Vail skier finds an impossible field of powder
Ryan Summerlin March 22, 2010
VAIL, Colorado – The date is March 19 – this marks the 19th year I have journeyed north to Alaska. It seems like a blink of an eye since those first years dropping into Valdez, Alaska, for the World Extreme Skiing Championships. I had no clue what I was getting myself into then, or where it would lead me now. I have to credit Alaska with numerous life-changing experiences. At the time I thought it was just another place to go and ski. I was so naive I actually thought I was going to a ski area named Valdez near the town of Valdez. But I was not – in fact, I was in store for so much more than that. The Chugach is this very powerful mountain range where things on skis could be done, and would be done, that no one would have thought possible. At the same time valuable lessons would be taught. What I stumbled into was an entirely new area of our sport, a new frontier with a number of amazing people discovering it as well. The first couple of generations of professional skiers that descended upon Alaska have all gone onto influencing the sport in one way or another. I won’t even attempt to go into all the names and faces that I’m thinking of – I’d probably leave someone valuable out. Those that lived it will forever be bonded and know who they are.One thing I will say about all of us is this – ignorance and passion was bliss. And with bliss comes a certain amount of luck that carried a number of us through. If not for that, then heli-skiing in Alaska would not be what it is today. I remember my first small aircraft flight into Valdez. In fact I wrote about the experience as part of one of my first Vail Daily submissions. After several bumpy attempts to land, we were finally were told to turn back towards Anchorage until the weather would clear some two days later. It left an immediate impression on me about this place. But that flight was nothing like my first helicopter ride with pilot Chet Simmons. I met Chet on the day prior to my first heli-ride. He drew his gun while we were both on the side of the road trying to hitchhike. He basically told me he would take the first car. I agreed to let him have it. I thought he was just some hard Alaskan local that I should not cross words with. As it turned out, he was also the only heli pilot in the region flying skiers around. Good thing I did not piss him off, it would have forever changed my helicopter skiing experience, I’m sure.
Every experience I have in the Chugach has tattooed my life. Every run, heli landing, sunset, Northern Lights experience and person I have met is not forgotten. They playback in my mind’s eye as clear as an HD movie in 3D. Visiting the Alaskan Chugach Mountain Range over the years through competition lead me to figure out a way to continue and comeback without competing. I did it by building relationships with local operators I had grown close to during those years of competition and creating my own little adventure outfitting business. So here I am years later making my annual trek north. My destination, Cordova, Alaska, is home to Points North Heli Adventures and where I base myself and bring those friends to guide every late March and April. It takes a moment to settle into the scene here at base camp, located on the Orca Inlet just three miles up the road from the land-locked fishing village of Cordova. The place is a strange combination of a loss of time, patience and adrenaline. Life in Alaska is to the extremes. I know, I think the word is a cliche, but the place really is. Life is either slow or super-fast here. We are either sitting out in the rain or flying to the top of peaks. It’s one or the other. It’s a test of character and focus – a place to see a person’s true colors come out.
This season was no different from the past. I literally arrived in base camp with no intention of going out into the field for at least two days, despite the fact the skies were clear and helicopters were headed out into the zone with groups. I figured this was not my time yet. Besides, I needed to get unpacked and organized. So I dropped into my routine. I was wandering around base camp partly unpacking, saying hello to everyone and taking a couple of videos to load up on my Facebook page. Life was calm, cool and collected. Operations were normal. It felt good to be here, I thought. A radio call informed me a heli was coming in for fuel and bringing in one client. So I ran out to document the turn around. I was in jeans, a light jacket and sneakers. Watching a heli land is always a thrill for me. As he was on approach I thought I heard my name being yelled. I looked around to see if someone was yelling at me. Sure enough, Jessica Quinn was yelling at me from the office. “Chris fire drill! Do you want it?” Meaning do I want to jump into this heli and go skiing. Yes!I ran back to my room where I was only partly unpacked. Scrambling, I was geared up in less than 10 minutes and headed to the heli, ready to fly out into the Chugach. The pilot noticed I still had the tags on my new guide coat and laughed. Twenty minutes later I was being dropped into Kip Gare’s group in the zone. The group had four solid days under their belt and one of the top guides was taking them into the gnar. On my second run I realized I was not in Vail anymore.Kip had eyeballed a narrow, 50-plus degree couloir above a fairly good size cliff above some rocks. Just before the cliff, on the left side of this narrow couloir, the rock wall gave away to a spine of snow where another steep narrow funnel jockeyed around the cliff. Eventually, three-quarters of the way down, about 1,000 vertical feet, the slope opened to an apron with an incredible powder field on it. It was amazing to think about skiing it – and I was standing on top of it. Kip gave me the honor of dropping in first.
On my first jump turn, I said to myself, “please do not mess up, it would be tragic.” On my third jump turn I came to a stop in a narrow part of the couloir – my skis were almost as wide as the space provided by the mountain. Snow was coming down all around me and disappearing off the ledge 50 meters below. The snow I was jumping into was amazing. Only in Alaska could these conditions persist on an almost vertical slope. Kip yelled down to me, “Weren’t you just in your sneakers a half hour ago?” Funny, I thought, yet I was still very focused on what was at hand. I had a hard time laughing. This is one of the very few situations in life where everything you know plays in. It has to. It would not only be bad for me if I screwed up but for all those who would have to come rescue me. My confidence did increase a bit with every turn and my instincts seemed to have more control of the situation than my conscious mind. When I made it to the spine where I could move away from the ledge to another less dangerous exposure, I felt a sense of accomplishment. But I knew I wasn’t done yet. From there, down to a safe spot below, was perfect snow. Yet my senses kept saying this is not possible. In Colorado, if I was on something like this, the snow would never maintain this stability and I would have been carried off the mountain sometime before. It takes a bit to get used to. After 19 years here, I have seen a lot happen. Events are engraved in my mind, sometimes as scars, and the bliss has disappeared a bit. It sometimes makes these situations more difficult. It’s even more difficult being responsible for the others I bring into these places as a guide. But as I worked my way to a safe spot, I radioed up to the group and let them know I was good and ready for the next skier. I felt so alive and blown away by where I was standing. The smile on the face of the next skier made it that much more worthwhile.We did two more wild landings that day and then flew into the sunset back to base camp, where my campers would be arriving from the lower 48 states. I was energized and ready to greet them.
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