Vail’s Chris Anthony: Flying to the zone
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the second of three parts. Check out Sunday’s Vail Daily for the conclusion of Chris Anthony’s story.
I have been guiding at Points North for over 11 years and been skiing in the Chugach Range for over 22. Every year, I question my motivation and every year I leave knowing I’m coming back. I have to remind myself when I arrive to just slow down, get organized and be very patient but ready for anything. It’s a tough mindset after a season of running all over the place. Base camp can be tranquil and quiet with little or no cell service and slow internet. Yogis would love it. On the other hand, it can have the same adrenaline of that of the deck of an aircraft carrier, which I have experienced as well.
Just prior to leaving Vail a few days earlier, I received some bad news. One of my clients informed me they had hurt themselves and would not be able to make it to Alaska. All of a sudden, I had an open seat in my helicopter. I posted this bit of information on Facebook.
A young Vail women named Michelle tracked me down at the American Ski Classic and in a five-minute conversation decided to roll the dice and take advantage of an opportunity that only comes around once in a while. Within 48 hours, she cut a deal with my hurt client and then bought a plane ticket to Cordova – a decision that takes most people a few years to commit to.
Meanwhile, back at base camp, I was spending a day still trying to recover while going to guide meetings and getting up to speed.
A few days later, Michelle is in base camp and running around with my three other clients being drilled on everything from getting in and out of the helicopter to working with her avalanche beacons, assembling her probe and negotiating the controls of her Motorola radio to doubling back on her harness, all of which can make the day easier or even save a life.
We are moving through the steps with fluidity as the blue skies above us mean that today will be a fly day. Everyone in base camp is high on octane and moving in multiple directions with one goal – to get our guests out into the mountains as soon as we can.
Radio: “First groups load and fire. Northstar 1 on Pad 2. You’re first out! Northstar 3 , Pad 1. Northstar 5, Pad 3. Let’s go!”
Michelle and the rest of my group are in the lunchroom, which has now become the ready room. They are putting on their harnesses, checking batteries on their beacons and radios, strategically figuring out what to take in their packs as far as food and extra gear. Shortly after the radio rings out “Chris Anthony’s group on deck. Northstar 1 is coming for you hot fuel,” meaning this inbound heli is going to land, take on fuel and then take us into the zone.
Flying into the zone is unreal. It’s really hard to wrap your head around the size of 1,000 square miles. But let’s put it this way: The Gore Range would be equivalent to a fraction of the zone. And unlike anywhere else in the world, the helicopters do their best to take advantage of every angle.
I sit in the front seat with the pilot to my right. With our headsets on, we talk a lot. We also reach out to other guides in the field. My eyes are constantly on the terrain and listening for data. The decision where to land the group has to be done as efficiently as possible.
Michelle has been sitting in the front seat between the pilot and me for the last couple of days, so she gets out before anyone else besides me, a benefit of being the smallest in a group.
We land in the zone called “Toon Town.” The LZ is no larger than two king-size beds and falls away on three out of the four sides. The fourth side is a north-facing steep ramp.
After a nod from the pilot, we unbuckle, I open the door, step out, and then Michelle steps out of the helicopter and kneels down where I have pointed for her to do so. Behind her by a couple feet, the world drops away for a few hundred feet.
I close the front door and open the back door of the A-Star and the remainder of my group, Leyli, Max and Adam and a tail guide, Duncan, carefully step out of the helicopter and kneel down next to Michelle. Meanwhile, as I keep one eye on them not to make any mistakes, I unload the basket and put the gear in front of them to hold down. Normally, we only have one guide per ship. But this week we had two. It’s a wonderful luxury for me to have another set of eyes working. I’m intense with my group on this LZ. No mistakes. As each one gets out of the heli, I make sure they are kneeled into a tight huddle right next to the basket that I’m unloading.
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.