fellow Alaska virgin, sits next to me and points out the window, shouting in my ear, “Holy s***! Can you believe this?!” I can’t, and I try to distract myself from the speci cs of being hundreds of feet in the air in a berglass-and-metal bubble by taking in the broad view, which works immediately. As far as I can see are mountains in every direction, bathed in the golden afternoon sunlight unique to the long days of an Alaskan spring. Snowcapped peaks radiate hues of an almost electric blue as we pass over a glacial valley. It’s the most overwhelmingly beautiful terrain I’ve laid my eyes on—and I’ve been around, globally speaking. It instantly becomes hard to ignore the sense of something larger than yourself.

After an eternity in flight (which in real time equals about five minutes) our pilot finds a small perch on a ridgeline and the guide exits the helicopter first. I panic. “Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, what did I get myself into?” In my mind I see 70-degree spines below us and, at best, a fitting for a shiny new neck brace as I sit up in a hospital bed in a blue gown. Yikes.

I’ve created such a level of hype in my brain about this moment that my legs shake so badly that I can barely step into my bindings. I finally click in and follow our guide, sideslipping down the one side of our perch not marked as a cliff and around the corner, where there’s a bit of a reprieve, or at least enough space to put my hands on my legs and take a breath without worry of falling to certain death—or at least that’s how I see it. It’s go time, and my legs are exhausted from fear before I make my first turn.

Dean Cummings on Woodworth Glacier in the Chugachs of Alaska
H2O Guides founder and Alaska heli-ski pioneer Dean Cummings makes tracks down Woodworth Glacier in the Chugach Mountains.Photo credit: Josh Cooley

I should mention that I’m not typically paralyzed by fear when I strap my skis on. I’ve skied amazing places in amazing conditions and made plenty of friends envy my seemingly endless powder days, but there’s something about Alaska that takes your breath away. The terrain, the exposure, the absolute hugeness of 4,000-vertical-foot lines. Like the difference between explaining to outer-space visitors how ice cream tastes and having them taste it themselves: You almost can’t explain the experience of standing on a mountain with your skis on, looking out over the tips at something so beautiful it can’t possibly be real. And this is coming from a (somewhat jaded) lifelong skier.

In a flash I realize our guides want their clients to have a positive experience, i.e. not injure themselves, certainly not die (it’s a lousy business model to kill to your customers) and not even have a panic attack. So I relax a bit before dropping into what looks to be an unexpectedly mellow pitch chock-full of untouched velvety snow. It’s pure bliss. Part of it is that the terrain—under my guide’s savvy line selection—pushes me beyond my comfort zone but keeps me within my ability zone. My grasp extends to my reach. (Adventure and self-discovery. That is very much part of the AK experience.)

Later that night we sit at what seems to be Valdez’s only bar, at our hotel—an inglorious box of rooms not even slightly reminiscent of a ski chalet—reliving the glory of the day. It’s hard not to be overly excited after the best skiing of your life, but Dave points out, “Nobody in Alaska cares that you ski,” and we reel it in.

The few thousand residents who make up Valdez are for the most part not there for the skiing. We—along with the parking-lot-dwelling rabbits that resemble overfed cats—stick out like a third eye among the locals.

It seems illogical to my one-track skier’s mind that a place like this wouldn’t be crawling with skiers all season long, like any other ski town. Whatever it is that keeps skiers away, I vow not to rejoin them in their cluelessness—or, more kindly, their ignorance. I don’t care about the life sacrifices I have to make (career, relationships, household budget, my plants); I secretly pledge to ski in Alaska every chance I get. Yeah, this place gets to you.