Austin Smith

Photo and Video Feature


DON’T PANIC: Just Get to Haines

First published in Issue 20.3 of The Snowboarder’s Journal

We don’t know where we’re going stay, but we know we’re going to get there.

“Get up here Friday,” says Sean “SeanDog” Brownell, according to Blair Habenicht. Sean’s got a pilot. They’ve been having a hard time finding pilots. A massive boom in the heliski industry in the 49th state is underway off the tail end of COVID shutdowns. Everyone’s been waiting for the past few years, and it seems like plenty of folks have budget to burn. I’ve been pushing buttons, making calls for a few months to feed that Alaska addiction. 

The end of a full day with Alaska Heliskiing. Liam Gallagher takes a moment to snap one for the memory banks. Photo: Colin Wiseman

“SeanDog” Brownell, his wife, Rhianna, and their daughter, Juniper Snow, pose outside the makeshift guide hut at 35 Mile Lodge, their year-round home near Haines, AK. Photo: Spencer O’Brien

And now, a window. Maybe two days, maybe three, maybe one. All we need is one. Alex Pashley’s going up to shoot photos with Blake Paul, Curtis Ciszek and Austin Smith. We can run a second crew out of the same ship with Blair, Mary Rand and Spencer O’Brien. Connor Winton and Liam Gallagher are onboard to film. Logistics: tickets to Juneau, tickets to Haines. Where are we going to stay? How much money do we really need? Do we have a car? It’s hard to keep up with the text threads but it seems like it’ll work. 

Don’t panic. Just go. Because it’s Alaska. And it’s snowing. And the sun’s supposed to come out. Might be some wind. 

Would you scrounge $5,000, $10,000, and roll the dice? I would, and I do. Credit cards are good for that. Figure it out on the fly. Because once you’ve experienced it, the promise of even one good day in AK is worth the effort if you can fabricate the means to make it happen. It’s one of the few thoughts that clouds my better judgment thoroughly after 15-plus years chasing time well spent working in the mountains. Check out, tap in, hope for the best. When it comes to Alaska it’s never a question of if, but always a matter of how. 

Blair Habenicht

Blair Habenicht knows AK. He’s been to Haines to fly with Alaska Heliskiing many, many times over the past decade-plus. Here, he navigates a blind roll into complex terrain. Photo: Colin Wiseman

So, on a drizzly early April day—April 8 to be exact—we find ourselves in a dual-prop 12-seater aircraft buzzing up the Lynn Canal. Approaching Haines, the Chilkat River cuts through ribbons of spines built by an influx of moisture off the North Pacific meeting cool Arctic air. Brief glimpses through the clouds are enough to keep me focused on the terrain more than the airborne speedbumps of an outgoing weather system. 

Upon landing, we stuff board bags and camera gear atop assorted power tools and discarded Red Bull cans in a weathered blue Chrysler Town & Country that waits at the airport parking lot, keys cleverly stashed in a location I shall not disclose. It’s got studded snow tires and doors that don’t close properly. Blair takes the wheel and points us upriver to 35 Mile Lodge Heliport and the Alaska Heliskiing camp. 

Haines has its own character that stands apart from more easily accessed heli-famous locales like Valdez and Girdwood. It’s a little rougher around the edges, but homier, at least for me. They’re all their own thing—none better nor worse, more a matter of taste. In Haines, SeanDog’s spot fits right in.

Two bright red A-Star helicopters sit in front of a converted school bus with a stovepipe sticking out its roof. A hand-built, three-story A-frame, still under construction, fronts a mellow hillside. To its right sits a snowboard-plastered shed that functions as the guide’s hut, and, to the left, there’s a mellow groomer cut through the trees with a few little jibs built out of fishing flotsam. Powdah Mountain, they call it. Sean bought this property about 18 years ago “after a very good fishing season,” he says. It wasn’t until the past few years that they started building their on-hill accoms, which are rustic but functional. The 4,500-square-foot A-frame is built (and is still being finished) from wood cut and milled on the property. There’s a kitchen and communal gathering space below and a few bunk rooms up top, supplemented by heated tents, which sit both on the decks and up the hill next to the garden. 

It’s easy for those of us in a lower tax bracket to fall into the fold.


An incoming storm peels powder off the Haines alpine—the beginning of the end of 2022’s heliski season. Photo: Colin Wiseman

35 Mile Lodge as seen from above. A modest-yet-functional abode equipped for good times. Photo: Colin Wiseman

One of the 35 Mile dogs bred with a mystery canine over the winter. The resulting litter was recently confirmed as part wolf. Mystery solved. Photo: Colin Wiseman

TK Kromer gets a haircut in the kitchen of the 35 Mile A-frame before his return to the lower 48. Kaylin Carvey with the sharp scissors, Kyle Scott supervising, sort of. Photo: Colin Wiseman

We’re greeted by familiar faces: Baker folk Zoë Vernon, Todd Kelly Kromer, Kyle Scott and Erik Gronvold have been camped out for weeks, waiting for weather windows and the occasional bump into the mountains. This is Zoë and TK’s second year at the extended-stay 35 Mile. Last year, after the heli season ended, Sean hired the pair for some postseason production work on an Alaskan reality show. Something to do with gold mining. It helped them pay their heli bills and encouraged a repeat visit.

Shawn Freyer, another Baker local, helps us pack our luggage onto a skid and tow it from the parking lot to the A-frame. He’s a carpenter by trade and has been putting in work on the property while he studies to be a guide. It’s a familial vibe that goes well beyond the highbrow pretense of a typical heliski operation. It’s easy for those of us in a lower tax bracket to fall into the fold. It helps that all-inclusive A-frame accoms are quite affordable—cheap enough that one can wait out the notorious Alaskan weather holds without going hungry, or too deep into debt. 

Yet we’re not here to linger. We’re here on the promise of incoming high pressure. And, as we settle into 35 Mile, the skies clear. There, across the Chilkat, we can see the mountains in full. There’s snow to the valley and a few gentle rollers, while steep, compact peaks litter the background, catching alpenglow. 

ABOVE “Made Sure we Made It,” the video exclusive made in conjunction with “Don’t Panic: Just Get to Haines.” Featuring Austin Smith, Blake Paul, Curtis Ciszek, Blair Habenicht, Mary Rand, Spencer O’Brien, TK Kromer & Sean “SeanDog” Brownell. Filmed by Liam Gallagher & Connor Winton. Edited by Liam Gallagher. Supported by Smartwool.

Haines is known for its steep and complex terrain—particularly spines. There are a few big ramps, and open bowls, and some playful pockets, but relatively short and technical pitches are the main draw. It’s home to classic media-friendly lines a short flight from the valley that have made it a film-crew staple for more than two decades. SeanDog played, and continues to play, a big role in that. 

Hailing from Sitka on the west coast of nearby Baranof Island, Sean first heliskied out of Juneau in 1985. Although he went to college for engineering, Sean dropped out to pursue a “ski-bum” lifestyle supported by commercial fishing during the off season, and cowboy-style heli bumps in the winter. In 1991, he and three friends went to Valdez for the World Extreme Skiing Championships. “We got there three weeks early and were the only people [at Thompson Pass],” Sean says. “No one had ever heliskied there yet, so we were the first ones, and that was pretty awesome because we got to name all the runs around the road.”

That led to Sean and Bruce Griggs starting a commercial heliski operation out of Valdez, from 1991-93. “There was no guide service there,” Sean says. “It was kind of a free for all and we would be on slope and people would get dropped off on the mountains above us and be skiing down on top of us. It totally freaked us out. We’re like, ‘OK, we’re out here,’ went back to Juneau, and we drug the Hatchett [brothers] with Standard Films down there and started heliskiing with them.”

It wasn’t until 1995 that Sean first heliskied in Haines, as a guide for RAP Films. “In ’93 or ’94, we were guiding, but we weren’t a legitimate guide service with insurance or anything,” Sean says. “Then in ’95, we went ahead and got the permits and made ourselves legit with insurance. At that point, we were the only [heliski] company in Alaska, the first one and the only company guiding.”

“To be long-term sustainable, you’ve got to be around people that you relate to and people that you love, right?”—SeanDog Brownell

What does an alpine eagle mean? We’re not totally sure, but this one was headed toward the Canadian border, presumably from the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near town. Maybe it knew a windstorm was coming and wanted to chill on the east side of the range. Photo: Colin Wiseman

Let me show you to your room. Shawn Freyer and Austin Smith moving luggage from the lot to the A-frame. Photo: Colin Wiseman

SeanDog Brownell himself, still smiling near the end of his 2022 heli season. Photo: Colin Wiseman

Blake Paul can do a switch backside 540 damn near anywhere. Photo: Alex Pashley

Initially they were based out of Juneau and known as Out of Bounds Adventures. By the late ’90s, they were based in Skagway and guiding for Standard as well as Absinthe Films. “We flew all the way from Skagway to Haines in an airplane with Noah Salasnek,” Sean says. “We stayed away from town, got out there in the mountains. We went straight to Tomahawk and we got out of the heli. It was about 42 degrees at 6,000 feet on Tomahawk, so we skied down the shoulder and it was the worst upside-down snow, completely unskiable…. We went to a zone that was about 8,000 feet high, and it was 32 degrees at 8,000 feet. We sat on that peak and we watched the entire place just come apart before our very eyes. A 20-foot crown over here—an avalanche, then another one, and another one. We soaked it in, flew back to Skagway with our sights set on the next year [2000], set up in Haines, and we’ve been here ever since.”

Despite the adverse conditions, the terrain was eye-opening. And these days, Sean’s longevity in the Alaska heli game is on display. He’s now the sole owner of Alaska Heliskiing and co-manages it with his wife Rhianna—Sean describes her as “an extraordinary ski bum from Canada that flies helicopters,” who guides as well. They live at 35 Mile Lodge year-round with their 9-year-old daughter, Juniper Snow. There are a few other ops in town now, but their clientele is generally seeking a more upscale experience than those who choose Alaska Heliskiing. SeanDog’s operation promotes a level of accessibility that is rare in such a high-dollar industry. It’s certainly by design. His business philosophy is still focused on enabling the most dedicated riders to stand atop Alaskan dream lines and making a very expensive pursuit a bit more affordable. 

“Maybe that’s a mistake sometimes because I end up carrying the burden of risk by catering to this crowd,” Sean says, “but it’s my favorite crowd and I’d rather have the kind of people around that I feel the most comfortable around, people like me that are a bit more core. I’m fully Alaskan and a total dirtbag myself. To be long-term sustainable, you’ve got to be around people that you relate to and people that you love, right?”

left to right 
Curtis Ciszek dodging shadows on a nice little face across the way from Canadian Buns. Photo: Colin Wiseman

Mary Rand opens up a run known as Hangover on the morning of day two. It’s pretty much the first thing you hit upon crossing the Chilkat River from 35 Mile. Photo: Colin Wiseman

All those years of catering to the core have led to some iconic moments, from the Absinthe heyday with Justin Hostynek dangling out of a heli to film unforgettable parts with the likes of Lucas Debari, Manuel Diaz, Jason Robinson, Gigi Rüf and so many more, to modern day exploits with big brands and core riders alike. One of the two helis during our visit is reserved for Warren Miller Films, who have been flying with local Ryland Bell and Jackson Hole’s Cam Fitzpatrick. And then there’s our crew, a mix of Haines veterans such as Blair Habenicht alongside Spencer O’Brien on her first Alaskan heli trip, and everyone else in between. 

As predicted, we step into the field our first morning and promptly panic our way back to base as clouds close in. Soon, the skies clear fully and we make the short trip back to a zone known as Canadian Buns—a long ridge with pillowed spines falling away to the glaciated valley floor. Our two groups work in unison, tapping through prominent lines in the zone, running hot until the dinner bell rings. 

The next morning we wake to wind—20 knots and manageable for the moment—so we make our way to a nearby bowl to get started. Winds begin to gust, a little heavier now. Landing becomes an issue. A drop on a high plateau. We back off a steep face as Blair, Mary and Spencer are blasted by wind. It’s cold up on that ridge. Plan B takes us down through some ice to the pickup. 

It’s over. This wind will last for three days and rip the range to shreds as it spins over 80 mph in the high country. After a night in town, most of our crew books tickets out. The helicopters head back to their home base in Skagway. Soon it’s just Blair and me left in the A-frame alongside staff. “We’re considering unpanicking,” Blair says, sitting at the dinner bench, bottle of whiskey in front of him. We could wait it out and fly with another outfit that’s based out of town. We have a small deposit there and it’s a use-it-or-lose-it scenario. But the mountains are cooked. Sean and his crew, meanwhile, are planning a surf trip to Yakutat. Their heli season is done. 

Our two groups work in unison, tapping through prominent lines in the zone, running hot until the dinner bell rings.

Ridgelines of the Dirty Needle. Yes, it’s been ridden, but not that much by Haines standards. Photo: Colin Wiseman

Three crews assembled and ready for the morning lift. Photo: Colin Wiseman

Don’t touch the pilot and don’t touch his seat. Maybe ask him about the local trout fishing—once you’re on the ground, though. Photo: Colin Wiseman

Blair Habenicht’s last turn of the day. Photo: Colin Wiseman

Blair books a ticket out. I’m now the only guest in the A-frame. Sean’s even stopped grooming Powdah Mountain. 

It’s snowing at home. Should I head north and join the beach camp for a week? Sounds amazing. But that might have to wait for next year. Late-season storms down south are too enticing to pass up. Don’t panic. Hang with Ryland for a day. See the alpine after the wind. Then begin planning. Go home. Maybe get here earlier next year. Consider putting down a deposit. Bring a snowmobile. 

There’s so much left on the table. There’s always so much left on the table in Haines.   


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