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Alaska Heli Skiing Trip Report
by Bob Peters
Table of Contents
- Trip Conditions
- Photo Album
- The Heliski Experience
- The Cost
- Note To Self
- Booking Information
In mid-March of 2006, my wife and I and a few friends skied with Theo Meiners and Bruce Keller at their Chugach Range heli operation, Alaska Rendezvous Lodge. We enjoyed the kind of skiing that most of us just dream about. Everything about the trip was nearly perfect, with comfortable accomodations, great food, tremendous staff and guides, and skiing like I've seldom seen (and I've been skiing powder in lots of great places for over 35 years).
Alaska Rendevous Lodge is located about 40 miles from Valdez, Alaska, just to the east of Thompson Pass. You can stay right at the lodge and the helicopter takes off and lands about a hundred feet from the lodge, so Theo and Bruce are easily able to take prime advantage of breaks in the weather (and your flight times are very short).
The place is simply incredible and I wish I was going back this year. As you read through it, I hope you'll come away with the understanding that while ARL offers some of the most challenging skiing on the planet for those who want it, OUR party consisted of middle-aged men and women who are good skiers but far from skiing rock stars. The guides tailored the skiing to our preferences and none of us ever felt "over-challenged" at any time. It was exciting, spectacular skiing but it wasn't death-defying. Any relatively experienced big-mountain skier can enjoy this skiing.
It's almost impossible to describe skiing in the Chugach Range. If you've been there, you already understand and this is going to sound like just another babbling account of somebody's "trip of a lifetime". If you haven't been there, there's no way that my words and photos will allow you to comprehend the beauty, scale, and "feel" of skiing in those mountains.
The scale of those mountains is what I found so amazing. The Chugach Range is several hundred miles long by a couple hundred miles wide. When you fly over these mountains, you see individual glaciers that could swallow all of Jackson Hole with room to spare. There are peaks, valleys, glaciers, faces, couloirs, icefields, spines, ribs, shoulders, gullies, cliffs and bowls literally everywhere you look. During the five days we flew, we landed on a total of eleven peaks or ridges. That's out of over 260 peaks that ARL has skied at one time or another.
These mountains are so enormous that I eventually started thinking of things we skied in terms like "how many Hobacks" or "how many Rendezvous Bowls" a given run might be. Often, we'd be standing at the top of a new run and our guide would point and say something like "I'll ski to that shadow line down there and then you'll come down one at a time". So we'd stand there on the ridgeline and watch as he gradually became a smaller and smaller speck in the distance. Finally, about "one and a half Hobacks" away, he would pull to a stop and we would just look at each other with our mouths wide open.
We arrived just exactly as a three-day snowstorm commenced, so we were unable to fly for the first three days. We *were* able to do some van-assisted skiing on Thompson Pass, so that kept us from going too stir-crazy while waiting for the weather to break.
Here's a photo of our "heli" for those first couple of days:
On Monday night, the skies finally cleared and the next morning we were finally able to fly:
Here's my wife is enjoying a long, long, run called Crybabies. I know the camera angle makes it look fairly flat, but if you notice the sluff by her right shoulder you'll understand that it's a little steeper than it looks. By the way, it's pronounced with a really lousy French accent; "cry-bay-BEES". There is, of course, a story behind the name.
After a couple of "warmup runs" on Crybabies, we stepped it up a bit and landed at this nice little airy saddle called "Loneliness":
Here's guide Bruce Keller doing the ski cut to make sure nothing big was going to slide on Loneliness:
Here's some of the scenery from the Loneliness landing zone as I waited my turn. This is the kind of stuff we were skiing:
We did two runs on Loneliness because there was so much great snow left after our first run that we just couldn't leave. So after trashing Loneliness, we flew up a glacier to a couloir called Blue Corn. Here's a shot of it from the heli... it's the chute on the right in the photo:
We skied Blue Corn and then on and on and on and on and on down a glacier at the foot of it and it was time for lunch.
For the afternoon of our first flying day, we went to a ridgetop summit of a run called Crudbusters. It's NW-facing slope that was just huge. It had the afternoon sun on it and so the visibility couldn't have been better.
This is a photo of Ruth and me waiting for the helicopter in the staging area along the highway:
We got a little lesson in avi safety while skiing Crudbusters. Because that particular slope is closer to Thompson Pass than all the rest of the stuff we skied, it is also closer to the other Valdez-based heli operations. We watched an interesting thing happen shortly after our first descent of the more western shoulder of the slope.
Here's Crudbusters from the Thompson Pass highway. It's just a massive slope with a total vertical of about 3,800 feet. Our line was just on the far side of the right-hand ridgeline where the snow line meets the sky in this photo:
We skied down from the summit to a bench just out of view of the right-hand side of that photo. While we were standing there, a heli from another operation landed at the same summit we had just left. Their party skied/boarded down the small bowl just this side of the sky line in that photo. Shortly after they skied it, one of our guides ski cut the same slope but in the proper spot and released this large avalanche that completely took out the tracks of the party that had just skied the slope. It's hard to see in the photo, but the snow was still moving when I took this shot:
Despite that little bit of excitement, it was a fabulous run in great snow. The view from there was also pretty special. This is just one of the hundreds of peaks surrounding us:
After we flew back to the lodge for supper, I took a photo of the various skis being used by the guides and clients at the lodge. That place is fat ski heaven:
I also took a photo of our helicopter, affectionately known to all the staff as Greta:
And to cap off the first day, we had a beautiful display of alpenglow on the upper reaches of Mount Billy Mitchell. This photo was taken from the parking lot of the lodge:
These are from the morning of our second day of flying. As you'll see, it was another bluebird day with great snow.
This first shot is our group checking out the entrance to a long, long, ridgetop ramp that dropped through north-facing shadows. The run goes northeast off a peak called Tiekel North:
This next one is our guide, Bruce Keller, slope-testing the wind-scoured portion at the very top:
This next one shows Bruce waaaayyyyy down there (this was the most telephoto my lens would do). Our route goes down to Bruce and then follows the sun/shadow line way on down to the left:
Here's Ruth pondering her next move as we continued down toward the glacier at the valley floor:
That run was so great that we had to do it again. Here's Ruth getting ready as Greta drops down to get another group:
This next one shows Theo, another guide, skiing that same ramp toward me:
This is our second afternoon of flying. We'd been skiing off the summits of two neighboring peaks known as Tiekel South and Tiekel North. There were approximately 3,000 to 3,500 feet of vertical on any of the descents we took and we had an endless choice of aspect.
This first shot is of guide-in-training Marieke. She's spotting Bruce while he did a ski cut into an untracked drainage. On our next run, we'll be skiing the face in the upper right portion of this photo:
This is Ruthie dropping into the little rocky face that Bruce had ski cut. The other two sets of tracks are Bruce's and mine:
This next one is Ruthie in the main section of the bowl. She was absolutely beaming when she got to the bottom of this one.
Next trip up, we're going to ski the other face of that bowl. Here's Bruce scouting out the best entrance through the ridgeline cornice. We're going to ski the slope just past his left shoulder:
This is now our second-to-the-last day of skiing and we're already bummed that we have to leave soon.
We spent this day doing a combination of long, beautiful, flowing glaciers and steep, open shoulders. The temperature was perfect, the snow was perfect, and it just couldn't have been any better.
This is Ruthie and David standing at the top of a glacier run called Big Bowl. I just think it's a pretty spot:
And here's a shot of Big Bowl from across the valley. Our starting zone was back up where the glacier swings around to the right with the sun on it. If you look really, really hard you can just make out our tracks by a little tiny rock (which is actually about forty feet high) in the upper middle of the photo:
This is a shot of Theo and I stomping out our landing zone on the ridgeline that the photo above was taken from. As you can see, the peaks, valleys, glaciers, and snow are just everywhere you look:
Here's Ruthie dropping into a small chute below that landing zone. The dots on the glacier below are our friends waiting for the helicopter to pick them up:
And this is one of Ruthie skiing a big open face all by herself:
And this is an up-close one of Ruthie skiing some nice, reconstituted glacier powder:
What a bittersweet experience when we lifted off from the lodge in the morning. We knew we were going to find more great skiing but we also knew it was our last day. Knowing we were leaving somehow made every turn that much more special.
This is Ruthie on our first run of the morning, a ridge run called Rock 'n Roll:
Here's a shot of Greta coming up to drop off another group:
Here's Ruthie skiing down the upper flank of Ice Palace:
This next photo is the serac feature called Ice Palace that the run is named for. It's really hard (for my photographic skills, anyway) to adequately convey the scale of this stuff. This ice pinnacle was probably fifty or more feet tall. This photo was taken with the max wide angle my lens could do:
Here's Bruce skiing by the Ice Palace:
Our last run of the day and the trip was outstanding. A curving bowl that rolled off into a pretty steep but fairly wide couloir, it's named for a huge bulge of ice that forms an obstacle right in the middle of the slope.
It was dead north-facing so the snow was perfect. Bruce let me ski a shoulder of it that was untracked and quite steep for about ten really big, fast turns. It then funnelled into the main body of the couloir, which was tracked out because I was the last one down.
On the untracked upper part, I was able to stay in front of the sluff I was causing, but as I got into the center of the couloir the sluff caught up with me and almost knocked me over. I was able to wiggle out of it to one shoulder of the chute and slow down while the bulk of the sluff went by. REALLY fun stuff. :
Here's Bruce surveying the entrance to Ice Cube:
This is a view from where it starts to drop off. I was the traffic director and couldn't safely stand any lower so you don't get any sort of feel for what the main part of the chute is like. My line will be in the far right side of this photo:
And, finally, here's a shot of Ruthie on the runout down to the final pickup point:
What a trip!
Well, now that we've been back for over a week and the smile STILL refuses to leave my face, I'll finally get around to the summary. My friends are so tired of hearing about our heli trip that they've all left for Moab or Mexico or Costa Rica or wherever.
Might as well deal with it up front. As we were preparing for this trip, we were hearing all kinds of horror stories (mostly second-hand from people who hadn't actually SKIED there) about how difficult/dangerous/steep/scary the skiing is in the Chugach. We were told we would fall off cliffs, get buried in avalanches, tumble into crevasses, get lost in the wilderness, or crash in the helicopter. This went on to the point where my wife was literally terrified of what she was going to find there and I was pretty scared myself.
There's an endless supply of terrain and conditions in the Chugach Range that could cause a jackhammer heartrate for even the best skiers in the world. There are faces and chutes there that are on the scary side of sixty degrees with killer exposure if you were to fall or miss a turn.
The nice part?
That stuff is there if that's what you're looking for and the guides will take you to it if you're good enough. But there's an even MORE endless supply (how's that for mangled English? ) of great, fun skiing for the rest of us. The group we were in are all strong skiers but not superstars. They're comfortable on moderately steep slopes and in powder and most junky snow. "Comfortable", not infallible. We had falls, rest stops, jitters at the top, etc., but no one ever felt over their head.
The truth is we skied somewhere a little short of 100,000 vertical feet, much of which was challenging and exciting, much of which was just great, relaxed skiing. We flew to heart-stopping landing zones that became fairly routine once you figured out how well these guys have it dialed in and how many times they've done it. We looked over the edges of runs that gave you a little tingly feeling but were totally manageable once you dropped in.
We wore climbing harnesses at all times because of the slight-but-present risk of a fall into a crevasse. There were times when our guides were explicit about instructions on where - EXACTLY - to ski because of concern for snow bridges on glaciers. Despite that, or perhaps because of the detailed instructions, we felt very comfortable and had no incidents of any kind.
We wore avalanche beacons at all times and had to demonstrate our ability to find a buried beacon quickly before they let us in the helicopter. We were briefed on helicopter safety constantly and we learned to be fast and efficient at loading and unloading the copter safely.
The Overall Experience:
One of the things that most hits you when heli skiing here for the first time is the VISUAL drama of those mountains. Most of the drainages have 3,000 to 5,000 vertical feet of relief or more. As the heli heads upward, more and more peaks and valleys come into view. You start to see skiing possibilities that simply overload your brain's ability to process the information.
Suddenly, the copter will veer over to some impossibly tiny summit or ridgeline and you abruptly realize that the pilot is going to LAND this thing on that little speck of snow with a couple thousand feet of air underneath it! That experience takes a little getting used to, but it eventually becomes a huge part of the fun.
When unloading, the guide hops out and starts unloading the gear basket. In our little group(s), I would be the next one out and I would locate the remainder of the party (after very specific directions from the guide) and help unload the gear. We clients would then make ourselves a really, really tiny little pile of people next to the gear and in sight of the pilot. The guide would give the "go" signal, the heli would lift off in a swirl of snow and disappear, and you would suddenly be standing in the sunshine on the very top of the skiing world. Unbelievable.
When skiing steeper slopes that were somewhat suspect from an avalanche standpoint, we would watch as the guide ski-cut the slope and then skied to a safe point. Sometimes this was a LONG way down the hill. We would then ski one at a time to wherever the guide wanted us to stop. The snow was typically knee-deep or slightly more, light and fluffy. You might have to deal with sluffing snow while you skied, which is another really fun part of the whole thing. Sometimes we were in the shadows, sometimes in the sun. The visibility was ALWAYS very good except for one morning when we skied into a mid-mountain cloud and all lights of any sort went out. : All the rest of the time, we could see perfectly on every turn.
The amazing part is how your perception of things changes as you ski more up there. You start to actually UNDERSTAND where the pilot is going to put down on that crazy ridgeline, you start to look at a 45-degree slope as something that's a little interesting instead of intimidating, and you start to SEEK OUT situations where you're racing your sluff rather than trying to avoid it. I was truly impressed with how our guides (and pilot) gradually boosted our confidence level along with our skills.
We skied enormous runs that were really no steeper than a solid blue/black at many resorts. Imagine skiing the top pitch of Regulator Johnson at Snowbird, only doing it for 4,000 vertical feet of the same pitch in knee-deep fluff in the sunshine. That's the kind of skiing we did and it was simply incredible. There is endless skiing there for moderately good skiers, so don't let the hype scare you off.
The Lodge and Guides:
The lodge was clean, comfortable, cozy, friendly, and fun. Our rooms were large with bath/shower in each room. The food was freshly made by a great staff who are all as into skiing as the guests. We got to know all the staff and they were just wonderful.
The guides are professional and extremely safety-conscious. You tell them what you want in the way of skiing and they'll deliver it. Period.
Keep in mind that our trip was made in March of 2006. The mountains and the snow haven't changed since then but the pricing probably has. Just contact Theo Meiners or Bruce Keller at http://www.arlinc.com/ for current info and pricing.
There are several ways the heli can be priced and I've listed their pricing webpage below. Our group was on the "Full Package", which is:
The Full Package - 6 runs at $780 a day double-guided with a second group or tail guide with up to 4 skiers or snowboarders in each group. 4 day minimum. Additional runs beyond the 6th that day are $110 per run.
This does not include rooms, meals, and drinks. Rooms, (I think) are a little over $100/night and evening meals averaged $20-24 each. This is not a cheap way to ski, but the satisfaction factor (in our case at least) is just off the charts.
Overall, I couldn't have been more impressed with everything about the trip. We had great skiing in an exciting but safe environment. We were able to see a part of the world that simply can't be described, it has to be experienced.
If you have specific questions, please PM me. If you want to contact the lodge directly, ask for Theo Meiners or Bruce Keller to call you back. Tell them I recommended you call. They'll answer any questions you could possibly have.
The possibilities for spectacularly great corn skiing seem to be endless there. Bruce told me that early May offers the kind of spring skiing that the rest of us just dream about. Spring skiing is so fun because you can safely and confidently ski the steepest things there are and the ride is so smooth you'd swear you're on the easiest run at Deer Valley. If I go back (translation: if I can ever afford it), I'll go for corn season.
Here's the main website for Alaska Rendezvous Lodge: http://www.arlinc.com/
Here's the pricing (2006 rates):
There are 4 programs for the 2006 season:
1) The Alaskan Local - 2 runs very close to the Lodge location for $250.
2) The Full Package - 6 runs at $780 a day double-guided with a second group or tail guide with up to 4 skiers or snowboarders in each group. 4 day minimum. Additional runs beyond the 6th that day are $110 per run.
3) The Semi-private package - Exclusive helicopter services at $3,700* per hour (Hobbs time). 2.5 hour minimum per day, with a 10-hour or 4-day commitment. This program MUST be booked 60 days in advance with 50% down and full payment on arrival. NO REFUNDS for individuals in the group - with 3 groups maximum for this program. Guide fees will be charged if extra guides are requested or needed because of slow group members, extreme skiing or very remote locations. Guide fees are $270 a day. All day trips begin and end at the Alaska Rendezvous Lodge location at Mile 45 north on the Richardson Highway. Due to fixed overhead of operations. Therefore, ARG is only able to offer a 20% refund due to weather, snow storms or EXTREME avalanche hazard if we are unable to fly during your stay. Please consider purchasing traveler's insurance as well as health and life coverage. The Alaska Rendezvous Lodge and ARG do not cover these items.
All Semi-private and Private charters are based on Hobbs time (actual flight time). There is a 2.5 hour minimum of flight-time each day. If you do not get your 2.5 hours because of weather or high avalanche conditions, you may roll your time to the next day within your reservation period.
- Pre-formed groups of 4 riders
- 3 groups of 4 per group riders will be the maximum to fly during peak season
- 2.5 hour of flight time daily = 6 runs, 3,000 to 5,000 vertical feet each
- For semi-private charters, Alaska Rendezvous will have the liberty of booking the other groups for your charter.
4) Private Charter
- Pre-formed group of 8
- 5-day minimum
- 2.5 hour Hobbs minimum of flight time daily
- If you are booking a private charter, the helicopter is for you and your friends during the daily 2.5-hour minimum. ARLinc will not book other groups with your party during this time.
Refunds are given only for High Avalanche conditions or weather days called by the guide or pilot. Refunds will not be given for fatigue or injury. Refunds are not given to individuals in private or semi-private groups.
Private Charters: Please refer to your private contract.
All pricing is subject to change without prior notice.
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