Skiing in Alaska: Sheer Heart Attack

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mike Stoner

By degrees Slopes at Chugach are often far steeper than those found elsewhere

While scientists and politicians debate the complexities of global warming, skiers and boarders have simpler concerns about the earth's weather patterns — namely where the best snow will fall. With low-altitude resorts being denied loans by banks and statistical projections suggesting that winter sports below 2,000 m will become a luxury of the past, skiing in Alaska's Chugach Range, a few hundred kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, makes more than good sense. It may soon be a necessity.

To get there, you take a 45-minute flight from Anchorage (or undergo a spectacular 600-km drive), which will carry you to the little fishing port of Valdez. It may seem ironic that the scene of one of the world's worst environmental disasters — the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, which released 40 million liters of crude oil into Prince William Sound — is also your gateway to great powder and exciting ski terrain. But Valdez has been a mecca for big-mountain skiing since the early 1990s, when Emily Coombs and her late husband Doug, two of America's most experienced backcountry adventurers, started Valdez Heli-Ski Guides (VHSG), They sold the company to its current owner, seasoned heli-ski guide and avalanche forecaster Scott Raynor, in 2000.

Unlike glitzier heli-ski operations with their five-star lodges, gourmet food and masseurs on call, VHSG is rough and ready. A down day in Valdez is likely to involve checking out hunting rifles at the Prospector hardware store, not having a Swedish deep-tissue rubdown. Basic motels are the order of the day, though local restaurants serve excellent sashimi.

Forty-five kilometers up the road over the Thompson Pass, in a muddy car park by the Tsaina River, is a small collection of cabins and the center of the operation. From there skiers and boarders take off in AStar helicopters and flit over the magnificent empty wilderness of the Chugach Range. Being this far north and so close to the sea, the Chugach receives an extraordinary amount of snow with a stability unmatched elsewhere. It is possible to ski or board pitches of as much as 60 degrees — truly astonishing when you consider the steepest runs in most resorts are only about 35 degrees.

Runs take place through featherlight powder under cobalt skies and are at least 1,000 m long — often double that. Views stretch out for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. In the early days, many of the bowls, chutes and peaks had never been touched or even seen by humans, let alone felt the impact of skis or boards. And there is still no sign of global warming except perhaps to the eyes of the most knowledgeable guides and locals, who say that even in this frozen wonderland there has been some loss of ice.

If the snow and terrain are not inducements enough to head to Alaska, then consider that your trip may well include sightings of soaring golden eagles, gigantic moose, mountain goats, otters, seals and possibly even an orca in the bay. The ice-climbing is world class, as are the skiers and boarders who congregate from all parts of the globe to test themselves on the steepest skiable pitches and the finest snow to be found anywhere. It doesn't matter where you may have skied or boarded before — the Chugach will make your jaw drop. As Doug Coombs famously said, "Everything else is just practice."