The Big Five: A Chugach dream endures
AS SEEN IN THE JANUARY '12 ISSUE OF FREESKIER MAGAZINE. WORDS BY CHRISTOPHER JERARD.
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream at night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.” —Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence
I’ve been carrying a photo of one of these big five in my wallet for 10 years. From time to time, I pull it out from the back of my fold where it lives—faded and worn—and stare at it. The Sphinx. My dream.
Before I started carrying the photo, the dream hatched in a midnight epiphany. I was on assignment in Norway, in a little cabin in the middle of nowhere staring at the ceiling, restless, mind roiling. My mind held a fantasy of what it would feel like: first to get dropped off at the tiny landing zone, making the famously exposed traverse to the edge where I would stare over my tips, down 1,800 feet into a sustained 57-degree pitch of Chugach pow. And then finally, gravity would have its way.
I snapped the photo years earlier on my first trip to AK and since that night when I set my sights on Sphinx, I’ve been back to Alaska four more times in search of a chance at that moment. It seemed like such a simple idea at the time. Reverie, yes, but seemingly possible. Go back to Alaska. Get in a helicopter. Ski the Sphinx. Easy! But I’m here to tell you, it’s not so easy. Unfortunately, this story does not include the recounting of skiing the Sphinx. Not yet.
So many factors come into play with the Big Five. There is the most obvious prerequisite, that you actually have the skill and strength. And “the conditions need to be right, the weather needs to be right and the team you are skiing with needs to be right,” adds Dirk Collins, who has been guiding and skiing in the Chugach since 1991. Finally, you have to be committed.
Those who have these descents logged in their memories either live in Alaska or have sat for months on end waiting for their chance. Collins says, “The only thing that can get you prepared for these mountains is time and experience. To have all this come together on a two-week heliski vacation is very rare.”
Heliskiing in Alaska remains the ultimate skiing adventure. Some will say that the weather crapshoot is not worth it. Go to BC. You’ll ski more. The stories of drinking more than skiing are frequent and often 100-percent true. But there is no substitute for AK when you get it. The fantasy of skiing these perfect peaks might help get you there—as the fixation on Sphinx has done for me. There is nothing like the feeling of the pilot sweeping the machine down toward some tiny little landing zone and thinking to yourself, “We’re not going to ski that are we?” Yes. You are. And it is going to be the best goddamn day of your life.
According to some Chugach experts, those who live near and operate in these zones, these Big Five are among the baddest, rowdiest, most awe-inspiring skiable peaks on the planet. So tear out these photos and put them in your wallet, on your wall, in your locker. Meditate on the great ambition and intention of going to AK and maybe, somehow, with skill, commitment and luck, you might bag one of the Big Five.
Definitely keep dreaming. I am.
CHUGACH HELICOPTER OPERATORS:
ALASKA BACKCOUNTRY ADVENTURES
alaskabackcountry.com firstname.lastname@example.org (907) 835-5608 or (208) 304-3908
ALASKA RENDEZVOUS LODGE
arlinc.com email@example.com (307) 734-0712 (Nov.–Feb.) or (907) 822-3300 (March–Oct.)
alaskahelicopterskiing.com firstname.lastname@example.org (907) 835-8418
POINTS NORTH HELI-ADVENTURES
alaskaheliski.com email@example.com (877) 787-6784 (toll free) or (907) 424-7991 (direct)
VALDEZ HELI-SKI GUIDES
valdezheliskiguides.com firstname.lastname@example.org (907) 835-4528