How To: Cracking the Heliskiing Mystery
It’s Friday evening and we’ve just topped off our trip here at H2O Heli Guides in Valdez, AK, with our fourth perfectly blue-bird day in a row. Former Olympian Jimbo Morgan from Electric and Skullcandy provided inspiration and hilarious stories throughout the week. Gabe Glosband from Scott USA made fun of everyone (including himself) providing the comedy soundtrack. Gary Winberg of Nimbus Independent fame was nice to everyone all the time, even when Luke threw snowballs at him. And Luke threw snowballs at people and did all the work organizing and putting the whole trip together. I brought in the rear with big sunglasses and music that everyone liked to make fun of.
In six days, we T to B’d (top to bottomed) 29 runs, clocking in somewhere around 95,000+ vertical feet of fresh, untracked powder, some of which has never been skied before.
I look back to when I was about 15, living in Eastern Canada, dreaming that one day maybe, just maybe, I would have the opportunity to board a heli and be dropped off on a sky-reaching peak in Alaska. I never thought for a second that I really would… that dream was all tied up in magazine photos and movies.
But as our crew packs up our gear, getting ready to head back to our homes scattered around the US, I realized heliskiing in the final frontier is more accessible than I ever thought.
If you’ve ever had the same dream that I have had growing up as a skier, check out how we did it, and start saving up so you can do it, too.
Choosing an Operation
There are dozens of operations in Alaska in Valdez, Anchorage, Cordova and Haines, to name a few. There isn’t nearly enough space for me to go through them all here, but do some research, ask around, check out our online heli and cat guide coming out in this year’s mag, and choose accordingly. We just spent a week at H2O Guides based out of Valdez, operated by big-time big-mountain skier Dean Cummings (http://www.h2oguides.com/). H2O is a top notch operation from the guides to the terrain to the pilots, so I’m going to base this How-To on H2O.
Getting to Valdez
You’re first going to want to fly into Anchorage from wherever you’re at (flying from Denver costs about $650). From there, there are a number of ways to go about getting to the small fishing town of Valdez (population 4,000) such as driving, taking a ferry or flying into the small airport. Our crew choose the most obvious way: renting a motor home from ABC RVs (not to be confused with the other ABC, the Alaskan Bush Company).
The drive from Anchorage to Valdez in the motor home took about 5 hours. The views are stunning and the characters you will inevitably meet on the road are well worth the drive. If you get bored, stop by the fireworks store in Glennallen at the junction of highways 1 and 4. What you do with them from there is up to you.
H2O is based out of a hotel called the Mountain Sky, walking distance to everything you need to make the most of your trip, including a gun store, a liquor store and a Rite Aid. Rooms are included in your heli package, so you don’t have to worry about booking yourself. Breakfast is offered in the hotel lobby where you can game-plan with your group before heading out, and free soup is provided each evening so you can talk about how epic your day was.
Valdez is one trippy place! It’s small and plays home to mostly fisherman and folks working on the great Alaskan Pipeline. The main attraction is the harbor, where hordes of fishing boats are tied up… there are still a couple weeks before the real fishing will get under way.
The other main attraction is the people, who have some of the craziest stories I’ve ever heard. Like one guy I met who was missing a hand. He allegedly lost it in Iraq (during the first war out there) while he was trying to catch an RPG, mid flight, so it wouldn’t hit his buddies. He received a pin and an honorable discharge for his efforts.
The best place to meet these people is at one of the numerous bars in town. We spent some quality time at the Pipeline (they even let me get on stage to play guitar with a Gerry Garcia look-a-like… bad mistake), the Club and some shabby place next to No Name Pizza.
For dinner, the best spot for food with a good price is The Harbor Club (known locally as THC). The burgers are nothing short of epic. Or, for massive plates of Chinese food, hit up Fu Kung (known in our group as Kung Fu). It’s expensive, but after a big day of skiing, it will most certainly crush your hunger.
There is tons of stuff to do in Valdez, so if the weather is bad, you’re sure to find something to do to kill time. One of our favorites was rummaging around in photographer Jeff Cricco’s attic. There’s some wild shit up there left from the last century of strange people living in the house.
The biggest variable when skiing in Alaska is weather. It changes on a dime and can be snowy or cloudy for weeks on end. It can also be sunny for weeks at a time. It’s always a gamble, and you have to take the good with the bad. On our trip, the first two days were pretty socked in, and we only got a couple runs on each of them. The good news is, if you get less than 3 runs in a day, you get the day back and can hold onto it in hopes of nicer weather rolling in.
After those first two days, the weather broke, and we were able to work on our tans while shredding the steepest stuff most of us had ever skied.
Take the sickest photos and videos you’ve seen come out of Alaska and put yourself in the place of the skier. That’s the terrain. It’s right there for you to take. Of course, you don’t have to jump off the 50-footer that Seth Morrison hits, but you can ski the rest of the same line, if you want, and go around the air.
With such a vast amount of terrain (something like 1,000,000 private acres), there is something for literally everyone out there. You can get super extreme and ski some 55+ degree sustained slopes, or if you’d rather ski mellow powder, you can cruise massive open pow fields.
The slopes in AK are just like what they appear to be in all the media you’ve seen: they’re huge, majestic, and waiting for you to shred them up.
The Heli/Crew size
H2O uses A-Star helis that fit the pilot, a guide, and five more people. It’s not exactly spacious in there, but it’s comfortable enough. Ideally, you’re going to want to put together a crew of people you know aren’t going to hold you back. If you are alone, you can call up and be fit into another group without a problem.
Private vs. Public Heli Packages
There are two basic types of heliskiing packages offered at H2O: Private and Public. The unanimous choice of all the guides I spoke to is that private is the best way to go.
Public offers up to about four groups, all sharing the same heli. A 5 day/7 night package will run you about $6,000. That gets you five days on the mountain (weather permitting), with six runs per day. That equals somewhere around 20,000 vertical feet per day. You can, of course, buy more runs at the price of $100/person/run, so if you and your four buddies want an extra run at the end of the day, you’re looking at about $500 total, which is pretty good. On a good weather day, groups average one or two extras per day.
A private heli is just that: your very own heli. A week with a private heli will run you about $60,000. The number looks staggering at first, but here’s the deal: You can have two groups to one private heli. Each group can have five people. So with 10 people chipping in, you’re looking at about $6,000 per person, which is pretty much what a public heli costs!
The huge advantage of the private heli option is that you get as many runs per day as you want. Rumor has it the record is 18 in one day. So if you can get 10 people together to get on the trip, get yourself a private heli, and live the ultimate dream.
What’s the Total Cost?
Heliskiing definitely isn’t cheap, but it isn’t completely out of grasp with a little saving. For our trip, this is how our costs broke down (per person):
Flight to Anchorage: $650
Renting the RV: $250
Gas for the RV: $100
Heli time: $6,000 or so
Dinners (lunch and breakfast are included in the package): $100
Drinking: Who knows?
All said and done, the ultimate heli trip will run you about $7,000.
Bye bye, thank you!
There are a lot of great people working at H2O that Jimbo, Gabe, Gary, Luke and I had the pleasure of interacting with. From the head man Dean Cummings, all the way to office man Jeremy and worker bee Pond, we were treated to a first class experience. Thanks a lot for the dream come true.