New respect for the mountain
Ryan Summerlin April 14, 2012
Each client has his or her role. The better we get at it as a team, the more confident the pilot and I become with landing them in various locations, such as this one.
I close the helicopter’s slider door and then slip to the front and give the pilot a thumbs-up. The helicopter lifts straight up and then disappears off the side of the mountain. My group stands up and realizes quickly we are standing on a perch no bigger than a very small single dorm room.
I’m excited. They are very excited. But everyone needs to stay focused. One goofy move here could lead to a critical mistake. Simple things such as asking me if they can step away and go to the bathroom are big decisions and sometimes left better for the glacier as to not step through a hole or off a cornice.
Finding good snow is one obligation. Keeping my clients safe is another. Most likely, they are not seeing all of the dangers around them. As they are new to this environment, their mind’s eye has narrowed its perspective to just think about what is happening right in front of them and not taking in the reality of the surrounding environment.
It’s kind of like watching a child who has just learned to walk. They find numerous amounts of mistakes to make, thinking they are just having a good time. We just try to keep them from making really bad ones by keeping an eye on them.
Day 4 in the zone, and I could not ask for a better group to be with. They listen, ask questions, follow directions and have left their egos at home. Better yet, a couple of them have made some key mistakes, survived them and have been rewarded. Now, they are more humble and respectful of the mountains, which in turn makes it easier to guide them.
A day prior, I decided to ramp it up. They deserved it. They were skiing so strong and, more importantly, smart. But still, truly respecting the Chugach does not come untill a mistake is made. I have personally had a number of them in my history – everything from falling into holes to underestimating the size of the cliff and not judging the change in snow conditions or my speed. During this trip, I was called out in a guide meeting for making a really fundamental mistake: I skied into my own slough. The punishment: a round of beers at a later date. Guess I was out of practice from skiing too many groomed slopes this season in the lower 48.
But in the Chugach, you really have not learned until you crash because crashing here is unlike anything you have experienced at any ski area. A crash here does not stop – it accelerates.
At a ski resort, falling usually leads to slowing down and eventually stopping. In the Chugach, you actually have to do everything you can to stop from tumbling or gravity will just win and could take you somewhere you do not want to end up.
Michelle had been on her game every run, proving her skills and that she possesses solid fundamentals to ski the steeps. We had just completed one of the biggest runs in the region, and I felt we could step up one more notch. It was that deceptive next step that initiated Michelle into the Chugach. More specifically, it was on top of a slope called “Crusty Critter” that Michelle’s third turn went wrong. The small mistake on this beautiful slope she was so excited to ski sent her tumbling several hundred feet down a steep pitch and toward a crevasse. All I could do was yell into the radio for her to “Self-arrest! Dig in! Dig in!”
Michelle did everything right to save herself and acknowledges she heard my voice through the chaos of the fall. To her, it sounded like an angelic voice from mountains. For the rest of the group waiting on top, the last they saw was Michelle drop out of sight, and now all they could hear was the panic in my voice yelling through the radio, “Dig in! Dig in! Dig in!” for what seemed like forever. Lucky for Michelle, her skis and most of her gear ended up on a part of the slope where it could be retrieved, while a glove and pole slowly rolled farther down the slope and dropped into a hole.
I loved talking to Michelle after this, as now she had a new look in her eyes and new respect for the Chugach. As I hoped, she turned this mistake into knowledge and fed from it. So did the rest of the group.
In the days that followed, my confidence in the group grew and we were able to explore more interesting terrain. Our rhythm as a group flowed like a Swiss clock. And the turns we made together off the steep Alaskan peaks became even more magical. And for a moment, the purpose of life became completely clear.
Sitting around the table after dinner reminiscing about the previous few days of heli skiing in the Chugach, Michelle said something I have heard in the past.
“Visiting the Chugach opened Pandora’s box to me,” she said. “Now I’m hungrier than ever to learn more about this sport, the mountains, the dynamics of snow than ever before.”
Longtime Vail resident Chris Anthony is a former Alaskan extreme-skiing champion and veteran of nine World Extreme Skiing Championships and 23 Warren Miller films. He is currently recruiting skiers for upcoming ski trips to Chile, Italy and Alaska. Learn more about Anthony and his adventures at chrisanthony.com or @chrisanthonyski.