Alaska; skiing the Chugach

For the last decade I have been skiing all over the globe and the objectives and goals within the sport of skiing are getting more and more specific. In the end, steep and remote skiing is what it all comes down to for me. Only few places offer this combination and Alaska is definitely one of them. The Chugach mountain range is known for having great and stable snow conditions on a huge variety of slopes. Valdez is supposed to be one of the best places to experience the Chugach to the max. This spring I simply had to check it out!

The main objective of the trip was to ski the steeps of the Chugach but it was not the only goal. I flew into Denver from where I took a shuttle to Estes Park in order to do an avalanche course. After a stopover in the city of Denver, I would make my way towards Valdez. After a week of exploring the Chugach, I would finish the trip with a couple of days in Chicago, a city that is known for its great live music.

On March 30, 2017 I boarded a flight from Sofia with final destination Denver. Because of economical reasons I flew with Turkish Airlines, not knowing that a certain president would introduce some new regulations regarding travelling from eight countries whose populations are mainly Muslim. Turkey being one of these countries turned out to be bad news. All electronic devices except mobile phones had to be checked in and extra security measures were in place. Because of that the flight from Istanbul to Chicago was delayed by almost one hour, luggage arrived at the belt after three hours, I missed my flight to Denver and when I finally arrived in Denver my ski bag was lost. Thank you very much mister Trump!

After a short night, I took a shuttle to Estes Park which is located about 1,5 hours northwest of Denver and serves as a base for adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). My adventure was a so-called AIARE level 2 course. AIARE stands for American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. In other words, these guys provide avalanche courses according to the American system. I had done the level 1 course in Chamonix, the only place in Europe you can take AIARE courses. The level 2 course was cancelled this year and is not offered very often anyway in the mountaineering capital of the world. Since I had plans to visit “the States” anyway, I decided to expand my original itinerary and take a level 2 course in Estes Park.

Estes Park offers a combination of wildlife and great scenery

The level 1 course is all about understanding the basics of avalanches, interpreting the avalanche bulletins and performing single burial rescues. In the backcountry there are many situations where an avalanche bulletin does not provide sufficient information and where multiple people can get buried by an avalanche. That’s where the level 2 course comes in handy. It’s all about gathering data in order to make slope specific forecasts and how to improve travel and rescue techniques.

The course was lead by Santiago “Chago” Rodriguez, an avalanche and snow researcher but also, of course, an AAA (American Avalanche Association) certified instructor. Born and raised on a surfboard in Puerto Rico he is now a true snow geek. This guy knows everything about snow there is to know! The group consisted of two aspiring mountain guides, an aspiring ski patroller and a couple from New Zealand who had spent the winter in Colorado. Without the Kiwis the group was very nice…

Day 1 was all about the science behind transformations of snow, also known as snow metamorphism. A long day of pretty dry theory resulted in some completely worn-out brains amongst the students. Chago is currently pursuing a PhD in geophysics and snow science and knows an awful lot about the white gold that occasionally falls from the sky. After absorbing theory for about 9 hours, the second day in the field felt as a relief to many of us. We learnt about tilt tests, snow profiles and performed a multi burial rescue. And, to top it off, we actually skied some nice terrain too. On our way to and from the RMNP we were also treated to some great wildlife. Deer, elk, moose, several types of birds and a coyote greeted us during our daily commute!

“Hey Chago, are there any instabilities in the snowpack?”

On day three Chago brought his son Pedro to the park so we could split up in two groups. Pedro studies computer science, works as a ski patroller and is AIARE level 3 certified. In smaller teams we were able to perform several stability tests in order to check for slabs and their likelihood to slide and propagate but also to simulate the stability on wind loaded slopes, steep slopes and the likelihood to trigger a deep instability in a shallow spot. It was a lot of fun and very interesting at the same time to learn about all these tests. In the meantime I talked with Pedro about machine learning and big data…

By exploring the RMNP, I became more and more impressed by the beauty of the park and the variety of backcountry touring options the park has to offer. The classic steep descent of the park is without any doubt the Dragon’s Tail couloir, a striking route with a slope angle between 40 and 45 degrees and easily accessible from the Bear Lake trailhead. On day four of the course we had to put our own tour together without any restrictions from Chago. Unfortunately conditions were not ideal and not all course participants had the skills to ski it but otherwise we could definitely have gone for it. Wouldn’t that have been great, to ski a beautiful couloir on the final day of an avalanche course?

We opted to have a look at the Otis Redding couloirs, with 35 degrees a more moderate alternative compared to the Dragon’s Tail, and ski a nearby area in case stability tests would dictate the couloirs would be too risky. Despite some issues regarding group dynamics, we managed to get back home safely. Azizza, one of the aspiring mountain guides, made a great call during the ascent when we were about to cross a risky traverse. We tested the snowpack and simulated the conditions in the couloir. Moisture was entering the snowpack on this warm day which was a bad sign after the fresh snow of the previous days, a so-called red flag. We decided to turn around and enjoy some spring snow on a more mellow run. After another beautiful day in the park we arrived back at the CMS lodge around 3 pm, relatively early considering we hadn’t come back before 6 pm the days before. Once the certificates were handed out, the course had come to an end and I made my way to Denver. I might go back to Estes Park one day in order to ski the Dragon’s Tail…

Mason Plumlee from the Denver Nuggets in the air for a slam dunk against the New Orleans Pelicans

In Denver spring (or should I say summer?) had definitely arrived. It was a mere 26 degrees Celsius on April 7! On the opening day of the baseball season they expected over a hundred thousand people downtown. Tickets for the Colorado Rockies were a bit too expensive for me, so I had a look at the Pepsi Center, home of the Denver Nuggets. Plenty of tickets were available and, affordable too. In the evening I was all set for a nice game against the New Orleans Pelicans but not before I had checked out the center of this laid back city.

During my stay in Sri Lanka I talked a lot about the Mexican grills with Alex, the guy from Wisconsin. A Mexican grill is a fastfood place where you can put together your own burrito (other meals too but I go there for the burritos…). Qdoba and Chipotle were the ones I knew but Alex told me about a place called Illegal Pete’s which only exists in Denver and a bunch of other place in Colorado. He made clear it was much better than the other ones and that I simply had to go there. Alex was a good guy, so I followed his advice. Illegal Pete’s turned out to be a great place with even better vibes. A delicious, freshly prepared, huge burrito, typical US-style, was served in a nicely decorated pub where local fans were watching the Rockies game. So, a great place to grab a quick bite and have a great time!

Once I had finished browsing and shopping at the great outdoor shops of REI and Wilderness, it was time to make my way to the Pepsi Arena and watch some basketball. The Nuggets were chasing a spot in the playoffs, so everybody was quite excited. To my surprise the arena was not full at all, I guess basketball is not that popular in Denver. The opponent, the New Orleans Pelicans, were done for the season since the playoffs were out of reach for them. This was quite clear during the game since they didn’t seem to be too motivated. Luckily some of the Nuggets’ players were on a roll. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić and others entertained the crowd with some three-pointers, slam dunks and no-look passes with an easy win for the home team as a result. My time in Denver had come to an end, Valdez in Alaska was waiting…

not the healthiest but oh so delicious, a true birthday meal

Early morning on April 8 I flew from Denver to Seattle and from Seattle to Anchorage and finally from Anchorage to Valdez. Many flights and a lot of layovers on my birthday. I don’t really care about my own birthday but I had to celebrate it, US-style of course. Mexican grills were not available at the Ted Stevens international airport of Anchorage but I did find a nice eatery where they served some nice nachos with grilled chicken. Together with soda refills this has to be described as a typical American meal if you’d ask me. Sadly enough, it turned out to be one of the highlights of my 39th birthday…

The other highlight was the final flight of the day, the one from Anchorage to Valdez. A small airplane from Ravn Airlines takes about 20 people in 35 minutes from the capital of the country to the small town of Valdez, the capital of steep skiing. With blue skies the views on this flight are simply amazing. The Chugach mountains with its steep slopes and big glaciers passed by and I could only imagine sliding down on them…

Anchorage to Valdez is an extremely scenic flight; left the plane and right the view of the Chugach!

A quite popular way to explore the mountains around Valdez is by helicopter. Heli skiing is pre-eminently a rich man’s game, but, as my nieces tend to say all day: you only live once or YOLO in their perception. So, after some deliberation, I had booked a 5-day package with 4 hours of heli skiing with Black Ops Valdez. After a day in Valdez, I was picked up and driven to their Robe Lake Lodge. The lodge is located at a, this might not come as a surprise, beautiful lake and has several double rooms but also a few cabins, which is where I was staying. I had a private little cabin all to myself, perfect. Breakfast and dinner were served in the main lodge which was also a good place to simply hang out, have a tea or beer and chat with my fellow heli skiers. Four guys from Australia formed one group and the other people composed the remaining three groups to be flown around when the weather allowed. Many people had been coming the previous weeks without being able to fly a single day…

I knew back in December that April 10 to 14 would be sunny days so I had no issues here (seriously, this is probably less than a one percent chance!). To make things even better, it had snowed on April 9 resulting in perfect dry powder conditions, at least for a day or two. On arrival I met Christian from France and Udo from Germany. They had been heli skiing in Chile with a guide named Jerry Hance who also works for Black Ops. One thing had led to another and now they were in Valdez to explore the terrain with Jerry. I hooked up with them the first day but wind kept us grounded. We went back to the lodge and all took a nap. We were definitely not expecting to ski anymore this day before one of the staff members knocked on the door around 4 pm. “Be ready in 15 minutes, the helicopter is flying.” It took a while to sink in, but I finally managed to get into my ski gear and before I knew I was on my way to the base…

the best lift in town…

Jerry is a unique kind of guide. He skies on boots from the 80’s which he found on Ebay and has skis with bindings on the inner side of the ski, best of both worlds he says. His age is a complete mystery, although he’s clearly in the second half of his life. Above all, this man is extremely easy going and laid back. Did I mention he has done over 300 first descents in the Chugach? He skis down wherever you want, probably because you have signed a waiver before going up holding him free from any liability whatsoever. The man is a true cowboy and great fun to hang out with!

Christian and Udo are two great people to spend time with. Christian is a ski mountaineer living in Marseille but spending his weekends in the Alps based out of Annecy and Udo is the rare German with humor, what a character. Most likely working his but off in Munich all year round and treating himself on some time in the heli whenever he can, about a week or two each year. Together we had a great time, or at least I had, and we were treated on some very dry and light powder on our first evening as you can see in this little video:

We eventually did four runs between 5 and 7:30 pm, a great time to go skiing! Back at the lodge stoke was high because everybody had just finished some completely unexpected epic skiing. Once the excitement levels had returned back to normal, we were served some delicious salmon. In between soup and dessert of course…

A well deserved night of sleep in my cabin followed, only to wake up on another beautiful and promising day. Some new people had arrived, so groups had to change a bit. This day, Tuesday April 11, I was together with Matt, a snowboarder from LA, and Natalia, a London resident but born in Slovakia and skiing every weekend in Verbier. Are you still with me?

Welcome to the Chugach baby!

The guide from now on was Andy Brooks, another laid back guy who runs an operation in Japan as well. I guess one simply had to be laid back to be a heli ski guide in Alaska. The weather, the people, the snow, too many variables to worry about otherwise…

Flying around in the Chugach is an experience in itself. I have seen many mountain ranges by now but the mountains around Valdez are very unique. Huge flat glaciers with steep faces, chutes and couloirs in almost every direction. It’s pretty easy to see why they hosted the World Extreme Skiing Championships in this area from 1991 to 2000. If you’re looking for mechanized tree skiing (what an expression…), go to British Columbia. For challenging terrain however, this is the place to be. So, I was definitely not only enjoying myself on the way down, but also on the way up while in the best lift on the planet, a helicopter. Getting ready to be picked up at a so-called LZ (Landing Zone) is exciting, knowing another great ride with the helicopter is about to come. Then the actual flying over the amazing peaks of the Chugach is an adventure in itself. Everybody is wondering where we are about to land in order to ski down. Maybe there? Or, what about there? And finally, there is the landing. The LZ can range from big flat open terrain to very narrow ridges and especially in the latter case, this can be quite interesting. Below you can see a little compilation of all different stages of a flight with the helicopter when you go skiing in the Chugach:

Having said that, I have to admit that strong winds did make the flights rather scary at times. Try to remember some strong turbulence in a large airplane and imagine the effect similar winds can have on a relatively small helicopter…

The first two days of skiing the conditions were, in true American, simply epic. Deep, dry and very light powder was found everywhere. We didn’t ski anything very steep but the terrain was great and the skiing extremely pleasant. After weeks of bad weather in and around Valdez, everybody was happy to get out and have some fun!

enjoying some deep powder in the backcountry of Valdez (photo credits: Andy Brooks)

We flew to a “zone” called the “Hoodoo Cirque”, near the road runs Thompson Pass is so famous for. Many helicopters were flying around and runs got tracked out one by one. Can you believe it, terrain getting tracked out by heli skiers?!?! Well, luckily we found fresh snow every run. We started the day with probably one of the best runs of the trip called “Acapulco”. An interesting landing was followed by a steep slope in perfect conditions. Nothing extreme here but very, very enjoyable!

The following runs were all in the same area, resulting in some efficient flying. With heli skiing you usually pay for hobbs hours, or simply put: the flight time. Sure, you can fly from one side of the range to another but that ain’t particularly cheap. A more economical (I’m not sure whether that word is appropriate for heli skiing at all…) way of flying is to stay in one area. You can then ski many runs with minimal flight time. That’s exactly what we did this day and we enjoyed seven runs, all of them starting rather steep and slowly mellowing down to a moderate slope angle. In general these runs have very little exposure to cliffs but, of course, avalanche danger is always in the back of your mind. Conditions seemed pretty stable, at least on everything but the Southern aspects. Another great day!

What followed was more great food and fun with the temporary residents of the lodge. Especially the large group of Swiss and Italians made for some great stories. They had hobbs hours and time at the lodge left but were not “priority to fly” anymore. That means you’ll have to wait for availability and are not guaranteed to fly when the weather allows. With a group of 8 and only a few spots available every day, you can imagine the complications. The Italians, emotional and passionate as always, were the only ones of the group who had dinner at the lodge. This turned out to be a special moment every evening since we were looking forward to get an update of the latest news. Eventually everybody survived the internal struggles, as far as I know…

Wednesday turned out to be another clear day, pretty rare to have so many consecutive clear days in Alaska. Matt, Natalia and myself were joined by Cody, a skier from Hawaii. He was not just a skier, no, he was there for work. He was shooting photos for the chamber of commerce and was basically skiing with us for free. Not bad for him, but also not too bad for us since he was doing a few photo shoots. Cody was a bad-ass skier making big gs-turns on whatever slope was thrown at him, regardless of conditions. He made a big crash on the first run but that didn’t hold him back from charging the following runs in great style. After a full day of skiing, we did a total of seven runs, we finished the day with a nice steep couloir…

left: flying straight to our run, right: the tiny dot in the middle of the picture, that’s me!

In the morning we all saw another group coming down a beautifully looking banana-shaped couloir. According to their guide the conditions were far from ideal but it raised the question why we were not skiing a nice couloir. Luckily Andy knew a great couloir in the next valley. This run offered some challenging skiing due to variable conditions. The upper part was around 45 degrees with a slightly less steep remainder. I enjoy runs like that at least as much as moderately steep powder slopes, so it was a perfect end to another good day. By the way, my legs were also burning by that time…

Thursday April 13 was another sunny day (yes, another one!) but, unfortunately very windy too. After a little polar expedition in the mountains, it was clear the helicopter would stay on the ground for the remainder of the day. The following day things looked much better and I was booked for half a day, corresponding to my remaining 0.5 hobbs hours I had left. Together with the Italian brothers and Raphael, one of the Swiss guys, I was assigned to Andy’s group. We explored an area referred to as the “Treasure Island”. Its mountains are surrounded by large flat glaciers creating some sort of an island, hence the name…

After a warm-up run on the shoulder (looker’s right on the photo below), which I had skied before during the photo shoot, we went looker’s left and skied down a steeper face. I skied straight down the fall line, with a tiny bit of spine skiing, whereas the others were guided into some of the gullies to ride some fresh snow. Due to our half day program, we were unfortunately not able to do more laps on the same face. You can easily spend the whole day on the “Treasure Island”…

“Treasure Island”, an isolated area in the Chugach with some beautiful moderately steep skiing

The skiing on Treasure Island was really good, especially considering the last snowfall was from six days back. “Soft-ish” snow and sustained slope angles around 40 degrees combined with spectacular views resulted in happy faces at the bottom. My group members were ripping on their snowboards. I took it a bit slower because my legs were burning and were more or less finished…

After a final hot tub session, I left the Robe Lake Lodge and went back to the B&B in Valdez for two nights. By this time Jerry’s group was stepping it up and going to the real steeps. I was seriously interested in going another half day to end my trip with some spicy runs but, despite some promises, Black Ops was not able to make it happen. Disappointing but I’m afraid it’s the way it is. Let’s save some money in order to go back one day soon…

dinner at the Robe Lake Lodge, from left to right: myself, Christian from France, Udo from Germany and the Italian brothers Gabrielle and Andrea

The trip to Alaska had come to an end. At the Pioneer Field airport of Valdez I was joined by Christian, Natalia and Henrik who I had met during the previous days while skiing with Black Ops. The small plane was mostly filled with heli skiers based on the amount of huge ski bags at check in. After a very comfortable flight we arrived in Anchorage where we had dinner together before finally saying goodbye. While they stayed in the Alaskan capital overnight before flying home the next day, I continued my travels to the city of Chicago. The “Windy City” is the third-most populous city of the United States and is known for blues music. Furthermore they are home to some great sporting teams such as the Chicago Bulls, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Cubs. The Bulls and Blackhawks had both entered the playoffs in the NBA and NHL respectively, but were not playing at home during my stay. The Cubs were scheduled at the Wrigley Field, with more than 100 years of history the perfect venue for me to pay a visit.

But first things first, I had to check in at my accommodation. It was quite a step back from my cabin and B&B in Valdez to sharing a room with some dirtbags at a hostel again. On arrival I was not allowed in the common room and taking a nap in the lobby was forbidden too. Only after the official check in time of 3 pm, I was allowed to explore the building. So, for 35 USD a night the Holiday Jones hostel is not a place I would recommend to anyone. My roommates had very little manners, so after my luxury in Alaska I was back on Earth in Chicago…

the Tenry Johns Blues Band with Claudette Miller in action at the Blue Chicago bar

The two things I wanted to do in Chicago, besides relaxing and some shopping (I really needed some new clothes…), were, as mentioned before, visiting a blues bar and a Cubs game. Blues can be heard everywhere in the Windy City, from fancy nightclubs to huge concerts to the more local low key bars. On a Monday night I chose to visit Blue Chicago, a low key bar downtown Chicago. Play started at 9 pm, a convenient time for an old man like myself. The Tenry Johns Blues Band turned out to be a great choice. Tenry Johns is a pretty cool dude if you’d ask me. The man really has the blues. With about 30 other people I enjoyed the way he got the evening going before he introduced Claudette Miller onto the stage. She had been walking around the first 30 minutes with a take away from McDonald’s which, based on her looks, was something she had been doing quite regularly. Nevertheless, when she started singing it was clear she is the real deal. Especially her song “Big fat daddy” resulted in good vibes and many smiles around the Blue Chicago bar. Let’s say she has a very particular preference in terms of men to spend the night with…

Of course, Chicago is more than music and sports. The downtown area for example is also quite impressive. I have visited this city before in 2009 and did a little skyscraper tour while I was there. It turned out Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper. In 1885 the world’s first skyscraper was built and nowadays the city has over 40 buildings higher than 600 feet. Unfortunately the city also has a Trump tower which is hard to ignore, I can imagine Obama is not to happen to see that in his hometown. The many skyscrapers that form the skyline are not simply straightforward high buildings, there is an actual architectural design involved. It’s impressive to walk around the downtown area, regardless of the time of the day. I guess it has all you’d imagine when thinking about a typical US city.

downtown Chicago, at night

Being a big fan of sports I always try to visit an event of locally popular sports. In Denver I had already visited a NBA game and since the Bulls and Blackhawks were playing away during their playoffs campaigns, I checked out the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Cubs won the World Series of 2016 and were therefore the reigning champion of the MLB. From downtown you can easily get to the stadium by taking the red line (subway) to Addison. On arrival the area was packed with people. Last year I visited the San Francisco Giants where far less people were around. It was nice to see the Cubs were alive and many fans wanted to witness a game. A packed stadium always adds to the atmosphere in my opinion!

The Cubs were playing the Milwaukee Brewers after a rather poor start of the season. Maybe they had a few too many parties after winning the league, who knows. This game started pretty bad as well with a 3-0 first inning for the Brewers. A few innings later though the Cubs put the first homerun on the scoreboard which turned out exactly what the game needed at that point. Both teams started producing more hits and started scoring more and more. In the 7th inning the Cubs finally outscored their opponents and took the lead. When the 40 thousand fans had consumed enough food and the 9th inning had come to an end the Cubs had won the game, 9-7. Wrigley Field turned into a little party with the majority of the crowd singing the victory song. This was definitely one of the better sporting events I have been to!

a full house at Wrigley Field, what an atmosphere!

Time to wrap things up. The main reasons to visit the USA were developing my avalanche knowledge and to ski the famous Chugach mountains, preferable some of its steep faces. I feel I have definitely taken another step in the field of avalanche education. The AIARE level 2 is most likely the final chapter for me since the next step is a professional course where the prerequisites are quite extensive. Chago, the instructor, was extremely knowledgeable which was very motivating for me as a student. He also showed that “doing only the course” is not enough. In four days it’s impossible to cover all the topics in a solid way. So, from now on I will have to practice and practice. Go out with preferably more experienced people, apply everything I have learnt so far and learn from them wherever I can. Doing the course in Estes Park also opened my eyes to yet another beautiful location for skiing. The Dragon’s Tail couloir is in the back of my mind…

Alaska was the other obvious goal of this trip. I have been extremely lucky with the weather conditions during my stay. Booking 5 nights in Valdez about 5 months in advance and have great weather every day is something that happens very rarely. Many people had come before me to only turn back home because of bad weather. And money back is not an option in those cases…

The people I have met during the heli trip were really nice. During my previous expensive outing, the one to Antarctica, I really did not fit in the crowd. It was different this time. Christian, Udo, the Italian brothers and Natalia, the people I spent most of my time with, were all very nice and interesting. The skiing has been very good. We skied interesting terrain with many moderately steep lines. Most of the lines were between 35 and 45 degrees, I’d say. They usually started a little bit steep for a short while before things got easier. The exposure was most of the time relatively limited. The snow was extremely good the first couple of days and a bit of a hit and miss later on. Nothing to complain about though!

In terms of terrain, the Acapulco run was a typical “AK-descent” but besides that, I haven’t really skied descents AK is so famous for. Usually that is because guides won’t take you there, the snow conditions are far from optimal, the ability in the group is not sufficient or the terrain is simply not there. Jerry, the guide I skied with the first day, was taking people to the steeps when my package was finished. The other guides seemed to be slightly more conservative in their terrain choice. When Natalia updated me about her experience and an opportunity arose the next day, I really should have jumped in. This was one of the best opportunities to ski the steeps in AK. Everything came together. Unfortunately I love my money too much and approached this opportunity a bit to rational. The costs of a day of heli skiing can never be justified in a rational way. Also my pride got in the way, one more time. One of the owners of Black Ops would arrange half a day of heli skiing, something I decided I could afford. He would simply “make it happen”, were his famous last words. He would also confirm before 9 pm. So, when I finally received a call at 9:30 am the next morning, just minutes before the helicopter would start to fly, with the message only a full day was possible, I was not very pleased to say the least and decided not to go. Boy, oh boy, I have not regretted anything more than that. During my days in Chicago I have been thinking constantly about steep skiing with Jerry in the Chugach…

The last few days of the trip were spent in Chicago, a city I visited in 2009 for the first time. It has an impressive downtown area with plenty of skyscrapers, there is the blues and several sporting events to choose from. Since it’s an American big city, of course, shopping is possible too. So, for a couple of days it offers enough to entertain anyone. Could I live there? Probably not, but, besides the terrible hostel, I had a good time in the Windy City. Now I will just need to find a way to get enough money together to go back to Alaska and ski with Jerry!

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to the US and Alaska in particular!

One Response to Alaska; skiing the Chugach

  1. Olaf says:

    Héél vet dat helikopter-skiën! Die filmpjes zijn echt gaaf. En die foto’s…helemaal niet jaloers ;).

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