Alaska oh my god indeed. it just doesn’t get better, or wilder, than this.
The crew at seaba heli skiing in Haines can set you down on the eye of a needle. Then it’s over to you.
story peter wunder
photos courtesy & © www.willwissman.com / seaba-heli.com & Peter Wunder (for the full mindblowing selection of Will Wissman’s amazing Seaba heli pics, some of the best it’s been our privilege to feature in the history of Snow Action grab the ipad/all format digital issue issue here at pocketmags – only $2.49 you are guaranteed to be left drooling ..)
Heli-skiing alaska has been a dream of mine, and something I had been wanting to do, for 15 years. I eventually got my first chance in March 2011. It was a huge wake up call to big mountain skiing. At the time I said it was going to be a one off, a ‘trip of a lifetime’, as it’s pretty expensive. However, I found myself wanting more, and the opportunity came for me to revisit Alaska in early April 2012.
I love both skiing and snowboarding, it’s without a doubt my number one passion. I spend a lot of time at my home resort of Thredbo, and every December to January I try to do at least 3 weeks in Japan, where I have a business selling residential land in the ski resort town of Rusutsu.
When I decided to go back to Alaska it was a no brainer to go with the same company I did my first trip with – SEABA, which stands for South East Alaska Back Country Adventures, based in Haines Alaska. They have their own lodge, Fort Seward Lodge, just a 10 minute drive away from the local airport, and right on the water overlooking the Chilkat Inlet in the middle of town. A perfect spot with a million dollar view.
SEABA are considered by many to be the best operators in the area. They have some of the most qualified and impressive guides North America has to offer, which is exactly what you want when heli-skiing in Alaska. The risks can be high, and the consequences even higher. SEABA however have a fatality free record, and I wouldn’t trust my life with anyone but the best.
As soon as I arrived the guides ran me through a very thorough safety briefing, which included being fitted out with a safety beacon and an ABS airbag – an airbag in your backpack. If you get caught in an avalanche you pull a cord and two big air bags pop out of the backpack. It works on the same principle as a packet of chips. All the crumbs fall to the bottom and the big chips (being you) float to the top. We also ran through procedures on how to get in and out of the helicopter, which isn’t as easy as it sounds, how to deal with avalanches, how to conduct a rescue and much more. It left me with a sense of calmness, that I knew what to do, was in good hands, and everything was safe and under control.
First day was a bad weather day so I decided to explore the town of Haines. It’s not big, but there are a few interesting shops and nice places for lunch. The locals are very friendly and love an Aussie accent.
Second day was looking like it was going to be a bad weather day as well, until we got to 5.30pm. I thought the day was well over, but the weather cleared up and the guides wanted to get us out as much as possible, so we all hustled to get our gear ready. Keep in mind that during April the sun wasn’t setting till around 10pm, so we still had plenty of time for a few runs.
I got put into a group with guide Kent McBride, who among other impressive feats has climbed the ‘Seven Summits’. We got out for three runs that day, which were fairly easy ones to get familiar with our gear and get back into the swing of things.
At SEABA, whether you’re on your own or with a group, the guides will arrange you into groups of four and try to match up your skiing ability as much as possible. They do a good job, but it’s fairly tricky as they need to fill the choppers. The ideal way to do this trip is to take a group of four friends that are all of the same ability, but obviously that’s not always possible. So sometimes you’ll just have to cop who you get in your group (or they you as the case may be).
Over the next few days we generally started off with some good warm up runs which everyone was comfortable doing. There were a few days where we had a very experienced group, and once the guides got to know us, and were comfortable with our ability, we started getting into some big crazy lines.
Flying up to the top of the mountain is pretty heart pounding stuff. The guide is looking for the best line for our group, and we are all just looking in awe and wondering where we’re going to go. Trying to get a glimpse of the next run to see where to go, and more importantly, where not to go.
Once we’re on the run we generally couldn’t see 99% of what’s in front of us because it’s so steep and drops away so quickly. So we took lots of mental notes on the way up. We’d also take photos when we were flying over the run in the chopper, so once we got to the top we could inspect the line.
Landing the chopper on top of the mountain is an experience in itself. The chopper usually lands on the peak of the mountain, which is often no more than one metre wide and the five of us had to climb out of the chopper and perch on this tiny platform that was only really meant for two. There’s a sheer cliff face on one side, and maybe a 65 degree slope on the other side. Once the hurricane strength winds from the chopper are gone we are left with absolute silence and the best view in the world over the Chilkat range. However we quickly realise where we are, that we have a cliff on either side of us, and need to somehow manoeuvre to get ready on something the size of a postage stamp.
By this time my heart is pounding because I know what’s coming. However once I drop in it all seems to come together and I’m having the time of my life.
Heli-skiing in Alaska has a lot more going on than your normal ski run down a hill. There are so many variables and risks, but for me that’s what makes it so exciting.
A lot of the runs this year had bergschrunds (crevasses) at the bottom which we really needed to be aware of. They could range from just a few centimetres wide to up to 7m across, up to 6m drops, and who knows how deep? The guides were telling us they think they go as much as 100m deep, so there’s little chance of coming back from that if you fall or slide into one. We had to have our wits about us.
I found that I’d spend most of my run planning to be in the right spot to hit up the bergschrund, looking out for it the whole way down so once I saw it coming close I would get up all the speed I could and jump for my life. It was always hard to know their real size. As a general rule, if the bergschrund looks like 1m from the chopper, times that by 5! I’d get a glimpse of the size of the gap and the depth as I was flying over it, but by then had to fully commit. I couldn’t help thinking if I went in there I wouldn’t be coming out. We were wearing a harness all day for this very reason, so if we did fall in the chopper can drop a line to pull us out.
Another major thing on my mind was sluff. Sluff is the moving snow that travels down the hill with you, but it’s not an avalanche. The same principal applies to sluff as an avalanche though, so we had to be very careful of this as it would knock us down like an ant and swallow us up. Which it sometimes did. So I needed to manage my sluff carefully. Always looking over my shoulder to see where it was and thinking ahead so I’d know how to manage it. Either pulling up in a safe zone, or going for gold and racing it down the hill. If I did fall I could expect to be covered by the sluff very fast, and it did more than once take a few of us for an extended ride down the hill. Once I’d finish the run though I’d look back up and feel a massive sense of achievement at what I’d just accomplished.
The highlight of my trip this year was my second last day, when my guide was the famous Reggie Crist – the only person to win the X-Games Skier Cross twice. He’s an Olympian and World Cup Downhill racer. Also in the group was another experienced guide, a pro boarder and an experienced skier.
We flew out on a bluebird day after a three day storm and a 35cm dump. There was this one mountain that was staring us all in the face and we just had to hit it up. It was the famous Tomahawk! It got its name from the first time it was ridden by four pro riders. They all tomahawked down the whole run – as in the motion an axe does when you throw it end over end. To quote Reggie, “You know it’s going to be one hell of a day when Tomahawk is your warm up run!” Our group all smashed it, so we moved on to the next one.
For our next run we couldn’t land the chopper, there was simply not enough room on the peak. So the pilot, an amazing Vietnam vet with balls of steel, eased us in close enough for us all to jump out onto a nothing piece of real estate.
This run had never been skied before. It was almost 70° steep with massive spines and a big bergschrund at the bottom which was around 6m wide with a 5m drop. It was very challenging and a bit scary, but we all made it down, jumping the bergschrund safely.
At the bottom I breathed a huge sigh of relief, looking back up at the absolute monster of a mountain I had just come down. It was a good 1100m vertical. We continued on great runs all day, run after run, including the famous Bell Ringer. It’s a day I will remember for the rest of my life.
I managed to board 140,000 vertical feet in 10 days, which is massive as there were many days we couldn’t fly or only fly for a few hours due to weather. On days you can’t fly, which happen regularly during the Alaska season, the SEABA guides always try to organise some sort of activity. There’s cat skiing, boat trips, a gun range, fishing, bush walks or hiking up a snow hill and having a ski down.
If you can’t confidently ski every line and condition in Australia then Haines is probably not the place for you. However it doesn’t have to be all crazy steep lines and jumping bergschrunds. The guides know this terrain better than anyone, so if you’re feeling a bit cautious they will take you on whatever type of run suits your experience.
Heli-skiing in Alaska is a good alternative to heli-skiing in Canada as it does have some of the same levels of runs. However if you do want to step it up a notch or several you can, unlike Canada where there is generally a limit on the degree of difficulty.
I must admit I was a bit worried about going over to Alaska this time on my own, but I had the time of my life anyway. Thanks to the great guys at SEABA, the great staff and guides and the awesome people I met along the way. Film crews like Standard Films, TGR and the Levitation Project. Plus all the pro skiers and boarders I’ve watched in films over the years. It was fantastic to be able to meet and heli-ski with such people.
If you have ever thought about hitting up the ultimate Alaska experience but weren’t sure how to go about it now you do.
Get in touch with the guys at SEABA (seaba-heli.com) they’ll take great care of you and you’ll have the time of your life.
[the ticket] seaba heli skiing, haines, alaska
dates & rates the season runs from February to beginning of May, with low season Feb – early March, Standard 7 night Sunday – Sunday Packages from (all $USD 2012 rates clic links for update info/bookings) $5600pp 2 share or $USD 6400pp 2 share ‘Prime Time’ in March & April. Single rates from $6000 / $6800. Includes • Guiding and support • 90,000 vertical feet of skiing • Snowcat Backup • 7 nights lodging • Continental Breakfast • all transportation in Haines • Safety equipment. Extra skiing $USD 140 per run, meals package add $USD 885 incl 18% gratuity. boookings/more info contact www.seaba-heli.com