Alaska Heli - Is It Worth The Trip
It’s 11:30 pm Saturday night. My body is tired from training so much; my head hits the pillow but my mind walks up. I think about where I’ll be in a week’s time. All the questions and concerns start to sink in. Have I done enough? Is my fitness where it should be? What about extra insurance? This time one week from now, I’ll be at Seattle airport taking off for my bucket list adventure. Heli Boarding in Alaska!
There is a buzz that is starting to come over me, and my 9-5 job is starting to fade away, as now the countdown clock has started. I assess what I need to take. I notice something I have missed! You must bring your own radio. Lucky enough I have one, but never used it on a trip like this. Sure, many times I’ve dropped into a bowl or line and I’ve said to myself, “dropping” Just like all the pro’s do when you watch any film. That thought came over me tonight. That’s going to be me next week. Minus being a pro. But that feeling of saying your first dropping over the radio will be a buzz.
It won’t stop me saying what I always like to say to myself just before I’m about to find my limit, knowing I’m about to do something that could get me in danger. It’s my head game telling me to push myself, the risk assessment, then the outcome. It’s the voice of Kevin McCallister in Home Alone “This is it, don’t get scared now”. That voice has got me into some trouble over the years, and it’s all been worth it.
This is my first heli trip and a trip like this takes some time to prep. I don’t want to leave any stone unturned. I’ve stayed away from booze, eaten all the right foods to strip weight and trained sometimes three times a day. The focus has all been about legs. That burn you feel when in deep pow because I’m not used to the steep and deep. Some trips you only get that run once. I expect most of these runs to be like that. I want to be ready. Why take your foot off the peddle if you’ve got gas to burn? Soon I will soon find out where I’m at.
First comes the desire, then physical and mental prep. While most people are content on riding inbounds, occasionally getting into the side country and a tree run when the confidence is high. There is another crew who chase a different desire. It’s been with me for too long to ignore, it’s the itch I need to scratch. It first started on a trip to Whistler in 2008. We collected the last of the crew and someone I had not met. While heading up for fresh tracks, when you talk to someone new, it’s a common interest you find, ask them the questions and keep a conversation rolling. It’s meeting people 101. The conversation rolled on from “is this your first time in Whistler” to “Oh, you have done Heli. How would you describe it”? I was mesmerised. He responded with a question. “Do you know what happens when people get hooked on drugs” and then the follow up is what got me. He explained “it’s a drug. You get a little bit, and next thing you know, they got you coming back for more”. His final message was there is only one place in the world you want to do it, and that is Alaska. I’m soon to find out if he is right.
That conversation never left me. It haunted me. Is it really an addiction? The next piece of the puzzle came in 2011 when The Art of Flight got released. Never had a film like this been done. Replaced was the consistency in every other film. A storyline, music that gave inspiration. Typically, these adventure films are hardcore rock that makes you want to head butt someone. Not this. The way they could ride these Alaskan spines changed the way people rode. When Jeremy Jones claimed “That is the future and the future is now” speaking of the one and only Travis Rice, it lifted the way people approached films. In a way, I think it lifted the way people wanted to ride. After watching The Art of Flight multiple times, that was the first time I said it out loud. One day, I’m going to be good enough to ride in Alaska. And here I am.
I’m now days out from going. I’m contemplating everything. The Chugach Mountains just had an avalanche triggered. One crew got buried, standing in the safe zone when the final skier triggered an avalanche. They all got out, but farkkkkk. It starts to play on my mind. It’s a bucket list trip. And the intention of the bucket is to get the trip done before the bucket is kicked. So, I look at extra insurance, I find someone who covers Heli and I take out a policy. The day before, I send my wife an email. It’s one I had been dreading to write. I didn’t want to make her worry, but I wanted to be sure that if anything happened, what to do. Every password was given and all access if the worst happened. I wanted so bad to tell her my fears, but that was not something I wanted to worry her with. I left knowing that she would be able to access everything if I was not to return.
Touch down! The big wait is almost over. It’s been a 45hr transit from Sydney Australia. Not the easiest place to get to. SYDNEY > SAN FRANCISCO > SEATTLE > JUNEAU > YAKUTAT > CORDOVA.
On the final leg of the journey, our driver informs us we could have timed it just right. There has been some heavy snow, and the sun is poking out. It looks like it’s going to be blue bird for the next three days. This trip is looking up.
We arrive on a Saturday, which is change over day. It’s time to go and have a look around. Alaska is known for its landscape and animals. I have not been here more than 4hrs and spotted a bald eagle on the side of the road and some sea otters messing around.
Cordova is a step back in time. There is nothing to remind you that it’s 2019, feels more like 1989. When purchasing my beer for the week, I did my usual way of tapping my card to do a contactless payment. They were blown away “wow, a chip card. Haven’t seen one of those in a while”. Now I’m glad I didn’t pay with my watch.
Day one. Heli is not what I expected! There is a big misconception and the crew try and keep it under wraps, you don’t need to be an extreme rider to do Heli. It’s mainly for people to tell you that they have done Heli and had the money to do it.
Most people get paired with their ability. When you sign on, you’re asked where you’re at. It’s the hardest one to answer. You don’t want to say that you are the best that ever landed here. You don’t want to say that you are shitting yourself either, because you have never been Heli before. So, it’s tough. My advice would be to overcompensate. Most people do, but I made the mistake of underestimating my ability.
Day one I was grouped with some absolute legends, but I wanted steeper and deeper. First run, one guy was saying how his legs were burning. I was not even warmed up. So much training to get to this moment, and I was already being held back. I requested to be moved group. Also, there is no call on the radio of “dropping”. All you get is your guide at the bottom if they have been down first and we follow single file, 20,30,40 meters apart or party ski when we all rock it down at once. It didn’t bother me too much. I still had Kevin McAllister in my head.
Day two the intensity went up; I was in a new group. There was only one run that got the heart pumping. It was the run of the trip. The one that may start the addiction.
We drop in on a peak that has never been ridden. The area is new to the operation. Soon as we land, our guide radios another group about how epic this looks. Next second chop chop lands, the group of four turns to eight, and we have priority. Our guide goes down first on a blind roll over, it’s so steep, we can’t even see him come out at the bottom. Over the radio comes the report. “Boys don’t do this run if you’re unsure in any way about your ability. It’s steep, no powder, you will be holding an edge until the bottom. If you fall there is a good chance you could die”. Wow, this is real. My heart rate jumps. Now it’s time to ride. I’m the closest to the edge and clipped in. The group nods to me, “you want it”. Kevin McAllister in my head says, “Don’t get scared now” I nod to the boys and let them know I’m in. And some ride it was. Every moment you are focused. There are studies on a state of mind called “flow” where you are completely in the zone. This is one run if you are not in the flow, you’re dead. Not everyone did the run, and that is fine. When the risk of death is there, most boys on the trip dread this. Doing Heli, for me this is what it is all about. Finding your limit, pushing yourself and wanting to come back for more. Some are after the dreamy powder lines. Sure, they are fun, but that is why you venture out to the backcountry. But as I say, Heli is for just about anyone from intermediate upwards. Choose your own adventure.
In these mountains, there is so much talk about the lines the pros ride, and we got to do a handful. And we ride them like armatures, stopping for sluff and taking our time. At the bottom people talk about how they pointed it and took on the mountain. My eyes roll. When you see their GoPro footage you understand why Red Bull Media House doesn’t come knocking.
After day two, I requested to be put into a more advanced group again. By this time, the groups are dialed in, and changes are not that common unless there is an injury. Also, one thing to note (which you can take however you like) Be prepared to be treated like a child. You are told where to stand when to move. Where to urinate. You don’t ask and you get told off. There are consequences, but you sign them away on a waiver when you arrive. Your life is not only in your own hands, but your guides too. There are different guides and they all come with their own style. Try and find the one you think is the most chill, and your week will be great. Get anyone with anxiety, and you will think that you are back in kindergarten.
Day three, one group member has done an injury and asked can we not do anything too extreme! The anger inside is hard to contain, but I do. We are all in this together. We are getting close to the end of the day, and he calls it in to get taken home. Before this, we are into terrain that is challenging in some parts and generally fine in others. If you were to run top to bottom with no stops, most runs you will do in 3 to 5 minutes.
Finally, I get the chance to get some lines that get the heart pumping. And in true Alaska style, the weather changes. Clouds roll in and visibility is low. We all change to low visibility lens’s and it’s not enough. The runs we were doing got the heart pumping, but not in the way you want. When all you see if white, with no reference of trees or rocks to guide you, it can get scary when the white rug gets taken from below and you’re sliding down in sluff you can’t see. And you’re not sure when it’s going to stop.
We now roll into down days, and it’s time to see if the weather is going to clear. Things change here in minutes, so it’s not a place to become a weatherman.
The more the week rolls in, all the first timers talk about their experiences and what they expected. As mentioned, you don’t need to be a pro looking to get featured in the next Warren Miller film. There are some amateurs here. Some ride once a year, some have not been on the slopes for years. They still find their lines. There is plenty of mellow terrain here. There is also plenty of steep and deep. But Alaska caters for everyone. If this is something you can afford, then go for it. But, and this is a big but. You can spend all the money you want, take all this time off work, and you might come back with nothing because the weather changed, and you get skunked for a week.
For my week, there was a variety of groups. You have people with no kids (so cash to spend on yourself) not some kids’ education. You then have people here for a milestone, (a 30th or 40th was the general ages where you have the cash and a body that is not too broken that can get you going). I was in the no kid’s category if you were wondering.
I reflect on the week. Was it worth it, did I prepare enough? Would I do it again? As I see the next weeks crew come in. everyone has that same twinkle in their eye. Little do they know that at this stage due to bad weather, they could get skunked.
We all understand that the weather in Alaska changes so fast, so hard to predict what is going to happen when you plan a trip like this 6,8, 12 months out.
I was lucky, well this what I was told. Each day I got six to nine runs and the three days was enough to chew up all the pre-purchased Heli time. There was one more day available to go out, as mother nature decided to open shop. This was USD $1,000 a day per person. That’s roughly USD $180 a run. For me, what I got out of the first three days was enough. I found it hard to justify; there was no new snow, conditions were no different to what I got on the first three days, and there was not going to be any new group. My limit was not going to be tested.
The end questions. Will I go back? I’ve left this story sitting for two weeks now since I left so excited and wanted to reflect on returning. At this stage, I say no. I could not go through all the training, time taken off work, transit time to get there on top of the cash dropped to risk not being able to get one run in. It would be devastating, and it does happen. I’ve ticked the box, I’ve done my Heli. There is plenty of extreme terrain to find in the backcountry. Next trip at the end of the season when the addiction sets in will be Japan. I’ll get on mountain every day, no down days, there will be pow, it will be deep, just not steep. Ill climb those mountains and earn my turns, but dam it helps when you have a chopper. Hummm.
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