Vail’s Chris Anthony: Back to Alaska
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the first of three parts.
VAIL – March 26, 9 a.m.: I’m running through Vail Village, and it’s already 40 degrees outside. Skiers are headed up the mountain in T-shirts. I can’t help but think how this has just been the strangest winter ever. Here it is March and I’ve only had one powder day. Did I really just see a guy walking through the village with his golf clubs? What the hell?
I dash down the steps of Vista Bahn Ski Rentals, where Sacha Gros has mounted up a new pair of Salomon’s powder skis for next season, the Rocker 122s with the Guardian AT binding on it. I’m stoked. They look huge as compared to anything I have skied on the hard pack this year.
It’s 11 a.m. and the temperature has jumped to 51 degrees outside. People are skiing in shorts. Did I see a pack of bikers go by on the frontage road? Nuts … this is going on while I’m running around packing for the dead of winter.
2 p.m., and I’m running late. I sprint into the Steadman Clinic at the Vail Valley Medical Center to meet up with Dr. Millett. He is waiting with a P.A. We walk quickly into one of the rooms, talk a bit, then they proceed to shoot up both knees with a numbing medication, drain them and finally inject them with a lubricant called Synvisc. It’s been a few months since both my knees were operated on. Turning these big skis on Alaskan steeps with a heavy guide pack, I need all the help I can get. Synvisc helps.
4 p.m.: I break out in a fever that has been plaguing me for two days. I eat and continue to pack into the night with cold sweats.
March 27, 11 a.m., Eagle Vail Airport. I barely make the baggage check deadline. Not only that, I learn that United has once again changed the rules on their customer loyalty program by penalizing their loyal customers with a new luggage charge. Ugh … thanks, United. We take off to Denver.
2 p.m., Denver: I learn my flight that was meant for 4 p.m. has been pushed to 6:30 because of weather in San Fran. 6:30 gets pushed to 7:30. By 10:30 p.m. West Coast time, I land in San Fran. My fever has kicked into high gear and my next flight is delayed till 12 a.m. United will not let me push to a later flight so I can get a hotel room and rest. They suggest I can buy a new ticket or I can just get on the delayed flight and basically deal with it. I land in Seattle at 2 a.m., burning up with cold sweats. I run into an old friend who is now a flight attendant with another airline. She helps to book me a hotel room. Thankfully, Alaska Airlines treats me like a human and is nice enough to allow me to delay my next flight by a day.
I pass out with a fever for a day in Seattle. The day after, I get on a flight known as the milk run up the west coast of Alaska. It leaves Seattle and stops in Juneau, Yakutat and eventually the Mudhole Smith Airport in Cordova, Alaska, where I arrive sick as a dog.
Since it is blue skies over Cordova, it means the operation are in full swing at Points North base camp, – which also means all hands on deck and none to pick me up at the airport. This is a good thing. Not necessarily for me at the moment but for the guests in house at base. It means they are skiing. After 20 minutes of waiting at the Mudhole Smith Airport, the only person left is one nice Alaska Airline employee who is concerned that I had been forgotten about. Everything else has closed down including the one shuttle service into the town of Cordova. Thankfully, there is cell service at the airport and I am able to cash in another favor. The same flight attendant that had helped me in Seattle is able to call upon a friend in Cordova to come out and pick me up at the airport and take me to her aunt’s hotel.
Three days after I left Vail, I roll into Points North Heli Base Camp. The weather is a cross between rain and snow. All three helicopters are anchored down and base has the most snow I have ever seen.
Still dealing with a bit of a fever, I’m in a slight coma as I feel like I have been through a small battle for the last few days. But I stumble into camp happy to finally make it to my temporary home for the next 12 days.
Thinking back over the years, I can remember every one of my arrivals to base camp as clear as day. Each one has its own story, but one of my favorites and most exciting took place on a much warmer day. The skies were clear, all three helicopters were gone and there was no snow on the ground at base camp. Jessica Quinn, who owns the operation with her husband, opened up a window from the office and yelled to me that a heli was coming for me in 10 minutes. I was standing there in sneakers, short sleeve shirt and jeans, my gear still packed away in the van. Needless to say, I jumped into high gear.
Twenty-five minutes later, I was in a helicopter flying into the zone still getting dressed and hoping I did not forget any of the essentials. Adrenaline was pumping through my arteries as we flew towards a fairly exposed landing. We hovered for a moment so I could get a view of what Kip Garre was lining up with his group to ski: A narrow chute with a large icefall as the exit. But before the icefall is a spine looker’s right and skier’s left that separates the entry chute from a sister chute with a clean exit. Just above Kip and to looker’s right, the helicopter was able to toe into the side of the mountain (toe-in is where the pilot puts the helicopter’s nose into the side of a mountain and the tail is still hovering. The pilot keeps the engine engaged, while holding it steady enough for the passenger to step out onto the the slope. )
I stepped out of the helicopter onto the steep slope, closed the door and carefully unloaded my gear from the basket while trying not to make any sudden movements or drop anything, as it would go a thousand feet before it stops. I closed the basket and hunkered into the side of the hill so I could make eye contact with the pilot. Once established, I gave him a thumbs-up and he lifted up and dove away.
Kip was excited to see me, and me him. I personally can’t believe I was in my sneakers a half hour ago on flat, dry ground. Kip greeted me and I asked what the plan was. He pointed to the chute beneath him and said as far as he knows this has not been skied yet. So he was glad I was there to back him up. But then we realized in the 10 minutes of getting ready for the helicopter, I did not pack my rope. So … I had to go first and he would stay high on slope with the rope. We would put the clients between us. Great!
So I geared up, buckled my boots, tightened my straps and got ready to make my first turn of the season in the Chugach. Below me was a narrow chute loaded with what appeared to be classic Alaska pow. Fifty yards below the entrance, the world disappeared off an ice fall. Before that and to the left was a fluted spine of snow that separated this chute from another one. The second chute fell away to the right and undeneath the icefall. The plan was that I cut the top, create the path over the 45-degree fluted spine, cut the next chute and tuck in underneath the icefall and radio up to send the clients. This way, Kip could watch them on the top and I could be safety in the middle. From that point down, it was blower powder onto a wide-open apron.
So I dropped in and landed perpendicular to the slope near the top of the chute. Kind of acting like a human bomb and hoping that the snowpack was stable enough to hold. The width of the chute was just a little greater than my length of my skis. My second turn only resulted in a large portion of surface snow sloughing away and off the icefall. With each turn I gained a bit more confidence eventually reaching the fluted spine where I had to cut a very unusual path into the second, wider chute and ski. From there I was almost home free. I tucked in under the icefall and snow was still cascading off the icefall and over my from what I knocked loose above. I tucked myself in to a safe position while still at a major angle and reached in for my radio. I could actually feel my heart beating through my jacket.
Welcome to the Chugach.
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.