Buenas tardy Freeskier.com readers. Here’s the second edition, week two of my weekly updates from Valdez working for Dean Cumming’s H20 Guides. Enjoy.
My day starts off with the usual: guide meeting at 6:55 a.m., 6a.m. if you’re preparing the weather. Guides roll in earlier than later, squinting at maps on the wall and drinking free watered-down hotel coffee. A typical guide meeting starts with a look at the weather. It’s generally a pretty broad discussion that includes calling highway workers on the pass, other heli-operators in the area, pulling up multiple live camera feeds online of Thompson Pass, local radar, the jet stream, and satellite loops. If conditions look questionable but we think things are breaking, we’ll send out the gas truck for on the spot visual.
MSP showed up late last night. They came in with their own helicopter, an ASTAR B3 (the big dog of helicopters for heliskiing). It has more power, a necessity for flying at high elevation. The higher we go, the colder and denser the air is, which makes it necessary for more horsepower to move the air around and create lift. They chose H20 because of our forest permit area: the jewel in Dean’s H2O crown. This area is an application permit area that we apply for and is awarded to outfits that have the best safety record, flight protocol and guide experience. The permit area has 1.6 million acres and is deeply glaciated with some of the coldest wind sheltered goods in the Chugach.
After thinking I donâ€™t need to purchase boots, it gets dreary again. The temps rise and it starts to pour rain and sleet intermittently for three days. I find myself slinking into depression. Each storm has been named by one of the guides from competing companies in town. The first storm that I arrived in the middle of was called Numchuck. I have not heard what the name of this one is but, I’ll be psyched when it’s over. I spend these down days getting trained. At night I practice my rope work with some of the other first year guides, go to the gym and eat at the Halibut House, a fishy Valdez alternative to McDonalds. I try to fight the dreariness and the effects of SED with limited success. The work days are getting a little shorter, but we’re still putting in stout 12 hour days.
The temps start to drop and it starts to snow in town. The pass is at 2678 feet above sea level. Our base is obviously at sea level. Coming from West Vail at a little over 8000, I felt Superman strong for the first couple of weeks. However rainy weather and fried fish are making me soft(er). And it’s hard not to fixate on the fact that I went from skiing every day for months on end during one of the best years in Colorado history to not skiing at all for stretches of over 10 days. So I’m sitting around asking myself, “What am I doing?” But I knew the deal coming into this: My first trip to Valdez in ’97 I sat around for 19 days, flew for a half a day, then bagged it and left. The morale starts to decay with so much ground work, such long hours, and No Skiing.
It’s still dumping. Giant plow tractors the size of houses battle the snow banks and drifts on the roadways. I awaken periodically throughout the night to the sound of large thumps. I know what it is. It’s the sound of snow falling from the roof every couple of hours. We’re getting a meter every night, and I find it easy to go back to sleep and dream of heli-assisted powder turns.
Still snowing. If Valdez were a small Chinese village, it would be called Dump Ping. There are rumors that the Matchstick crew wants to pull the plug and fly down the coast to get some work done in BC. In the late morning, I get a chance to go with some of the clients to the Valdez Glacier. Dean grabs his Summit 800 and another guide, Jordan Pond, a greenhorn to the Chugach like myself. Jordan grabs the sled he took in his truck on a solo road mission across the Yukon from Salt Lake. The two of them tow the group across a frozen glacial lagoon. There are huge glacial ice chunks from the glacier that are frozen in place. This gives me an uplifting feeling and an outlet for my pent up energy. I try ice climbing for the first time ever. Dean brings us to a large chunk that is a bluish-green color. It’s an unreal color that only a child could imagine and I find myself taking pictures with a renewed energy. While I am shooting, the biggest snowflakes I have ever seen start to fall. During a couple of quick seconds I find myself staring into the sky watching snow flakes gracefully drop from on high. They’re the size of Oreos and I feel like I’m 7 as I move to track the flakes and let them touch down on my face and try to catch them with my mouth. But I’m not skiing and it’s still snowing in Vail where the skiing is epic. Friends call me daily to tell me this. What am I doing here?
I hope Mother Nature gives me the tap. I’m ready coach, put me in.
Tune in next week. It’s looking like the weather might break, and it could be an all-league Alaskan powderfest. Weather permitting; I’ll be showcasing some sneak peak images from the Matchstick crew, courtesy of ace Freeskier Senior Photographer Flip McCririck.