March 2016 Valdez Heli Ski Guides

Meteorite
Meteorite
Legge taking our photo on the summit of Meteorite
Legge taking our photo on the summit of Meteorite

 

The Wall

This has been an amazing start!  For the past 23 years I have been skiing on Thompson Pass during the months of March and April.  It is hard for me to believe that this is year 20 working with Valdez Heli Ski Guides.  Of course, I started fueling the helicopters when I was six years old!  Seriously, I dropped out of The World Extreme Competition to fuel helicopters for Doug and Emily Coombs in the early days.  Anything to get my foot in the door.  I would ask for a job everyday.  When they had an opening, I pounced.  I had the biggest grin putting that jet A in those amazing Astars.  Twenty years later, I still have that smile when they land inches away from me and I look up at the pilot. I feel pretty lucky to call this my real job.  The last 3 weeks have truly been amazing.

 

This season started with loads of powder and overall good stability.  My first guests were a group of guys who came together to celebrate a 40th birthday.  The coolest part was the trip was a surprise gift from his wife and she arranged his friends to join him!  We skied lots of powder and classic lines for a week of perfect conditions! Thanks Neil, Matt and Julian for being so fun.  Fortunately, Heinrich matched quite well with the group and was able to join us for a few days.  The best way to come skiing here is as a group of four who all share the same ability.  If you can pull a group of eight together, you can buy the private helicopter which allows more mobility with flying further from the Tsaina Lodge base.

waiting to drop into Cherry

The second week, I had the privilege of guiding Alberto, Richard, and Jeff and Ingrid.  It was a fun day hitting the classics off the highway like RFS (really fucking steep) and Cherry couloir on Python.  We did a couple laps on Cracked Ice, too because it was so fun riding excellent powder fast!

tiny skiers on the summit of RFS

These are the runs that made this place famous.  Amazing hits that ski 5000ft down to the highway.  I vividly remember my first heli ride to the top of Python in the early days before guiding existed on the pass.  We were self guided and the plane and heli operators collected the money.  At ABA( Alaska Backcountry Adventures) there were two planes and one Astar.  $25  for a plane ride and $50 for a heli ride with Chet.  I was so poor, that I decided to go to Python with the unknown heli that showed up roadside because he was charging $30 for a run.  He could only carry two people and I went up with another unknown named, “Dave the poacher” from Blizzard of Ahhs.  From ABA you looked at the NW face of Python all day and the way the sun colored the face pink in the evening was magestic and inviting.  We got in the tiny heli, one on each side of the pilot and bungee cords for our skis to his skids.  I pointed to the top of Python and clearly stated, “I want to go there”.  The pilot said, “Why do you want to go there and kill yourself? Everyone else is going down there on the shoulder”.  I was sure what I wanted and assured him I had no intentions of killing myself.  We climbed in circles puttering like a lawnmower and him saying over and over, ” I don’t know why you want to go way up there and kill yourself”.  I was getting dizzy from all the circles it took to gain the elevation and when we were finally in the air above this spectacular peak, I realized I hadn’t paid him.  I reached into my pocket and handed him $40.  He held the control with one hand and started fumbling in his pocket to find $10 in change with the other hand. “Keep the change”, I yelled as I sensed this could be the killing myself part.  He set down and we crawled out relieved and exhilarated to be on top of the world.  Dave needed to relax and said ” You don’t mind if I smoke a joint.”  Followed by, “Do you know how to get off this thing?”  I took the lead and climbed the ridge to the summit where I could locate ABA’s base on the highway.  From the top, you can not see the run below you.  Knowing in my mind what awaited below from the many days of staring up at this peak, I committed to the line and made my first turn on the 50+ degree slope.  I knew there was a small cliff band below and I was looking for a good place to get through. One small hop, got me through in a pretty good spot.  We didn’t have radios back then.  I pulled out to skiers right and yelled up,”Look out for the cliff band!”.  Dave was on telemark skis.  He came down and hooked a rock in the cliff band which lead to a long steep tumble down the face.  Equipment flying, I watched as he gained momentum and cartwheeled past me.  He was fine. Thinking back, I bet he thought I yelled ” You’re going to rock this!”.  He climbed back up gathering his stuff while I took in the views perched on the face watching the sun lower into that position that paints the mountain pink.  It was April, when the days are longer and the sun affects the snow.  The sun had softened the lowers into a perfect texture that sounds like a zipper and looks like fish scales glistening under your feet every turn in the pink light.  We rallied down to the road to join the party and stories of adventures at the ABA airstrip looking back up at that NW face on Python in awe and admiration.

 

Cherry couloir

It’s funny, I don’t ski that line on Python very much anymore.  More often, I ski the Cherry couloir or down the nose into Buttercup and Berthamay on the east side.  You don’t see these lines from the road, but generally they have better snow and you don’t have to negotiate a rockband on a super steep slope.  You can see these lines perfectly from Craced Ice. The combination of steep and technical mixed with fast and powdery on these side by side mountains is amazing.  Jeff and Ingrid have been riding with VHSG since Doug and Emily owned the company.  Since then, they purchased The Tsaina and built the new lodge.  It was a pleasure to share these old classics with them in such great snow conditions this year. Alberto who has also skied here for many years and Richard, who got his Cherry popped, were an excellent mix to the group making it one of the best days I’ve had on the roadside classics.

 

Cold Smoke another classic in the Tsaina valley

I was lucky enough to guide Team Splitter last week.  They were a group of eight who had skied together before in Alaska, but this was their first time with VHSG.  Fortunately, we had amazing weather the first two days.  After some talk in the bar the night before, and being told by my very good friend, Clark Fyans, who organized the trip, to show them a good time; we put the hammer down on the first day.  I guided this private with Don Sharaf.  We have worked together for a long time and make an excellent mix in a guide team.  Don is huge and comparatively, I am tiny.  Don specializes in forecasting and snow science. His knowledge of the snowpack combined with his deep ski cuts provides an extra sense of safety.  My people skills combined with years of skiing in these mountains provides a good time!  After chatting about our game plan, we decided to head south and work our way to a run we call The Wall.  We started in The Deserted Glacier for a few warm up runs.  It was clear that my guests had skills.   We had bluebird weather and good stability so we rallied The Wall in perfect powder.  Riding on top of the ribs was crazy deep.  Seriously, the face shots were blinding me on the way down.  When it is that good, you have to lap it up.  The face is so big, you can get untracked even on the 3rd lap.  We ended the day on a NW aspect in a zone we call The Sushi Bar.  These are a series of ramps with technical landings and excellent sunlit snow at the end of the day.

 

After skiing incredible powder in the south on the first day, we decided to head back that direction on day 2 and take a look at Meteorite.  It had a big avalanche early season down to the ice in January.  From the road, it looked filled in.  We needed a closer inspection with the helicopter.  Don dug a pit on the warm up run across the valley and found good stability.  Flying up the face of Meteorite with our pilot Jason Legge, I stared closely at the snow textures and every detail on the face.  The rock band under the fin, the bergschrund, the texture in the gut, the opening moves, down the tube or around the rock fins with the cliff exposure. I looked over my shoulder to see the expressions on Team Splitters faces.  Lots of emotions and questions fired from their eyes and mouths,”One more turn. Do you think that’s ice? I don’t know. What do you think, Kremer?” What I thought, was that it looked good.  I was worried about the guys skiing too fast and getting sluffed over the rocks at the bottom.  The textures looked good to me, but the faces in the back didn’t look convinced.  We decided to land on top to discuss it.  Whether you ski it or not, landing on top is cool!  Plus, Legge our pilot, hadn’t landed there yet and although it is a big easy landing, the views don’t get much better than from the top of Meteorite.  The energy in the ship was high and I could practically feel their hearts pounding as they thought about it.  We decided to do another warm up and regroup with the others.

 

The truth is, my heart was pounding as well.  I’ve skied Meteorite many times, and I have lots of stories.  It’s a huge run and a lot can happen on that face.  The fact that it had a huge avalanche earlier in the season and it hadn’t been skied since were my foremost concerns.  The safest line in regard to avalanches is to ski the tube on skiers left which puts you in the gut and a clean shot over the double bergschrunds.  The tube is steep and tight and gets scraped clean pretty quick leaving an intimidating choke on the entry for those to follow.  The best line is the fin, and entering on skiers right is technically easier if you don’t hit any rocks on the very exposed opening moves.  The snow is always better on the right side of the fin because it is less steep and holds the powder.  However, if you have an avalanche or sluffing the escape route skiers left is the only hope for survival.

I remember yelling at the top of my lungs as a tail guide, watching a snowboarder blissfully riding that powder on the right side of the fin and passing the left turn onto the face.  Ignorance is bliss.  He had no idea there was a massive cliff to his right as all his worries were absorbed by that perfect powder. “Left, Left, GO LEFT!!!”  He got the memo and lived.

I remember another time, when I was with some strong skiers, and I watched a high speed crash catapulting the skier over the gaping bergschrund.  The bad part was, I was at the top and his ski was stuck on the lip of the enormous dark crack.  Normally, you don’t get to appreciate this darkness because you are quickly jumping over it and carrying on with your ski run.  I got the pleasure of rescuing his ski from the mouth of the dragon.  I skied gingerly up to it trying not to sluff it in and got close to the edge and began fishing with my ski pole.  Finally, I caught the fish and wasn’t swallowed by the killer whale, but I still had to jump over the hungry mouth.  One hop, and I straightened out my skis on the steep slope and leapt over the abyss with my fish in hand.

The story we all remember, was the day one of our guides got sluffed over the cliff band at the bottom and broke his back changing his life forever.

This is a mountain that demands respect and begs to be skied.  It is intense and beautiful.  It’s elegant and savage.  It’s normal to have an elevated pulse and pounding heart.

Landing on top with Legge, reminded me of landing there with Cab.  They are both snowboarders before pilots and have the eye for a good line.  Legge was excited with us.  He’s young and like Cab, throws out the lingo you’d expect from a snowboarder.  “That’s a sick line, I wish I was riding it”, Legge tells me.  We get out of the heli on top and I give him the thumbs up to fly away.  Instead, he signals for me to open the door.  I open it wondering what’s up and he has his camera in hand with a big smile!  Group photo he motions. I huddle next to the guys while Legge captures this moment of so many emotions and elation on the summit.  We are all having the time of our lives.  I shut the door and ask him to park on the perch across from us so he can watch.  When I flew up here with Cab years ago, he was also excited for us and deeply wished he was riding.  As we looked at the line from the heli, he demanded that I ski the spine because it really is the line of choice.  He was fired up.  When we landed, he turned the heli off, straight shut her down right there on the summit.  He wasn’t done talking about the line and he still wanted to be a part of that toxic tonic of energy only brewed up on the highest gnarliest peaks in the Chugach.  It still wasn’t enough for him, he had to walk right up to the edge and point down the face (which you can no longer see) and tell me to “shred the spine”!  “Okay, Cab” I replied,”Can you please get back in the heli, you’re making me nervous”!  I have enough to worry about without adding the pilot’s toes hanging over the impressive drop.  I deeply miss this guy, but his energy is legendary and of course we were going to ride the fin.

I nailed the entry smoothly finding the best weakness through the rock flutes.  However, I could hear Cab laughing at me further down the fin when I didn’t have enough speed to get back up.  I slid backwards as gracefully as possible and gained enough speed to continue the unique weave of turns on this rib.  The left side drops steeply and the snow is firmer, while the right side is fluffy and seemingly flat in comparison.  I didn’t exactly “shred the line”, but it sure was fun.  Our team rallied it with style and then it snowed….for days.

There’s a saying I often use in the mountains.  It goes like this,”Chill, chill, chill…..Attack!”

The mountains are always talking.  You have to listen.  You have to respect, and when the time is right, you pounce!  Current conditions are calling for some serious chilling.

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