Howâ€™s it hanging Freeskier.com readers? Iâ€™m Jeff Cricco, Senior Photographer for Freeskier. Iâ€™ve just scored the opportunity of a lifetime. Iâ€™m in Valdez training to become a guide with H2O Heli Guides, under the tutelage of master guide/owner and Chugach pioneer Dean Cummings. Please join me weekly for my post about what itâ€™s like to become an AK heli guide…
I almost missed my flight from Denver to Anchorage after getting flagged for an additional security search. My camera pack tested positive for bomb residue. After sitting in a chair for 45 minutes, I barely avoid getting the two finger prison handshake from a big dude who looks like a cross between a WWF wrestler and Massachusetts State Cop. I finally convince a guard that itâ€™s from last week. I was shooting stills in Crested Butte for Warren Miller with Lynsey Dyer, Grete Eliason, Wendy Fisher and Rachel Burks during the mack dump. While we got more then 50 inches, I spent every morning in patrol HQ as they bombed the piss out of the mountain like they where looking for Al Qaeda. Finally security searches every piece of my gear and lets me go. Close one.
I make my flight and land in Anchorage at 1 am, sleep on my ski bag in the airport and grab a 7 a.m. flight to Valdez. Iâ€™m in Valdez at 7:45 a.m., and itâ€™s on. Training, training and more training. Then some back-breaking setup work.
Days start at 6:55 a.m. for a 7 a.m. guide meeting, the day ends around 10 p.m.., getting last-minute details, like styling out our A-star B2 helicopter with sponsor logos and stickers. Iâ€™m surrounded by a young crew, hungry to impress Dean as much as possible to get more time in the bird. Each one of us was hand-picked by Dean. Each day the start time is earlier and earlier. I arrive five minutes early at one meeting, and the meeting starts as soon as I walk in the door, quickly alerting me that I was holding up the whole group.
I spend the first five days in Valdez feeling damp, sleep-deprived, and murky. Valdezâ€™s streets are covered in three inches of ice. The rain pools, forming a slushy mix everywhere. You need fishing waders to cross the street, but all I brought was one pair of sneakers. Iâ€™m barely avoiding trench foot. My feet start to smell like bad meat (or good cheese). Then on the sixth day it happens. My feet finally dry up and stop smelling. And we get up on the bird.
We have three shiploads and two missions. One mission is to set up a radio repeater on Hogback Mountain. The other, refered to as the Forest Service Cache, is to place a backboard and emergency supplies in the heart of our enormous forest service permit area. I get on the ship with Deano for the Forrest Service Cache mission. We fly 30 miles southeast of Thompson Pass, deep into the Chugach. I wonder as we load the ship, â€œHow do you stash a backboard in an area that gets 50 feet of snow in a month?â€ Then Deano pulls me aside and relays the wily brilliance of 17 years in the Chugach. He uses a south-facing, wind-sheltered peak, dangling the cache over the rocks. A hanging oasis of safety in the heart of the gnar.
Then itâ€™s time to access the goods. We ski a run. Iâ€™m hooked. More then ever. The sheer power of the helicopter, the unthinkable terrain, being taught by the legend and guru Dean Cummings. Iâ€™m like a kid going to Disneyworld. The build up, the sleepless nights, dreaming and imagining the terrain…
Keep checking back to Freeskier.com for my weekly updates from Valdez!
Also, special thanks to Jason Simons-Jones, owner of https://www.crestedbutteguides.com/ an expert guide and teacher for a Level 1 or 2 AIARE Avalanche class. Please contact him for avalanche classes, guided hiking, skiing and mountain bike tours.