So you want to be a heli ski guide?
28-YEAR-OLD AARON KARITIS TELLS HOW HE MADE IT HAPPEN — AS TOLD TO TESS WEAVER
AS SEEN IN THE 2012 FREESKIER BACKCOUNTRY EDITION
I STARTED SKIING WHEN I WAS THREE YEARS old at Mt. Bachelor and raced through high school. I went to the University of Utah to ski powder. I knew I wanted to spend my life in the mountains and the coolest thing I could imagine doing was owning a heli ski operation. I majored in commercial recreation, with a minor in business.
PHOTO: JEFF CRICCO LOCATION: CHUGACH, AK
The program required two internships. I called up Wasatch Powderbird Guides, told them my background and that I was willing to do anything they needed. I hassled them from October until I got the internship in January. I worked ground crew, aircraft orientation, picked up clients, fueled the crafts, shoveled snow—all while maintaining my normal workload at school. As the internship progressed, I did a lot of office work—reservations, checking clients in. I even got the chance to tailguide a couple times.
The most influential people I met while I was there were Spencer Wheatley and Ryan Carlson, two guides who told me about Alaska. I fell in love with the idea. I refined my resume and sent it off to ten heli ops in Alaska and Canada.
My first real contact was with Mica Heliskiing. I was heading to New Zealand that summer for a semester abroad and agreed to help promote them down there. It was basically a grassroots marketing campaign.
After sending out my resume, I did some follow up calls. H20 Guides in Valdez showed some interest and told me to call them September 1st. Karen Cummings was blown away I actually called on that day and I got the internship.
I got to Valdez in November. I woke up the first morning and it was fucking cold. It was negative temps, windy and dark. They asked me if I was a “turn a wrench guy “or an “email guy”. I looked out the window and saw a full-size dumpster getting blown 30mph down the street and said, “I’m more of a computer guy.”
PHOTOS: ASHLEY BARKER LOCATION: VALDEZ, AK
Within three weeks, the office manager had to leave and I took over. You learn to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I told them I wanted to learn to be a guide; that I wanted to get as much experience as possible. I took part in their guide school and instead of going home after, I was able to stay in the field and directly apply all this stuff I’d just learned.
I went back for my senior year at the U and helped H20 remotely. I helped host camps at Snowbird and did some consulting. In the summer of 2006, I started my position as Director of Operations for H20.
That winter, I tail guided often and had a handful of days as a lead guide. It was very humbling. There was a persistent surface hoar layer that was out there. For years, you’re assisting and following, then one day, it’s all on you. There’s no in between.
I’m now one of three lead guides for the company. Senior guides can open terrain and make more complex decisions in the mountains. Leads aren’t only responsible for their group, but for everyone in the field on a given day.
The pilot always used to tell me where we were going. Now, that’s my job. I plan the day—who’s going where, who’s skiing what, what runs are off limits. I have to have a back-up plan if the stability or weather or snow quality isn’t favorable.
Every season, I get to Valdez in February for guide training and set up. We have to get the radio antenna and rescue cache set up out in the middle of nowhere. Part of setting up that equipment is seeing what we’re dealing with that season. You’re taking five months of snowpack and trying to understand its history. We’re digging on all aspects and elevations, looking with our eyes, feeling with our feet and skis and shooting photos of runs for training and reference later in the season.
When I’m not in Alaska, I’m doing operational stuff like managing permits and employees and doing sales and marketing for the company.
- Do it for the right reasons, not because it sounds cool at the bar or you want to ski powder for a living. Be ok with living in a remote, inhospitable place.
- Get as educated as possible. Take your courses, then apply the information. Go on overnight ski camping trips. Go ski in far-off places you don’t know anything about.
- Make contacts in the industry. Make a strong first impression and come across as a professional.
- You aren’t going to be a guide for awhile. It’s a desirable job with not a lot of turnover. It’s a profession that’s about seniority.