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I have just returned from my 2008 trip to Haines, Alaska & thought I would write about the experience. The following is an account of the highlights of our adventure.
I fly to Seattle & meet my friends Scott & Heather from Tahoe, for the flight to Juneau, AK. We arrive at the Extended Stay Motel, right across from the Juneau airport & meet up with the other members of our group for the week. The crew consists of our leader & organizer Timmy K. who has been coming here for 19 years, along with Josh, Nate & Tim from Alta & Herbie from Colorado. We are to be joined later by Bruce (The Godfather & local connection) & Chuck from Juneau.
Bruce has work to do today, but his wife Mary Francis is cordial enough to give us a ride
& join us for a day of skiing at the local Eaglecrest ski area. Some clouds in the morning give way to beautiful sunshine for the rest of the day. With about 10” of fresh snow & cool temps, we share this great day with the locals who proclaim it one of the best days of the season.
Eaglecrest is a relatively small area with 2 fixed grip chairs & about 1500’ vertical, but there is gate access to much more with some short hikes. The surrounding mountains are spectacular, in fact the endless mountains & terrain in this part of SE Alaska are a mountain dreamers fantasy. With avi control opening perimeter gates sequentially, we manage to get fresh tracks all day on some short steep pitches.
Bruce & Mary Francis meet us at the motel where we load her SUV & his pick-up with our gear & his sled for the Ferry to Haines. We are lucky to be able to ride the high speed Ferry, as it does not run every day. This is a beautiful modern boat and hits top speeds of around 45 MPH. Our voyage through the Inland Passage takes about 2 hours.
We are met at the dock by Seandog, the owner of Alaska Heliskiing & a few of his guides. We load the vans & go into town for groceries & lunch at the Mountain Market & Deli, highly recommended for some great natural food. After doing the Super Market Sweep at the store we drive up the Haines Hwy. to the 33 Mile Roadhouse & the base of operations. This place is nothing fancy, just a couple of shacks serving as an office & guide quarters. The Roadhouse is just a café serving great burgers, sandwiches, soup & beer. The clientele are mostly hardcore big mountain skiers who come every year, recent guide school grads & Pros filming with TGR & Burton.
It has been cloudy all day, but after doing paperwork, transceiver drills & helicopter orientation, the sun “POPS” & it looks like we may be able to fly. The bird is an A-Star & seats 4 in the rear with the guide 1 passenger & Al our pilot, in front.
My group for this afternoon consists of Bruce, a former guide & one of the pioneers of Heli-skiing in AK, Josh, Tim, Nate & our guide Mikey. Our first drop is on a standard warm-up eastern flank with a moderate pitch. The snow is a bit wind hammered & after a few turns, Bruce suggests that we dive over the cornice onto a steeper more North facing bowl. The skiing here is fabulous, our group is all strong, & as the light gets better it seems we will have a great afternoon.
Our next drop is a little higher on the ridge & we go directly over the cornice into “Old Faithful”. Tim makes sweet tracks down some steep chutes & a large bowl over a moraine & down through the woods to the PZ (pick-up zone).
Our 3rd drop is in the same area, but we decide to ski some more challenging lines that we scoped from the bottom after our last run. By this time I am beginning to feel more confident & volunteer to go 1st on this one. For safety’s sake we ski all runs one at a time non-stop, or at least to a safe zone where we can “post up” & monitor the next skiers progress. Since most of these runs are “HUGE” & close to 3000’ vertical before there is a safe zone, your legs are burning by the time you get there.
As I float down through the powder my eyes are darting in all different directions digesting & processing the different line choices in front of me. I remember Bruce’s description of the “Alaska Look”. “You must look over your shoulder every few turns to make sure you are not being overtaken by a sluff & be prepared to make a quick line adjustment”. The snow is super stable today & I am not impeded by any sluffage, as I make my way across the bowl to the designated safe zone.
Once I am in a good viewing area I radio up to the group & describe some cool lines for them. The runs are so steep, that from the top you can only visualize your first few turns before the slope rolls out of site. I try to encourage someone to take a cool chute between 2 rock pinnacles. Finally, Tim sees what I am talking about and hits it. It was way cool, & fun to watch him disappear & then reappear between the 2 towers. When he gets to the bottom we greet him with cheers & high 5’s. From here we ski the final 2 pitches & down through the woods to the PZ.
Our final run of the evening is called “Home Run”, probably the closest run to base, & would make a nice 2500’ vertical ski area all by itself. When we are dropped at the LZ (landing zone) we discover that one of the German girls who had joined Scott, Heather & Timmy’s group has tweaked her knee on the slope below us & requires a Heli pick-up. Mikey goes down to her to pack out an LZ for the heli & tend to her while we wait at the top. After Marianna is safely on her way, we are free to attack the slope. What a great way to finish our first day. The snow is better here, & although the run is not as steep, the snow quality is better with a few super steep roll-overs to play on.
I am glad we got some great skiing today, as the weather in Alaska is fickle and nothing is for sure. So at least we got some turns under our belts.
When we return to the base darkness is closing in. Scott, Heather, Timmy & Bruce are staying in a trailer ¼ mile up the road. The Alta boys & myself are staying at the “Plywood Palace” a cabin about 10 miles away on Mosquito Lake Road. These accommodations are far from stellar, but at $25 per night it is fine if not as basic as you can get. Some beds, heat, kitchen, bathroom with some hot water, a mini pool table, a TV with a few DVD’s. If you stay there bring a good selection, the ones that were there were pretty limited. Our favorite was “The Trailer Park Boys” movie, best flick I’ve seen in years. Oh, & did I mention it was snowing outside!
Well, we get up early anticipating an early pick up at the Plywood Palace, but to our dismay there are no stars in the sky. It is not until 2:00 PM that one of the guides shows up and says the sun is “poppin” up at 33 mile. We jump in the van & we are on our way. When we arrive, things are looking pretty good. Bruce says he had his sled up at “Home Run”, & there was 18” of fresh. We jump in the bird & head up to the LZ. Today I am with Scott, Heather, Timmy & Jess a guide school grad. Mikey is our guide again. On our way up the radio chatter does not sound to encouraging. It seems the new snow is not very stable & the other guides are a little nervous as stuff is moving everywhere. We try to scope a safer looking ridge line from the bird on the way up, but things look different once we start moving. It is a slow, tedious run down as everything is cracking & the lights go out. Once we are safely at the bottom we decide to quit while we are ahead & wait for a better day.
3/23 & 3/24 Sun. & Mon.
The next 2 days are down days due to weather & we do our best to stay entertained. Sunday we go down to Haines for Easter dinner & restock some of our supplies. Monday looks promising, but things get pretty socked in. Scott, Bruce & Chuck go out to the river on the sled & do some kite skiing. Al finally pulls the plug & says no flying today. I hang around the office & watch ski porn with some of the guides. Later, I take a ride with Bruce over to Seandog’s & hang out for a while & listen to stories about their years of Alaska big mountain adventures.
This is our last real chance to get some skiing, so we are delighted to wake up to bluebird skies & no wind. We are at the helipad early & ready to go. Today I am with my 4 roommates from Alta, our guide is Pete from Telluride. Because of all the new snow, we decide to team up with Bruce’s group consisting of their guide Herkie, Scott, Timmy, Chuck & a guide from Anchorage named Orion. Our first drop is on a ridge called MacNuk. When we disembark from the heli, we see Bruce planted on the edge of the run with a belay line down to Herkie who is deep in over the cornice digging a snow pit to determine stability on the massive slope below us. This procedure takes some time while the rest of us wait on the ridge enjoying the spectacular views surrounding us. There are uncountable mountains & glaciers in every direction. We are equipped at all times with transceivers, shovels, probes, radios & harnesses for crevasse rescue or belays if needed.
Once stability tests are complete & Bruce reels Herkie in, Pete is sent ahead to do slope cuts & post up in a safe spot about ½ way down. After Pete is set, Orion goes & performs more slope cuts & skis out of site to the bottom. Next, to my surprise, Bruce calls my name & tells me I am next. He says not to follow the guide’s tracks, but to just ski the fall line non-stop all the way to the PZ. My eyes are as big as my smile as I plunge into the deep hero snow & get face shots turn after turn down this virtually untracked slope. About a third of the way down, the slope goes even steeper & drains into 3 wide chutes between some rock fins. I make a quick decision for the middle most obvious route. By the time I exit this section my quads are burning as I finally see Orion far below at the PZ. I do my best to keep linking turns, but my legs are giving out & I feel like just straight lining the rest. At the bottom, I radio to the top & tell them it is clear for the next skier. Everyone follows pretty much the same fabulous route except Bruce & Herkie who are the last 2 to descend. They take a slight variation & make some sick moves on some cool features to the skier’s right.
Our second run is from the same LZ. I opt to go last on this run. Everyone takes a little different route this time, heading down the ridge on the skiers right & disappearing onto some extreme spines toward the bottom. Just before my run, the radio calls up to say that Nate has lost a ski & needs to climb up a bit to get it. We ask if he needs any help, & the call comes back that he has it & is okay. Now it is just Pete & I at the top discussing our options. We figure where everyone else has just skied is getting pretty tracked, so I decide to ski the main bowl from the untracked left side, & then cut back to the chute that Herkie & Bruce had skied on the first run. It is fabulous, but not as rad as the lines the others had skied on the spines. From the bottom I could check out where Nate had launched some pretty big air and released from his ski. It was definitely film worthy.
After a long wait for a pick-up we head over to a huge peak & a run called “Hangover Helper”! This is one of the classic runs in the Chilkat range. As we approach the peak, we are right over Scott as he is in a hairy high speed traverse just under the cornice of this 52 degree slope. Our LZ is on a knife edge ridge that falls dramatically on all sides. We mount up while Herkie’s group is skiing the spine out toward the end of the ridge.
While we are waiting the light is beginning to go flat & a few flakes are starting to fall. I am a little nervous about making that exposed traverse when Herkie radios up to say they skied that spine up pretty well & we should just drop in from where we are. This run is a consistent 50 degrees for probably 2500’ of its 4800’ vertical, probably the longest slope of this pitch I’ve ever skied. The fact that it even holds snow is something that probably only happens in Alaska. Pete asks for volunteers to go first. We all kind of look at each other & no one says a word. Finally, I say I’ll go. I hear someone mumble “he’s not afraid of anything”… the truth is if I didn’t go soon I’d probably wet myself! Pete says to just head straight down for a hole we can barely see, that is on the edge of an obvious crevasse. He reminds me about the Alaska look, & that this slope will create big sloughs for sure. The problem was that the light was so flat, I wouldn’t see it even if I looked, so I just went.
Well, for about the 1st third of the pitch I am just busting face shots & feeling weightless between each turn. Then all of a sudden I feel it, just a little push at first & then stronger as I try to act & take evasive action. Before I can react, the slough is strong enough to take my feet out. If I hadn’t been warned, I probably would have panicked & thought it was a full on avalanche. Instead I said to myself “I know exactly what’s going on, just don’t start tumbling”. Before I knew it I was back on my feet & just started making sidehill turns to my left until I couldn’t feel it anymore. Toward the bottom of the pitch I was skiing in slough spines left by the preceding group & my legs were worn. Just then I saw Herkie to my left under some rock faces & pulled up to him. We called the top, warned them of sloughing & said to send the next skier. Herkie had sent the others in his group ahead with Bruce, & told me to post my group there while he went ahead.
Everyone was pretty jazzed when they got down off the big slope, but now we had to deal with a glacial area to our right. Herkie had told me to just hug the rocks on this 2nd pitch & follow their tracks. While I was waiting for the others, Bruce was already skiing the third pitch & on the radio exclaiming how deep the snow was there. I couldn’t wait to get there. After negotiating the crevasse area on the 2nd pitch, the final 2 pitches where awesome & deep as the light got a little better. We reach the PZ for another long wait, thinking this is probably our last run with the flat light. We talk about maybe doing “Home Run” on the way in, but the light is getting better while we wait. Herkies group heads back to base.
I am sad, because we are at the base of “Indy 5,000” another huge classic run that everyone has talked about. I guess it has only been skied once this season, & even Pete says he had only been there twice. As the bird picks us up, I am in the cockpit with Pete & Al our pilot. Al looks at Pete & says “Looks like the light is getting better, you wanna do one more?” Pete looks at me & I give a smile & thumbs up. He looks at the guys in back, and I assume he gets there approval.
We wind our way up the face of “Indy 5000” it is Ginormous! Our LZ is the same as the last, but this time we hop off the opposite side of the ridge. We carefully snake our way down a few pitches till we get to a huge bowl between 2 shark fin ridges. This is where the fun begins. Just then we get a radio call from Ted, the head guide. He wants to follow us down the run. Pete doesn’t want to wait, because we are starting to loose the light. Ted understands, & says that they will ski “Hangover” where we just skied. I can tell Pete is happy that we will have it all to ourselves. At this point we are staring down the barrel of a gun. If this slope decides to let go it is all over, kaput, no escape! Pete indicates that we will each make a high speed stomping traverse and see if we can get it to move. He goes first, then Nate & me, we start a pretty good slough on the right edge, but it doesn’t travel very far. This is the scariest part of the run, super exposed. Tim & Herbie are next, with Josh putting in the final touches. Josh gives a real effort and stomps the hell out of it, nothing moves.
So now it is time for the pay off. Herbie volunteers to go first on this one. This slope is huge, but pretty straight forward. From where we are you can see pretty much the whole run to a large valley moraine at the bottom of the pitch. Pete wants Herbie to ski all the way to the PZ, which is down a couple more pitches to the right past the flat moraine. Herbie drops in & makes endless turns about halfway down the pitch to a rock outcropping just before the slope rolls away out of sight. He radios & asks if he can post up there. What we don’t realize, is that Pete has made a slight miscalculation of what drainage we are actually skiing on. He thinks we are one bowl further right than we actually are.
When we all reach Herbie, he skis again down & down until he is just a speck on the moraine far below. He radios up for instructions, & Pete just tells him to keep going down. It seems like Herbie may be a little off course, so after he has cleared the fall line at the bottom of the bowl, Pete gives me the okay to go. As soon as I think I have safely cleared the rocks I begin to link turns down the fall line, but to my dismay there are more, & I scrape a few. Once I am nearing the bottom of the pitch I head off to the right, above Herbie, who is on the other side of the icy moraine. Eventually the hill flattens out for a bit & I have to push with my poles. By now the lights are really going out. I radio Pete & ask if I can wait here in what seems like a safe spot out of harms way. He says he would prefer that I continue to the PZ, so I push on. I have a good idea where I am, as I was admiring this slope from the bottom while we were waiting for our pick up. It is just difficult to see the slope below me with the bad light. I just kind of feel my way down the slope, occasionally traversing to the right to get my bearings. I don’t want to blindly drop off of a cliff or something. Once I get reoriented with the PZ, I radio Herbie & advise him to ski to the right till he reaches my tracks, & then proceed down. This last pitch is as good as anything, & everyone reaches the bottom in tact. Tim says he counted 450 some turns, & this was definitely the longest run of the trip, & sadly the last one for me!
It is Timmy K’s birthday & there is a big party at the Funny Farm, a B&B just down the road from where we are staying. I meet a bunch of really interesting people there. Locals, guides & pros… The Alaskan people are uber friendly! While sitting on the couch watching some snowboard videos, I have a long conversation with a kid from Switzerland. He says his name is Nicolas, & he has been coming here for seven years. He seems too young to be able to afford that, so I ask if he competes or is there filming. His friend says that he is a photographer & Nicolas says he competes some. It turns out he is Nicolas Mueller, the #1 snowboarder in the World. I remembered one of the guides mentioning that name & that the kid could rip. Anyway the party is great, we eat a bunch of halibut & cole slaw, a couple of kegs of beer & go home to pack. Oh, the Funny Farm is a really nice cozy place to stay, & I would recommend it to anyone coming up this way.
Timmy comes to pick us up at the Plywood Palace early in the morning. We head up to 33 mile with everything packed. Tim, Josh, Nate & Herbie elect to ski a few runs & catch a plane back to Juneau later in the day. The rest of us load up Bruce’s truck & head down to Haines to catch the slow Ferry back to Juneau.
It is a beautiful day, & the Ferry ride is a great way to enjoy the Alaskan country side. It seems like every major peak we pass is one that Bruce has skied or made the first descent on sometime in the past. Timmy is on the phone most of the trip wheeling & dealing as he does. Anyway we all meet up back in Juneau for dinner & sadly say our good-byes. I had a great time despite the fact that I was fighting a cold the whole time & can’t wait to return!
Thanks to everyone for sharing the good time & some fine turns.
Hopefully I will have more pictures to follow.