Vail skier: Floating from turn to turn
Lifting off from base camp in a helicopter – or as Kevin Quinn calls it, “the magic carpet” – is a truly awesome experience. The realization that you can be in your room, rolling out of bed one second, then in a helicopter minutes later headed into some of the most prime skiing terrain on the planet brings a new definition to ski in, ski out.During storms like the one taking place outside as I type this, magic happens. It’s as if the curtain is dropped for a period of time while Mother Nature puts her artistic brush to work. Sometimes she is very moody and will spend a few days creating something new. Other times, it’s a quick touch up. But when she decides to lift the curtain the theater springs to life with us sitting in the front row ready to be performers rather than audience members. The flight into Mother Nature’s theater is a magical journey. From the heli-pad at base, it’s a hard turn to the east where we fly over the Orca Inlet up the Rude River and into the Chugach Range. The guides refer to this as “The Zone.” On fly days when “The Zone is firing,” the guide meetings remind me of the days I was with the Warren Miller film crew in the Naval pilots “ready room” being briefed on flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S Nimitz. The best way to describe it? High adrenaline.During these morning meetings, picking out where we are skiing is tactical assault and is handled as such. On this particular day, Kevin, with a collaboration of opinions, chose “Ate the Worm Glacier” as the region of choice. This made me smile as I know it better than any of the other regions and find it the most enjoyable. My time in this zone yields many experiences – both positive and negative. It was here that I fell into my first crevasse a couple years ago. On another occasion we were whited-out by a quickly moving cloud bank. Another time I made the decision not to ski a run because the hair on the back of my neck stood up before I dropped in to do my ski cut. Although it sounded disappointing at the time, it turned out to be the right decision. It was in the “Worm” that I dug out a friend and fellow guide. Now we are bonded together for life. I carried a famous wing-suit pilot on my back for a mile because he landed short of his designated target while being filmed. I watched one skier tumble a thousand feet and another walk down one of the bigger slopes because he was too gripped and lost his motor skills. Each one of those experiences I could write a chapter about but I won’t. Not today anyway. But they have taught me.
The “Worm” also represents some of the most incredible ski descents of my life – those perfect turns only represented in the perfect skiing dream. And on this day as we flew over the ridge dropping us into the “Worm Glacier,” I, along with my group, lit up. In the helicopter I had photographer Sarah Jones, along with guests Kent Hootman, Walter Beinecke, Stewart Koch and Greg Lovell. After a warm-up run on “Lower Guilt Trip,” I bounced the group up to “Ate the Worm” proper for a classic Alaskan descent. This classic Chugach line runs for over 2,000 vertical with an average pitch of over 45 degrees. Some long running aspects are 55 plus. It’s a massive slope I love to guide because I can do a ski cut and then find a somewhat safe zone to watch my clients the full length of the slope. It has two obvious pitches to it that slope into a steep gully where the entire slough runs from the first ski cut all the way to the glacier. Near the last third of the run is a crack in the slope. It is easy enough to jump over but is still intimidating. You certainly would not want to fall above it or be sloughed into it. So, like everything in these mountains, each turn really counts. What is always hard for people to understand their first time in the Chugach is how big and powerful the place is. Because everything is to scale, the first-timer’s mind does not comprehend it. They still think they are at a ski area looking down an expert run. The steepest pitch at most ski areas lasts a few hundred yards at about 35 degrees with a few short shots of over 50 degrees. Here in Alaska we are talking about a couple thousand vertical feet with pitches over 40. There are two things that really solidify this for new campers. One of them is when you see the first of your group ski out the bottom of a run. They appear as a speck on a white blanket because they are so far away. The other is when you fall. At a ski area when you fall on a steep slope you start to slow down. In Alaska you speed up. So if you have not controlled your fall in the first second or so, you may be sliding for sometime. This is a lesson you would rather be told than have to learn. Ironically, this is also the reward for skiing such terrain. The sensation of floating from turn to turn, aided by nothing but gravity and landing in powder after each direction change is like nothing else.
Standing on “Ate the Worm” as a guide is both awesome and nerve racking. This massive slope sits below you loaded with beautiful snow. And as much as you would like to jump in and go for it, you cannot. Making a cut along the top, just below summit is the first step. This way, if anything should go, you are probably above it. The second cut is after a strong kick turn on a steep pitch and is the most important, but puts the guide at a very vulnerable point. This is followed by a full cut across the slope from one side to the next and onto a spine for safety. During the cut the guide is perpendicular to the slope and not moving very fast so a quick escape it a bit tough. If it works out, the second cut will break the tension of the top layer loose and it will run, pulling most everything with it and naturally cleaning the slope of pockets below. This surface slough will run the entire length of the slope and over the crack, thus eliminating some hazards for the guest. Once the first camper drops in, 100 percent of what happens is out of the guide’s hands. And like a parent trying to let go of their child to be on their own, we just hope that we gave them the right knowledge in order for them to make the right decisions. Whether they choose to make the right ones or not are up to them, but will affect the entire group.The amazing thing is, as a team, every run comes together as this big experience, and all that you have acquired in your skiing education comes together for this moment. When you come out at the bottom you are 100 percent alive and realize this sensation is what life is all about. It’s about this feeling.