Alaska's Chugach Mountains are a skier's ultimate dream. Mind-boggling steeps, stunning backdrops, and a relatively stable coastal snowpack have made these mountains a mecca for ski-film rock stars and mere mortals who want to taste the ultimate in powder and terrain. Ground zero for Chugach heli outfits has long been the town of Valdez. Unfortunately, Alaska's newfound fame has begun to turn the town into a rat race. A new alternative is Points North Heli-Adventures (PNH). Located in the town of Cordova, PNH is a heli operation that taps the same unparalleled turns, but without the scene.
On my third day at PNH, I am roused from a deep sleep by the most welcome of alarm clocks¿a helicopter's rumble. A quick look out my window confirms my hopes: The perpetual down-day gray is gone, glorious rays of light reflect off the water of Prince William Sound, and people are bouncing around. It is a "bluebee," a bluebird day.
A half hour later we are in the air. Soon the water gives way to tributaries and then to snow and glacial ice. It's 18 minutes to the heart of this stunning range. We circle a couple of times and land. And then...silence. A panorama of white, jagged peaks slices the deep blue sky. We have the world to ourselves.
Typically, Valdez heli-skiing is a smorgasbord of emotions. First, long days of waiting through gray, overcast skies lull you into a state of lethargy. Then, you feel the supercharged rush brought by blue skies. You wake up at dawn, and if it is clear, you make the mad dash 30 miles up the road to the chopper. You perform the inevitable last-minute gear scurry and then sit and wait¿sometimes for hours¿before getting the fix at the end of the flight.
At PNH, I am at that moment, ready to drop in¿and it's less than an hour after I got out of bed. And we are alone; there is not another helicopter in the sky. This, too, is a new sensation. At last count, there were over 10 birds operating around Thompson Pass (the primary area the Valdez outfits access), and they often ski the same peaks. Sometimes, it can't help but feel like a feeding frenzy. PNH has its own slice of the Chugach all to itself.
I take a deep breath and look over the edge. Endless fields of white with a consistent 40-plus fall line all the way down. It's so hard to judge scale out here. How far down is the valley floor? What's over the ridgeline? Where do we stop? I do one last check, drop in, and all thoughts melt away. Turn after perfect turn, the sense that this moment is as good as it gets reinforces itself.
Waiting for our pickup, I try to imagine what a bad run would be like. Perhaps one of those absurdly steep descents with multiple death exposures at each turn. No, thank you. I didn't come to push myself to the edge¿just give me your average: 40¿45 degrees with stable conditions, perfect powder, and stunning views. That's PNH.
At almost 8 p.m. the light has just started to shift toward the warming red of dusk, and the sound's many islands seem to shimmer in the water. We land. I stumble from the heli-pad to my room, drop my load, and walk back down to the lodge. The dining hall is abuzz with smiling, sunburned faces. As I dig into yet another great meal, I can't help but feel like they make it just a little bit too easy. The ultimate ride with none of the usual hassles.
After dinner, I find myself outside among friends listening to a few loud sea lions and otters as the water flows by and the day sheds its last light. I am told that tonight will be a great opportunity to visit with Aurora Borealis if it decides to show. But my pillow is calling. It is almost midnight, and I am satiated, worn out, and ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
Points North Heli-Adventure's (877-787-6784) prices are competitive with just about any heli operation around. For a measly $99 per day, PNH offers a simple but clean room for two. The cost for the heliicopter is reasonable, at around $450 per flight hour.
Weather or Not
Bad weather is a very real part of the Alaskan experience, one you can count on. Down-day activities are one of PNH's specialties. You can head off to ski at the local Mount Eyak, which has amazing views of the sound, a $2-per-ride chairlift, and great backcountry access. There are numerous commercial fishing-boat options that offer the very real possibility of pulling in a 300-pound halibut. Or there's always kayaking, ice climbing, or bungee jumping. Better yet, spend some time with the locals. Isolation makes Cordovans a unique breed, and their warmth for each other and the land is obvious.