Check in from the Chugach
Warming up the heli.
“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, that’s what I say,” says Dan Caruso, Alaska Backcountry Adventures heli-guide and long-time Black Diamond ski ambassador. DC has a one-liner for everything, and we’re in need of a good one tonight.
We’re in the Alaska Rendezvous lodge playing pool and celebrating our arrival at Thompson Pass, Alaska, after 18 hours of travel. The snow is the worst the Chugach has seen in 30 years, and while tomorrow’s forecast calls for bluebird skies, it’s unclear if we should burn a heli day to shred AK hardpack.
But DC talks us back into our senses, because this is Alaska, after all, where a system could easily shut us down for the rest of our week-long stay. So, “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” becomes the official plan.
I’m in Valdez with a variety of ski media types and team Black Diamond to test BD’s new fat skis and sample some of the Chugach’s legendary… ice. We’re flying with Alaska Backcountry Adventures, which has been operating up here for more than 20 years. Our guides are Dan Caruso, and Dave “the Wave” Muccino, a Jackson Hole and Chugach original who has guided Valdez since the early days with Doug Coombs. If there are goods to be found, Wave and DC will know where.
The next morning, we arrive at the ABA base on Thompson Pass, which is about a 30 minute-drive from Valdez. Valdez isn’t your typical lodge experience. There’s still a rawness to the vibe, a lack of refinement that reminds you that this isn’t Disneyland. Everything here is about the skiing. The ABA base area, a.k.a. “Man Camp,” is simply a little cluster of trailers for guides, one trailer that serves as a base area restaurant “the LZ”, four Porta-Potty toilets, and a heli landing pad. Not much, but what else do you need?
Even in grim snow conditions, the Chugach is truly amazing. The mountains are piled so tightly on top of Thompson Pass that you rarely fly further than 4-5 minutes. Over our four days, we get short hops to LZs including Bloodstain, Goblin’s Knob, Cracked Ice, Happy Days, each of which offers 3,000-plus vert lines. Your sense of scale is totally out of whack up here. A line that looks relatively small could easily be 1,000 vertical feet, and the top pitch always funnels into incredibly long runs to the valley floor. In good snow, the runs are long, when you’re fighting less-than-perfect conditions, they’re seemingly endless.
Ski writers have many good words for powder snow, but we’re forced to stretch our vocabulary to describe the state of Chugach snow. Luckily, DC is there to help. Over the next days, he’ll describe the snow as wind-butter (the best conditions we’ll find), less than optimal butter cakes and butter crackers, difficult but skiable soap bubbles, leopard skin, zebra skin, and the truly gnarly: frozen ocean, frozen waves, frozen ocean with dead dolphins.
We fight through four days, get eight heli drops, spend a day touring in a wide-open bowl, check out amazing glacial features, and generally make the best of the situation. And at the end of every day, we drive back to our hotel in Valdez, sit in the hot tub and remind ourselves that when you’re flying in the Chugach, you’re living right, regardless of snow.
Seth Morrison shows up at ABA near the end of our trip. He has a few extra days before heading south toward Juneau for a TGR shoot and wants to get some skiing in to keep in shape. It’s a testament that the best big mountain skier of this generation is here by himself, skiing laps in tough snow just to keep the legs strong, and he still has a great attitude. Even Seth laughs about frozen soap bubbles, and struggles to make it look easy. As he says at the end of one day, “It’s still Alaska. There’s no place like it.”
The point of our trip is to test BD’s fattest skis in their home territory. Thomas Laakso, head of all things ski at BD, has grown BD’s ski line significantly over the last few seasons. We ride the super-fat Gigawatt, the cult classic Megawatt and the all-mountain slaying AMPerage. We’ll have all the beta on the skis in the Buyer’s Guide next fall, but suffice it to say that BD is establishing itself as a major player in the off-piste market. These super-rockered skis are perfect for deep pow, and light enough for any touring mission. The Gigawatt, in particular, defies its profile by handling the über-firm tolerably well, and is so wide that an inch of wind butter feels deep.
As we load up on the last day and say goodbye to Man Camp, DC gives us his final one-liner of the week. “This trip is like going on a blind date when you already know that the girl you’re meeting is ugly, but you still have to go out there and make the best of it.” And with helicopters in the Chugach, even in the worst of times, the date is never that ugly.
Thanks to Penn Newhard at Backbone Media for assembling our crew, to Thomas Laakso and Adam Chamberlin at Black Diamond for making the whole thing happen, and of course, to DC, Wave and Alaska Backcountry Adventures for everything.
It was tough (i.e. impossible) to get good POV skiing footage with the snowpack, but if you've ever wondered what it's like to ride a heli in AK, here's a little taste of how it goes. Good snow or bad, it's one of the coolest experiences in all of skiing.