Vail skier goes beyond the boundaries
VAIL, Colorado -Landing at the Merle K. “Mudhole” Smith Airport in Cordova, Alaska is the first step in being integrated into the natural flow of things in this part of the world. A short drive from the airport to the “Northern Exposure”-esqe town is accompanied by a stop at the beverage mart for supplies before heading three miles out of town to the Points North Base Camp. The drive and stop quickly reinforce the fact you are not in Kansas any more. Cell service is spotty, massive glaciers meet fjords, the mountains drop into the Copper River Delta and a banner at the local beverage shop indicates the Ice Worm Festival is just around the corner. Around town, large dogs walk free and kids play outside in short-sleeve shirts, impermeable to the cold while bald eagles circle above.Rolling into the Points North base camp means driving three miles past Cordova on a road that the locals use to walk their large dogs while driving their cars. It has been nicknamed the Cordova dog walk. Base camp is at the end of this road and on two occasions I have seen killer whales swimming up the Orca inlet alongside the road as I have walked from Cordova to Base Camp.Coming into base camp always reminds me of my childhood when my parents dropped me off at summer camp. But in this case, helicopters sit a few yards from the front door instead of an archery range. The camp counselors are most likely repacking their parachutes instead of singing spirit songs and walking around with harnesses on instead of colorful camp T-shirts. The front deck of the dining hall is littered with a very large collection of phat skis. Over the years I have watched these skis get wider and wider.The dining hall, known as NEFCO, is where everything takes place at base camp – meetings, socializing, ping pong, foosball, gearing up for a ski day or breaking down from one. And it all takes place under photos of the incredible scenery of the surrounding mountains, with skiers or boarders gracing them. The amazing images are the rewards of having some of the biggest action-sports photographers come pay homage to this place. They are accompanied by well known names in both the skiing and riding worlds. At one time or another they have walked through the front doors of the NEFCO.Some nights the NEFCO turns into a drinking hall and other days the local Girl Scouts come sell cookies to the campers. On one occasion, pro-skier Micha Black decided to give his version of arts and crafts class in the middle of the night in hopes of driving the clouds away through art and self-evaluation. He called it “Easel and Ice.” The “Ice” referenced the 2,000-year-old glacial ice he carried out of the zone one day to mix with what he bought at the beverage mart. The craft he was imposing on campers? Finger-painting. He had everyone doing it, explaining that it was an exercise in self-expression. His theory was that perhaps someone needed to be cleansed of something in order for the skies to clear. By morning the walls of the NEFCO were covered with the campers’ work, thus creating the look of an elementary school from a Tim Burton movie. The effects were not immediate but eventually the skies cleared and the Northern Lights came out. By the next day we were once again skiing steep Alaskan peaks. Story continues below video
Base camp is a bonding experience for all who visit. The energy here brings out the inner child in all of those who play, but this time with a legal ID. Combine this with getting in a helicopter and flying to the top of a mountain with a landing area smaller than a king-size mattress and you really seal that bond. The guides are the counselors to this operation founded by husband and wife team of Kevin and Jessica Quinn. Besides leading their heli groups they also inspire activities on weather days and help in the kitchen. Being a guide at Points North means knowing how to run the Hobart (the dishwasher), effectively keeping people’s spirits up and most importantly, keeping them safe. Good thing I worked in a kitchen in college. I came to guide my groups with a master’s degree in Hobarting.When the clients (a.k.a. campers) arrive, they all have the same looks on their faces. It reminds me of a nervous kid showing up at an amusement park for the first time – excited but scared. They are predominately male and come in a few variations. By now I’m pretty sure I have experienced all of them and can usually size them up in the first few minutes. Female campers are rare but never cease to amaze me. It’s a blessing to have them around.Arrival day is always interesting. The energy of the incoming campers is off the hook. We try to welcome them while calming them down enough to get them checked in, geared up and safety-briefed. This can move at two rates – laid-back and slow or fast and efficient. The weather decides the fate of this procedure.Ideally, it would be wonderful if change-over-day took place on overcast days when the helicopters are not flying. This would leave the sunny days for flying and riding. We are still working on this arrangement with Mother Nature.
This week’s group happened to arrive during a period when the exact opposite was taking place. A high-pressure system was sitting over the zone and operations were in full swing. In fact, campers from the previous week were still in the zone flying only a couple of hours before they needed to be back at the Mudhole airport for their flights home. My groups this year consist of friends that have either been to this camp before or have participated in one or two of my other programs. On new camper was talked into coming on this trip by his friend. They are all very accomplished skiers that can descend anything thrown at them inbounds at any resort. They have the qualifications to take on the next level. For them, this next level is helicopter skiing in Alaska, an item that should be on your checklist as a skier or rider. Just as surfers need to ride Hawaii’s North Shore at one point in their lives, skiers and riders need to descend upon Alaska at least once in their life. This is the Mecca of big mountain riding. Nowhere else on the planet does snow fall upon this type of terrain with helicopters near it. Of course, like all great things, this does not come without a challenge. In the case of Alaska, it is the weather. To have some of the best skiing on the planet, one has to exercise patience. I do believe we receive what we deserve in life. And those that come to Alaska with entitlements leave disappointed. Those that arrive with an open mind will be given what they have earned. One thing is for sure, this place, in all of its power, has taught me to listen and be humble. If you don’t, payback hurts.That being said, my group of campers this week must have done something right as the day after they arrived we were flying into one of my favorite areas in the zone, the “Ate the Worm Valley.” I love this place perhaps because I know it better than most of the other zones. Coming over the ridge into this area after a 15-minute flight from base camp makes me feel right at home. To express the size of the area is difficult. It’s just plain huge. One of my favorite runs is around 2,500 vertical feet, averaging 45 degrees. Sitting on top of it and looking down at the bottom would be like standing at PHQ in Vail and tilting the mountain on its side till you could see the town of Vail directly below you. Now picture skiing this in one shot. The area also has some hazards which have taught me some valuable lessons – sometimes by being part of them and others as a witness. The “Ate the Worm Valley” has matured me. It is my place of tranquility and challenge and I feel honored and lucky to be taking this group there on our very first day.
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