First, a lay of the land: Alaska is huge: 663,268 square miles; 100,000 glaciers; 3.5 million lakes. Sixty-five percent of the state is federally protected land. Yet all the skiing takes place in two regions, Southcentral and Southeast.
What You Need to Know:
Season: The heli season typically spans the months of March and April, sometimes starting in mid-February and extending into early May. Daylight hours average 10 in March and 13 in April (but only seven in February), thus the later and shorter season.
Terrain: True, the skiing mostly takes place in only two regions of a very big state, yet the mountain ranges serve up different types of terrain. The skiing around Valdez offers steep, wide-open faces way above treeline. Peaks are widely separated, with glaciers between them, and runs often start with steep pitches and continue onto glacial run-outs that can go for miles.
The peaks around Haines are closer together and there are more ridges, spines, and chutes. The stacked peaks also afford more wind protection and can keep the snow in better shape. Treeline is higher here, so tree skiing is on tap.
Skier Ability: Most operators can accommodate skiers who are at least strong intermediates, and guides are pros at evaluating skier groups with safety in mind. If you ski black diamonds proficiently at Western U.S. resorts, you can heli ski in Alaska.
Weather Days: No-fly days are a reality here. Birds are grounded about one of every three days. The range of weather-day activities varies widely from operator to operator, so if that’s important to you, do your research.
Getting There: Alaska isn’t the easiest place to get to—or get around. The only nonstop flights from the U.S. are to Anchorage; cities that offer them include Chicago, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. From Anchorage (or Seattle), you can take an interior flight to Juneau, then a puddle-jumper or a five-hour ferry to Haines.
Gratuities: It’s customary to tip your guide between 15 and 20 percent, so roughly $100 to $150 per day. Don’t forget the lodge staff as well.
The Trips, By Region
SOUTHCENTRAL ALASKA (VALDEZ, ANCHORAGE)
Alaska Rendezvous Heli-Ski Guides
Gateway City: Anchorage
Permitted Terrain: 2.24 million acres in the Chugach
Highlights: Massive amount of terrain; intimate experience in the lodge; 30 guaranteed runs
With access to three huge zones and peaks of up to 6,800 feet, Alaska Rendezvous sits just north of Thompson Pass, home to some of the snowiest peaks in the state. Book a trip with Rendezvous, and you’re going to ski. The only trip option is seven days, Saturday to Saturday, from the beginning of March through the end of April. Rendezvous guarantees 30 runs (most skiers get closer to 36), and with runs averaging 5,000 vertical feet…well, you do the math. No-fly-day activities include dogsledding, nordic skiing, and ski touring—Rendezvous even keeps touring equipment on hand, so no need to bring your own.
Digs and Eats: The boutique, eight-room Rendezvous Lodge is small and intimate. Personal service, attention to detail, and making guests feel comfortable are all top priorities. Rooms overlook the helipad and beautiful Mount Billy Mitchell. The in-house restaurant serves three meals a day, and the tavern stocks a full bar.
Tag: From $10,205 for seven days, all-inclusive.
Alaska: Resorts and Retreats
Black Ops Heli
Gateway City: Anchorage
Permitted Terrain: 71.6 million acres in the eastern Chugach
Highlights: Cat skiing on weather days; smaller groups; variety of trip options and weather-day activities
Black Ops sits in the tiny fishing port of Valdez, at the head of one of the deepest fjords in Prince William Sound. Exploring the eastern Chugach Mountains with 1,000 inches of snow each year, Black Ops aims to find the best terrain to fit any skiing level. It also values the personal touch, capping trips at 16 clients and maintaining a four-to-one client-to-guide ratio. Runs are between 3,000 and 5,000 vertical feet, with an average of eight runs a day. Down days are spent cat and sled skiing, snowshoeing, ice climbing, or pursuing other pleasures made possible by Black Ops’ Thompson Pass location.
Digs and Eats: Accommodations are at Robe Lake Lodge and cabins, Black Ops’ private ski lodge in Valdez set right on Robe Lake. Trip options are single-day, three-day, five-day, and seven-day packages. The cuisine is Alaska-inspired, with plenty of fresh seafood, and prepared by a private chef.
Tag: From $1,400 for a single day to $9,600 for seven days, all-inclusive.
Chugach Powder Guides
Gateway City: Anchorage
Permitted Terrain: 750,000 acres in the Northern Chugach and Talkeetnas
Highlights: Easy drive from the city; cat skiing and resort skiing on weather days
One of the most established heli operations in the state, Chugach Powder Guides has been taking guests into the heart of the Chugach and Talkeetnas for more than 20 years. Several factors win visitors over time and again, from the easy access from Anchorage (45 minutes by car) to the luxury accommodations at the Hotel Alyeska. And not insignificant in a place where weather can make or break your very expensive vacation, CPG offers cat skiing and guided resort skiing at Alyeska, so you can’t be shut out.
Trips range from one day in the heli, guaranteeing 16,000 feet of vertical, to five-day excursions. CPG also offers ski safaris, putting all of the terrain in Southcentral Alaska at your disposal. Ski safaris are completely custom tours of remote ranges from the Tordrillos to the Talkeetnas.
Digs and Eats: Guests stay and dine at the Hotel Alyeska (see page 59). Prices include lodging and dining.
Tag: Five-day packages start at $6,100; single days are $1,375.
Gateway City: Anchorage
Permitted Terrain: 4,000 square miles
Highlights: The most permitted terrain of all of the Alaska heli outfitters; special use permit to heli-ski in the Chugach National Forest between Valdez and Cordova.
The largest permitted terrain in the largest state in the country is indeed something to boast about. Dean Cummings founded H2O Guides in 1991 with fellow extreme skier Doug Coombs, essentially opening up the Chugach to adrenaline-seeking, powder-hungry skiers from all over the world. Since then H2O has made a name for itself not only for serving up remote access to Chugach peaks that no other outfitters are allowed to offer but for a laser focus on safety and protocol that has become the standard bearer in the industry. Here's more on the intriguing backstory of H20. And Dean has teamed up with SKI to offer a Backcountry Protocols safety course. Additional info here.
Dig and Eats: H20 guests lodge at the Vasquez Harbor Inn, walking distance to downtown Valdez's shops and restaurants. Two on-site restaurants serve Alaska-inspired cuisine, while gourmet lunches are packed and enjoyed on the slopes.
Tag: From $5729 without meals or lodging to $6,632 with meals and lodging for seven days.
Gateway City: Anchorage
Permitted Terrain: Over two million acres in the Chugach and Talkeetnas
Highlights: Easy to get to; intimate; first-timers welcome
Straddling the Chugach and Talkeetna ranges, Majestic is a newer operation focusing on smaller groups and an intimate experience. Majestic welcomes heli newbies as well as veterans and introduces them to the variety of terrain here, from spines and couloirs to glaciers and bowls. Runs range from 1,000 to 4,500 feet, and since Majestic accepts only 16 guests at a time, you won’t share those runs with a crowd. Seven-, five-, and three-day packages are on offer. Spend down days in the yoga studio, in the hot tubs, or on a fat bike or cross-country skis.
Digs and Eats: Majestic’s seven-room lodge is modest but comfortable, with a cozy great room and full-service bar. Meals are included, from the breakfast buffet (reindeer sausage, eggs Benedict) to four-course dinners served family style. Two private cabins are also available.
Tag: From $3,995 for three days to $8,995 for seven days. Single days (when space permits), $1,175
Points North Heli Adventures
Gateway City: Anchorage or Seattle (three-hour flight)
Permitted Terrain: 960,000 acres
Highlights: Only heli outfit in the southern Chugach; Prince William Sound; Mount Eyak on down days
Located in the tiny fishing town of Cordova on the edge of Prince William Sound, Points North Heli-Adventures has been running Chugach Mountain heli-ski trips for the last 19 years. Husband and wife Kevin and Jessica Quinn founded PNH with the intention of showcasing the amazing terrain and snow the Chugach range is famous for. With a background in skydiving, big-game guiding, professional hockey, and whitewater rafting, Kevin Quinn has a thirst for outdoor adventure and loves to share it with his clientele.
Come expecting unbeatable views and great access to some of the southern Chugach’s most alluring terrain thanks to PNH’s fleet of three A-Stars, which fly over 1,500 square miles. PNH promises trips to suit skiers of any ability, from first-time heli skiers to world-class athletes. It’s also the only heli outfit that flies in the southern Chugach. On down days, the local Mount Eyak chairlift offers additional turns, or guests can take advantage of the proximity to Prince William Sound for glacier tours or sea kayaking.
Digs and Eats: Guests stay in the Orca Adventure Lodge, formerly the Orca Cannery (established in 1887). It’s a two-story, 37-room fully renovated lodge right next to the helicopter pad and right on the water.
Tag: Seven-day trips from $5,875, all-inclusive.
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge
Gateway City: Anchorage
Permitted Terrain: 1.2 million acres in the Alaska range
Highlights: Easy to get to; myriad weather-day activities; luxury lodging and dining; proximity to Denali National Park
Tordrillo’s claim to fame is as a fishing destination (see “Kings and Corn,” page 59). But a heli-ski lodge? Hell, yeah. Some of the closest heli skiing to Anchorage, Tordrillo offers up 1.2 million acres of terrain—yes, you read that right—much of it in view of 20,310-foot Denali and the volcanic summits surrounding it inside Denali National Park. Tordrillo serves intermediates and up, with a focus on finding the right terrain for each guest and challenging you to hit your potential. Down days consist of all things Alaska, from nordic and skate skiing to ice fishing, clay shooting, and snowshoeing, plus massage and yoga.
Digs and Eats: Tordrillo consists of two lovely lodges. The original, a 5,600-square-foot log lodge, is an Alaskan beauty with three cedar decks overlooking serene Judd Lake and the Alaska Range. The other is 4,600 square feet with five bedrooms and floor-to-ceiling windows. Meals are high-end, starting with a fully stocked breakfast buffet and ending with a multicourse dinner nightly.
Tag: Starting at $14,000 for six nights.
Valdez Heliskiing Guides
Gateway City: Anchorage
Permitted Terrain: 1.6 million acres in the Chugach
Highlights: Variety of trip options; cat skiing on down days; progression program
For big-mountain skiing like you see in the movies, VHSG is the place to go. It caters to advanced skiers with an innovative Terrain Progression Program that helps VHSG first-timers get in the swing of things and encourages repeat visitors to safely push their limits. The Eurocopter A-Star B2 is the bird of choice here, and it safely flies guests and guides through 2,500 square miles of terrain, where the runs range between 3,000 and 5,000 vertical feet. (The longest run is 6,200 vert.) There’s also cat skiing on no-fly days.
Digs and Eats: Get comfy at 24-room Tsaina Lodge, rebuilt in 2012 right next to the helipad. All meals are included in the rates: breakfast buffet, lunch to go, and gourmet, locally sourced dinners featuring fresh Alaskan seafood. Three-, four-, five-, and seven-day packages are available, as well as single days when space permits.
Tag: From $4,744 (three days) to $11,076 (seven days).
SOUTHEASTERN ALASKA (JUNEAU, HAINES)
Alaska Powder Descents
Gateway City: Anchorage or Seattle
Permitted Terrain: 1 million acres in the Coast and Chilkat ranges
Highlights: Affordable; welcomes all levels; access to Eaglecrest Ski Area; weekend packages
With a permit area of one million acres in the Juneau Icefields, southern Chilkats, and Coast mountains, Alaska Powder Descents provides major adventure, from runs exceeding 5,000 vertical feet to short-but-steep lines that will challenge the best of skiers. APD serves first-time heli skiers as well as experts, and the Icefields present a unique intro to some very challenging terrain: granite spires, icefalls, and spines. Eaglecrest Ski Area is nearby for no-fly days
(see page 68).
Digs and Eats: Both the weekend and weeklong packages incorporate backcountry and/or resort ski days. Lodging is in a downtown Juneau hotel; meals are not included.
Tag: Three nights, $2,800 (8–12 heli runs); seven nights, $5,350 (18–22 heli runs).
Gateway City: Juneau via Anchorage or Seattle; or Whitehorse, Yukon, via Vancouver
Permitted Terrain: 768,000 acres in the Chilkats
Highlights: Affordable; extreme terrain; reliable snow quality
Alaska as a whole is a pretty adventurous place to ski, but if we had to crown an adventure capital, it would be Haines, in the northern part of the panhandle. Alaska Heliskiing has been operating just outside Haines for 20 years, guiding clients into some of the steepest and gnarliest terrain the state has to offer. It’s worth noting that Alaska Heliskiing bills itself as a no-frills operation catering to higher-level skiers who are ready to go big. Its territory is in the Chilkat Range, bordering Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and runs average 4,000 vertical feet. Down days are just that—down. Your options are to hang out in the quirky harbor town of Haines, take a fat bike for a spin, or get after it on touring gear or snowmobile.
Digs and Eats: The company offers three different experiences each for their seven-, five-, and single-day tours. The more modest Ski Bum package includes shared lodging with a full kitchen to cook your own meals; the Around Town package features motel-style lodging in Haines; and the Deluxe offers lodging either near the heli base or in town with a private chef.
Tag: From $6,250 for seven days (30 runs) and $3,900 for five days; inquire for single-day rates.
Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA)
Gateway City: Juneau via Anchorage or Seattle or Whitehorse via Vancouver
Permitted Terrain: 100,000 acres in the Chilkats
Highlights: Cat skiing; free skills clinics; first-timers welcome
SEABA offers all the extreme Alaskan terrain that Haines is known for, but also more-modest 35- to 45-degree pitches that enable first-time heli skiers to get the hang of slashing through the region’s blower powder. Operating out of three heliports, SEABA can match small groups (4:1 or 5:1 skier-to-guide ratio) to their ideal terrain while keeping flight time to a minimum. In addition to the seven-day heli package, SEABA also has a cat-ski operation on 3,800 vertical feet, plus sled skiing and guided ski touring. Down days consist of cat skiing, outings to Skagway, and free skills clinics.
Digs and Eats: Historic Fort Seward Lodge in Haines, with breakfast and gourmet dinners. Lodging and meals included.
Tag: From $4,900 for seven days