The big day has finally arrived. We're rolling along on the scenic Richardson Highway into the heart of Alaska's legendary Chugach Range, home to the world's most serious ski terrain and 1,000 inches of annual snowfall. I'd been preparing for this moment for three months-biking, lifting, skiing hard, researching-but now I'm not sure if I'm ready, either mentally or physically.
At the wheel is veteran Valdez skier Tim Petrick, 47, who runs the K2 ski company and was the driving force in organizing our group of eight skiers to fly with the Valdez Heli-Ski Guides (VHSG) in late April. Petrick, a former PSIA Demo Team member, sits excitedly in the first pew of the Church of the Chugach. Now he gleefully points up at impossibly steep ramps and super-tight couloirs, runs that seem to tumble out of the blue sky. "We'll ski stuff like that," he says, "and that, and maybe that, too." I silently nod my head in a combination of disbelief, awe, excitement and fear.
Thirty minutes later, we're stretching in the muddy parking lot at VHSG's base operation on Thompson Pass. While it is quite possible to ski Valdez and stick to relatively tame 30- and 40-degree slopes (think Stowe's Nose Dive or Alta's High Rustler), that's not the plan. Petrick's longtime friend, Doug Coombs, who won two Valdez Extreme Skiing Championships here before starting VHSG in 1994, will lead us on an "accelerated program." Doug and his wife Emily sold VHSG a year ago to Scott Raynor, a red-bearded veteran guide and avalanche forecaster with a penchant for organization. The Coombs, meanwhile, continue to run their popular Steep Camps in Europe and assist Raynor in Valdez by doing what they most enjoy: guiding skiers.
"Every day is a 'Steep Camp' in Valdez," Coombs tells us. "All our clients go home with a new savvy for skiing the steeps. Alaska skiing is about teamwork, sluff management, skiing one at a time, knowing islands of safety, digging landing zones in tight spots for others to enjoy, scoping and knowing the line. It's not about quantity of vertical, but quality." At VHSG, a typical day involves six or seven runs and 20,000 feet of vertical; 90 percent of the turns are in powder.
A decade ago, Valdez was a wild kingdom, with helicopters and small planes dropping skiers of varying skills into uncharted territory. The scene has since matured, and Coombs points to an impressive safety record for the region's five heli-operators. The visitors have matured, too.
"Most of my clients are 40 years old, have been skiing for 20 years or more, get in 30 to 60 days of skiing a year, do sports year-round, make good money and are basically addicts," Coombs tells me. "Sounds like you, doesn't it?" After spending a couple of hours on beacon-, safety- and heli-training, we squeeze into the six-seat AStar at 5 p.m. for some twilight turns. In conversations with Valdez veterans, I'd been told that if our group was strong, we'd eventually ski a classic chute called Python. After a good warm-up run, we head to our second peak and unload on a narrow ledge. It's the Cherry Couloir of Python.
Coombs recalls his first descent here a decade ago, when he was just learning what could be accomplished in these mountains. Back then, everyone was skiing on impossibly narrow GS skis, and the best skiers struggled. "Now, with big wide skis and the right instruction and technique, we have 50-year-olds skiing 50-degree chutes," Coombs says. "And they're loving it."
Python is a little crusty, but it's skiable. Coombs gives us some basic confidence-building tips and off we go into the evening. After four twilight runs, including the last two in magnificent powder, we fly back to the base. We had skied some fairly steep terrain, and I feel strong, relieved and ready for more challenge tomorrow.As we near touch-down, a look of concern comes over the boyish face of Coombs, who sits in the co-pilot's seat. A ridge across the valley had mysteriously slid; a huge avalanche, enough to takee out a small village. It was neither my first nor last reminder that this is not Vail's Back Bowls.
Over the next two days, our group skis steeper and steeper ramps, ridges and chutes. The pilot drops us off on landing zones no bigger than a beach blanket. On some occasions, Coombs declares the terrain we are about to ski to be a "no-fall zone;" another chute is deemed a "closed-casket zone." Nobody asks for any further explanation.
Whether staring into the jaws of a slide-prone 50-degree couloir or ordering pizza, Coombs reduces everything to the basics. "It's all good," is his mantra. For me, that means one step at a time, one turn at a time. Stay balanced, always pressure the tongues of my boots, don't ever sit back. At Coombs' suggestion, I shorten my poles from 50 inches to 46 inches to keep me forward on the steep terrain.
I enjoy the art of Sluff Management 101. With each turn on the Chugach steeps, you set off a small slide, called a sluff.
After several turns, these sluffs come together, creating a mini-avalanche. The VHSG guides teach us to always have a bail-out plan. So it's four turns down the fall line, then a big turn up to the left, out of the sluff, time to let it go, then back into the fall line. One member of our group is caught in a gully by his sluff and goes for a short ride. They call it getting "Chugached."
Too soon, it's time for our group to go our separate ways. Though Tim Petrick blew his knee out in a high-speed dance on a run called Superbowl, he's already training religiously for next year's return and rallying the troops with inspirational emails about his rehab.
Looking back, I feel like I skied well, but only at 80 percent capacity. As I train and prepare for next April, I'll shoot for 90 percent. It's all good.
The prime-time Valdez season is March and April. Seven-night, seven-day packages, including lodging, range from $3,640 to $4,200. Contact VHSG at 907-835-4528; www.valdezheliskiguides.com; firstname.lastname@example.org. There are about five heli-operations in Valdez. For more information, go to skimag.com and do a keyword search for "heli trips." For more information on Coomb's Steep Camps, visit www.dougcoombs.com. For the full transcript of an interview with Doug Coombs, go to skimag.com and search for "coombs interview."