Displays the photo gallery for a selected Gallery Album.We were five Alaska virgins in the Chugach Mountains. Well Bobby had actually been to Anchorage once to ride rails, but it had rained the whole time. So that doesn’t really count. He sure hadn’t been to Valdez, and hadn’t been heli-boarding before. So it’s safe to say that arriving in Valdez to fly with H2O Guides brought a range of emotions to our assembled cast of characters: myself and Director of Marketing Matt Wibby from frequency TSJ, Hunter Waldron of K2 Snowboarding, Bobby Meeks from Nike Snowboarding (look him up on Instagram @bobbyloveslions), and Grant McCauley of GoPro. Desk dudes on a mission. Office legs in AK.
The emotions ranged from excitement (a lot) to fear (a little) and nervousness (for some more than others). See Grant was not only an Alaska virgin, but, hailing from the Bay Area, he hadn’t really ridden much powder. Ever. He probably took the prize for the most nerves. Heck, I was nervous for him. But he also brought a lot of excitement and a positive attitude. This was, after all, the holy grail of snowboard trips. Freqin heli days in AK—most of us had been waiting 20-plus years for this moment. Collectively, a century, give or take a decade.
First, some background on our location: Valdez was the early epicenter of the AK heli scene. Tsaina Lodge, Thompson Pass, the Valley of the Tusk and beyond were home to early extreme contests and exploratory missions in riding steeps. It was where the likes of Tom Burt, Matt Goodwill, Craig Kelly, Victoria Jealouse, Shawn Farmer, Nick Perata, Johan Olofsson and so many others redefined the notion of big mountain snowboarding.
Dean Cummings, for his part, pioneered a slew of iconic lines in the area and founded H2O Guides in 1995. Today, they are the longest running AK heli op with a single owner. Dean is still the lead guide, and they have 2.6 million acres of tenure with exclusive access to the regions east of the Valley of the Tusk. With H2O, it works like this: stay at the Best Western on Valdez harbor. Ride three out of five days in small groups (up to five guests) in Astar helicopters. Get six runs per day, with an average of around 20,000 vertical feet per day. Ride lines as big and steep as the group’s abilities and snow conditions allow.
Before departing to AK I’d heard the usual stories about being stuck in a hotel drinking it blue. This was not the case. Maybe we were lucky with the weather, maybe it was the mid-April arrival, maybe it was the fact that H2O typically flies 68 percent of the time, but we were flying on day one. Sure, a weather hold kept us grounded until 2pm, but the sun stays out until 9:30 pm in the Alaskan spring. That first drop was a thing of beauty: straight from Prince William Sound to 5,000 feet in the Chugach. Stable, knee-deep alpine powder. Our guide, Jason Champion, was on a snowboard, and he understood our group’s needs.
By 6pm we were poking into a few chutes, playing with afternoon shadows as we worked an alpine bowl from left to right, getting comfortable with the sheer size of the Chugach. And as for our powder virgin Grant, well, he handled it admirably. There may have been a few tentative moments when the slope hit 45-degrees, but with each run he gained confidence, linking turns in AK. I began to wonder if he knew how lucky he was. And if this trip would forever ruin his perspective on snowboarding, sending him into the doctor/lawyer schism of one-week-per-year heli trips accounting for the majority of his days on snow. Wouldn’t blame him if it did.
We rode again on day two, this time driving to Thompson Pass under bluebird skies and flying into the spectacular Valley of the Tusk. Slanted rock outcroppings dotted a succession of ridgelines, strangely familiar lines everywhere due to twenty years of media exposure. It was here that we got the true experience of our pilot, known as ‘Viper,’ (Top Gun anyone?) setting the heli onto a five-foot-wide patch of snow atop a jagged ridge, sending us scurrying out to huddle together before he dropped off the backside, down a few hundred feet of rock wall and leaving us silent in the spectacle of the Chugach.
One wonders if you could get used to this. To the sheer size, the blur of anticipation, of 3,000-foot-plus descents in three minutes. Casual alpine lunches followed by flurries of excitement. Simply flying around these mountains may amount to one’s experience of a lifetime—to ride down them, to navigate glaciated terrain and steep, deep powder in mid-April… well that’s the dream, isn’t it?
After a much needed down day, our third and final day of riding came with a welcome foot of new snow up high. Looking back, our group had reached a comfort level, of sorts. The nervous approach of that first run or two had given way to a flurry of pow butters, slashes, and of course, attentive caution and precise positioning when the mountains deemed it necessary (and when Jason called for it). Grant had progressed from powder virgin to AK aficionado, charging down the steeps with nary a falling leaf in sight. Office legs felt the freedom of alpine descents. Nervous anticipation was replaced with experiential bliss. All was well in the world.
As I write this, just two days have gone by since we flew out of Valdez above an Arctic sunset. Spring time is upon the Pacific Northwest. AK seems a world away. But it has given new perspective to this snowboarder of twenty-plus years, as I’m sure it has for Grant, Bobby, Hunter and Matt, in their own ways. And as for the Valley of the Tusk… well let’s just say that my hit list grew a little and my springtime ambitions may forever be focused due north.
A huge thanks goes out to Dean Cummings and H2O Guides, Jason Champion, Doug Krause and Viper for putting us into the goods, Josh, Crystal, Joey and the office staff and Danny the intern for keeping us informed and fed so we could focus on the riding. We hope to see you next year. Even though we’re AK virgins no more, it seems there are a lifetime of lines waiting in the Chugach.