Fresh Powder, Clean S-Curves, and a Sitzmark or two…
A little background on this story: A few years ago, I wandered into one of my favorite bars on a random evening for a burger and a beer after a nice after-work ski. As I sat down and grabbed a menu, a young woman came by and informed me that I only had a couple more minutes to enter the drawing for the night’s prizes. I had no clue what these prizes might be, but decided what the hell, may as well enter. Maybe I’ll win something.
My beer came, followed soon by my burger, and I pretty much forgot all about the drawing and the prizes. Halfway through my dinner, they started announcing winners of various prize items ranging from T-shirts to $50 gift cards for local restaurants. Finally, the bar quieted down as they prepared to draw the name of the night’s grand prize winner. This was all less than entertaining for me, since I still had no clue what the grand prize even was.
I was chewing on a particularly satisfying portion of my burger as the announcer called out, “And the winner is…. Greg …. La…. La…. Latrelly….” I thought to myself, Hey! That’s me!! (Not many people get the pronunciation of Latreille (La-TRAY) right the first time.)
Walking up to the announcing booth, I still had no clue what I’d won, but I now figured it must be good, because I was surrounded by disappointed, even pouty-looking young men giving me their best version of the stink-eye. I walked up to the guy with the microphone, and he handed me a gift card for a heli-skiing trip with Valdez Heli Camps. I couldn’t believe it. I had wondered if I would ever do something like this, but figured it was way too expensive to even consider for several years.
I went back to my table and finished my burger, leaving quickly lest one of the baggy-pants clad ski bums try to stab me with his butter knife, and went home to plan my trip. The card I won was good for 12,500 vertical feet of helicopter skiing, which would amount to 1/2 to 2/3 of a day.
For a variety of reasons, the trip did not occur for another two years, almost at the expiration date of the card. I had been on the phone on and off with the owner of the company in the month of February, looking for a good opportunity. It finally came in the last week of the month: 24 inches of fresh snow in the mountains and open seats in the heli. It was time for my trip!
Driving into the Night
I planned to leave town as soon as I could on Friday evening, but an unexpected work commitment put me at the gas station, fueling up for a 300 mile journey at 9:00 pm. It was snowing lightly, and I knew I had two mountain passes to negotiate between Anchorage and Valdez. This could be a long night. I made sure to hop inside the gas station and grab a nice big coffee.
The snow followed me for about 40 miles and finally stopped just as I was starting to climb up above the Matanuska River. Shining through the clouds, the moon was high and bright, almost full, bathing the mountains in the soft bluish light. Despite the fact that it was already pretty late, and I knew I still had a lot of driving ahead of me, I felt an odd mixture of excitement about the next day’s adventure and a calm induced by the frozen, beautiful landscape. I love road trips like this. I breathed it in and kept the car running smoothly on the wide, open highway.
As the night wore on, I steered the car persistently toward Valdez, coming down from the mountains and into Glennallen, only to turn back into more mountains for the climb up Thompson Pass. As I began the ascent into this eastern Chugach Mountain pass, I noticed the snow. It was everywhere and it was deep—much deeper than the snow around Anchorage. The landscape had that soft marshmallowed appearance of an iced gingerbread house.
I reached the top of the pass and started down toward Valdez, now only 30 miles away. The clouds had completely cleared out, and the moon glow on the mountains was more brilliant than I think I have ever seen. Even though I was getting tired, and it was now well past 1:00 am, I could not hold myself back from pulling over and getting some photos.
I snapped a few shots, drove on, snapped a few more, and eventually made my increasingly groggy way into the small town of Valdez. I checked into my room at the Best Western and tried my best to get to sleep. Slumber would not come until after 3:30 am—thanks to a lovely cocktail of caffeine and excitement running circuits through my veins—and it was cut short at 7:30 am by the tiny hotel alarm clock beckoning me to get up, eat something quickly, and prepare for the time of my life.
Houston, We are a No-Go
The first thing I noticed when I stepped outside Saturday morning was that the clouds had moved in. I had only been asleep for four hours, but in that time, the sky had undergone a transformation from ideal helicopter flying weather to ideal helicopter on the ground weather. Large snowflakes were spiraling out of the sky, but even in my disappointment, I could not bring myself to lament the snow falling. I think snow is like a drug for me sometimes. I can’t get enough.
I hopped into a shuttle with seven or so other folks. They, like me, were brimming with excitement that included a tinge of trepidation. I was not the only one who had noticed the questionable weather. The 17-mile ride to base camp was filled with introductions and the usual greeting conversations when strangers meet for the first time: I’m Greg, nice to meet you. Have you ever heli-skied before? No I haven’t either. Do you think they’ll fly today? I guess we’ll just have to see. What do you do? Oh you work for Crowley? A friend of mine works for Crowley, her name is Stacey. Oh yes you know her? She said some friend of hers with a beard won a heli-skiing trip and may be coming this weekend? Yeah, that’s me… Alaska may be the biggest state, but I often get a kick out of how small it can be.
We arrived at base camp and received various briefings: helicopter safety, Sno-Cat safety, avalanche safety. We each grabbed all our gear and stepped on the scale. Flying in a helicopter or any small aircraft requires that the pilot know the weight of what he is carrying. With my backpack, skiing clothes, skis, boots, and poles, I weighed in at 235 pounds. Gosh! I hoped a good portion of that (at least 50 pounds) was skis, boots, poles, and other gear!
As I looked around at the skis the other clients had brought, I noticed that I was the odd man out. I wasn’t the only one that noticed either. As I stepped off the scale, one of the guides took a long scrutinizing look at my Rossignol Bandit X skis, perhaps top of the line when they came out, but now 15 years old and showing painful and obvious signs of years of faithful service. Everyone else had skis that were newer, and much, much wider. The next thinnest set of skis were almost twice as wide as mine.
“Not used to seeing skis like this here, huh?” I asked.
“No, I’m used to seeing them here; I’m used to seeing them get left behind too. You know we rent equipment,” the guide responded.
I started to tally some quick figures in my head: gasoline for 600 miles round trip in the car, a night’s stay in the hotel, a nice tip if the guides did a good job. Suddenly my “free” heli-skiing trip was starting to eat a hole in my wallet. Besides, I don’t need any stinkin’ powder skis! I am The Greg! I can do anything!
“Well listen – I’ve skied on these skis for over a decade. I’m so used to skiing on them, it would probably screw me up more than help me to get on something different.” (This was a lie.) “They may not be considered the optimal equipment for powder skiing this day and age, but remember that these were about the fattest skis around when they first came out, and people had been skiing powder just fine for decades before that. Besides, if I try a set of fat powder skis, it’s going to ruin skiing anything else in the powder, and I’ll be forced to go buy a pair, which I don’t want to do right now.” (I felt this much was true.)
He relented. I guess he could tell I was another pig-headed know-it-all that was going to be stubborn. We’re a dime a dozen.
Now the final questions – would the helicopter be able to fly, and what would we do if not? I’ll provide the answers in reverse order.
In the event that the helicopter cannot fly, Valdez Heli Camps offers skiing out of their Sno-Cat, which can operate in pretty much any weather conditions that would be suitable for skiing. The Sno-Cat cannot go everywhere the helicopter can go, obviously, and it takes much longer to bring skiers from bottom to top, but it can provide skiing in terrain very similar to, if not identical to, the terrain accessed via the helicopter. This way, they can still offer their clients world-class skiing on days when flying around in the copter is not safe.
For the time being, the weather was not cooperating for flight, so we piled into the Sno-Cat and began our ascent up the snowy mountainside.
A 3000’ Powder Run
After more than an hour of incessant laboring, the Sno-Cat delivered its cargo nearly to the top of the mountain. We were situated in an endless sea of rolling white waves at an elevation of about 5000 feet at the base of a craggy formation that rises almost another 1000 feet to a rocky summit. Looking around, I struggled to find what looked like a bad run.
There were ten clients and three guides. The guides would take turns skiing down with us in pairs while the third drove the Cat down to meet us at the bottom of the run. We were given some basic instructions by Jim, one of the guides, and then he disappeared on a traverse around the side of the mountain. Almost a minute later, I saw him reappear far below, and I heard him radio back to the other guide, Tim, to start sending us one at a time down the powdery face of the mountain to him.
One by one my newfound companions disappeared the same way Jim had gone. I couldn’t see the face they were skiing, so I could only imagine what it would be like. Near the end of the pack, I took my turn and hopped onto the trail made by the others. I rounded the side of the mountain and entered the top of a steep pitch coated with deep powder, broken only by the curving trails of the other skiers who had gone ahead of me. I chose a clean, untouched line in the snow and pointed the tips of my skis downward.
I instantly sank up to my knees or even mid-thighs in deep, fluffy, powdery snow. It washed up over my face and goggles as I splashed into it like water in a pool. Somewhere beneath the surface, I steered my skis into one turn, two turns, three turns. It was so deep! It was too deep! My skis separated and dove almost straight down into the depths of the powder, and I plunged face first into the snow. Great start there, Greg. First crash of the day, and I think everyone was watching!
I dug myself out of the four foot deep pit I had made in the side of the mountain and started again. This would take some getting used to. I have skied all my life, since I was four years old, but I had never once been in snow like this.
I joined the rest of the group and received a couple compliments on my wipeout. I looked back up toward the top and just enjoyed the view of the gaunt mountain peak cloaked in seamless snow, its only imperfection a set of fresh S-curved tracks coming down its face (and one wipeout sitzmark of course).
We continued on down. The route we were taking was a seemingly endless progression of rolling, undulating steep pitches broken by calmer areas here and there. The guides would stop us at various points and give us tips about the upcoming terrain, describing where we could find shallower slopes if we wished to avoid small cliffs. Some folks opted for the cliffs. At this point, I was happy with being humbled, and I stuck to the tamer terrain.
The photos make the steep terrain look a lot shallower in pitch than it actually was. In places, I would get a good amount of slough moving, which is a body of snow moving on top of the rest of the snow, set in motion by my turns. Sometimes I would stop and watch this mini surface avalanche pass me by. Slough is not dangerous like a true avalanche, but it can trip you up and cause you to crash if it gets too thick and you ski through it. I can definitely attest to that!
We approached the tree line at about a 2000 foot elevation, capping out a 3000-vertical-foot powder run that we would ski three more times. To put it into perspective, the ski mountain with the largest vertical drop east of the Mississippi is Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid. From the top of the highest lift to the base of the mountain is just over 3000 feet. This would be like skiing that mountain, top to bottom, in knee-deep powder the whole way. It was unlike any skiing I have ever done.
Meanwhile, the weather was getting better and better. The clouds were clearing out, and we even saw the sun and patches of blue sky. Would they be able to get the helicopter up? We sure hoped they would.
By the time I started the second run, I was really getting the hang of skiing the conditions. I was no longer having my skis dive down into the snow every two seconds, nor did I find myself sitting way back on my skis to keep the tips afloat in the snow. I figured out how to stay balanced and keep my weight where it needed to be throughout each turn in order to stay on top. That’s when the fun really turned on for me. By the third run, the guides were joking about how they knew it was me coming down every time, because I would be hooting and hollering and cheering, and I would pull up to the group with a big ear-to-ear smile on my face.
Flat Light Options – Mixing it Up
Around midday, clouds again crowded the sky, flattening the quality of the light on the face of the snow and shutting out any lingering hopes we had of getting up in the helicopter. The guides, in an effort to leave some powder for the following week’s clients and to help us cope with the flatter light, took us to some new areas where there were trees and other features sticking up through the snow.
Now that I was feeling much more comfortable on my skis, I was ready to branch out and try some of the drops, small cliffs, and jumps. There was plenty of varied terrain, so I could do some nice powder turns, then branch out and launch off some feature of the land buried beneath the snow, or jump down into a gully or down a steep dip. I crashed a few times, but the snow was so soft and deep, I hardly felt it. I just shook the snow off my helmet, stood back up, and rocketed down to the next thing.
Two of the runs we took all the way down to the base of the mountain. The last 1000 vertical feet of the run was in a forest of tall, dark spruce trees. The guides were expert at directing us to various lanes and swaths through the trees. These lanes were filled with snow-covered trees, rocks, and other features creating an absolute playground for us skiers. There was something for everybody, whether you wanted to keep doing beautiful powder turns or you wanted to spend half the time in the air, hopping from jump to jump. I did a little of both. It was unbelievable. A fellow skier and I agreed it was like something out of a video game.
For the day’s last run, the guides just unleashed us all on this lower part of the mountain, creating the added entertainment of skiing this playground as a swarm. I would be speeding down an open lane amongst the trees, jumping off tree stumps and rocks, and one of my fellow skiers would burst through the trees at my side. I’d veer off, snake my way in a tight line between a bunch of big spruce trees and practically collide with another skier weaving through. If only I had a video camera. I have my memory to rely on until next time, and there will definitely be a next time.
The guides dragged us kicking and screaming back to base camp. I wasn’t ready to quit, but I realized this skiing adventure had come to a close. I think it worked out about as well as it possibly could have. If I had ended up getting out in the helicopter, I would have only skied for half a day, which would have included the same learning curve from the first couple Cat runs. Instead, I was able to get a full day in, and each run was an improvement from the previous. It was the most amazing skiing I have ever experienced.
I had dinner with my fellow compatriots and hit the road again. I like the open road at night. I hardly saw any other cars all the way to Anchorage, and I think I set a new Valdez-to-Anchorage speed record. I was prepared to pull over and snooze if I needed to, but I actually didn’t have any trouble staying alert, despite my lack of sleep the night before and the long day of intense skiing. For whatever reason, exhaustion didn’t catch up to me until the next day. I passed out hard Sunday afternoon and slept for several hours. It was a well earned cat-nap, no pun intended.
by Greg Latreille
Greg Latreille was born and raised in the small, rural town of Malone in the northernmost part of New York state, 10 miles from the border with Canada. Directly after completing college, he moved to Alaska to pursue a career in structural engineering and outdoor pursuits in the Great 49th State. He has been working as a structural engineer for Anchorage-based BBFM Engineers, Inc., since then, and is now an associate at that firm.