Vail skier’s big mountain playground
Mother Nature pulled the curtain closed for a couple of days to refresh the zone with a new coat of snow. It’s like an Etch A Sketch being shaken up to clear the previous lines from the last kid that played with it. It’s the power with which she shakes it each time that has created the spectacular landscape in this part of the world. It is man’s creative energy that thought of landing helicopters upon these peaks and carving lines upon Mother Nature’s creation with a pair of skis. I’m not sure if the initial intention of a helicopter was to drop skiers on narrow, snow-covered peaks. But I’m glad someone figured out the relationship between the two. As one of the members of my heli group said this past week, as the heli dropped us on the summit of a huge peak, “This just never gets old”.Being shut down and shut in at heli base is part of the deal of coming to heli camp. On this occasion it didn’t really bother me because I had two amazing days out in the zone and I could use the rest while Mother Nature refreshed the region. But I do have to confess, if Mother Nature keeps it closed to long, it can get a little frustrating for everyone, especially the guides. Not only do we worry about our campers going nuts but we also wonder how much conditions are changing out in the zone. What will the snow pack be like when we get back out there? Will it be stable? Will it be deep? Did it blow too much? So many unknowns, and the best we can do is give it an educated guess, then tiptoe lightly when the opportunity presents us to go again. In the meantime we just hang tight and kill time. The irony to this is that we forget where we are. I know for a fact that there are yoga retreats around the world that would give anything to be in such a tranquil, removed environment in which to practice the art of being quiet and relaxed. But we have a camp driven by thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies. Asking someone with this type of personality to sit around to long in a tranquil environment is asking a lot. But as any Zen master will tell you, patience is a virtue. It’s hard to travel like half away around the world and sit. Those that have the most experience understand and drop into a calm, while others just can’t grasp it. They have just watched to many films. What they don’t get is that it takes amazing patience for those moments to come together and be captured. One day we decided to fire up a helicopter and, instead of heading up into the Chugach, we headed west to the coast and landed one of the Pacific’s northernmost beaches. Once again, I was amazed by what we are allowed to do as humans and more so by where our pilots are able to place the helicopters – in this case, on one of the most beautiful rocky beaches I have ever seen. The views were amazing.
When the curtain finally rises to reveal the stage, life at base camp awakens once again. The guide meetings go from a mellow update to game-day buzz. Breakfast tastes different, the helicopters are unwrapped, pilots are doing final checks while, inside, guides are checking campers, beacons, radios, batteries, harnesses, etc. Then the engines fire up and rotors start to turn. The once silent base camp is booming again with adrenaline.The radio traffic moves from silent to very busy. A rhythmical pattern of activity develops as instructions for guides, fuelers and pilots is transferred back and forth across the airwaves to keep things moving efficiently as groups are into flown into the zone from base camp. In the distance, the Chugach illuminates under the dark blue Alaska sky.On this particular day – March 26 – a very special feeling is in the air. It is a year from when I lost one of my good friends and peers, Shane McConkey. From all reports I received on Facebook that morning, it sounded like snow had fallen in a large part of the world and all the key places were waking up to blue skies and powder. Just as Shane ordered and would want it for all of us. Shane spent a tremendous amount of time in the Chugach over his career. As we lifted off the heli-pad I kept this in the back of my mind. The day would be dedicated to him. We landed a in a zone called “Full Support Valley” and skied a line called “Sweeter than Wine” with perfect conditions. It was so good we skied the wide-open, 35-plus degree pitch for 2,000 vertical twice. At the bottom of the second run, when I was staking gear for the heli pick up, I noticed Shane staring at me. There he was on the tales of the limited edition Shane K2 ski my camper Stewart Koch had brought out with him. I was blown away by this and took a picture. This was going to be a fantastic day.After “Full Support” we flew over an “OZ” by the “Wizard Rings” and landed on “Better Than Sex” for another unreal descent. The confidence in the snowpack was increasing and my group was really paying attention, all of which helps to be even more creative with line selections. When it starts flowing like this, the Chugach really becomes a big mountain playground. The helicopters start to land on everything and skiers and snowboarders are descending everything with confidence. With each landing, the smile on my face grows wider and with each run the lives of the campers change. More often than not I hear “this is the best day of my life”.
The ultimate is experience is skiing a classic Chugach big mountain descent. It’s when these amazing pilots put the helicopter down on top of a pinnacle no wider than a very small bedroom. All sides of this pinnacle drop away a few thousand feet except one side, where a 50-plus degree slope with a north-facing ramp or spines to the glacier 2,500 feet below.As the guide, I step out of the heli into soft snow up to my mid thigh and with confidence tell my team to step out slowly and stay near the gear that I’m pulling from the basket attached to the skid of the helicopter.One by one, each camper steps out and crouches down, rotors spinning above and waits until I have unloaded all the gear, done a last minute check and give the pilot a thumbs up to leave us. He lifts straight up and disappears from sight, leaving us on top of the world in dead silence with nothing but a breathtaking 2,500-plus vertical of untracked slope below us. Wow!Then comes the descent. There is nothing like the sensation of skiing a steep Alaskan pitch with a bomber snowpack and light snow conditions. Every turn is like arcing a bottom turn on a big wave, while every transition is like floating through clouds. This is the pinnacle of a skiing experience. And on this day of March 26, I had one of those days and run with my campers Walter, Stewart, Kent and yes, Shane. Since then I have had several more days with Chris Stewart, Tom Hicks and want to thank Kevin, Jess, Kip and the rest of the PNH crew including the pilots and kitchen staff for the years we have done this together. See you next season with more campers. Join me.