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A breath-taking adventure on Alaskan slopes


I was standing some 4,700 feet above sea level and could see the sea. It was maybe 20 miles away, at least a weeklong hike, across the rippling, snow-covered mountaintops of Chugach National Forest.

Or, more practically, about seven minutes in the helicopter that just dropped me here. I was straddling a rocky mountain ridge less than 4 feet across. I had to remind myself to breathe.

Take off from the LZ in the Chugach Mountain Range.

Pilot Garth Eggl’s landing zone was maybe the size of a Volkswagen, and even the mountain goats we saw were struggling up this high. Stretching for nearly 300 miles behind me was the forest, a vista of fluffy white peaks sprinkled with black rocks and dark streaks descending to the depths. In front of me to the west, against a piercing blue sky, were more snow-blanketed peaks.

In the distance, a break in the canyons made way for a fat waterway — in this case, the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, the sole ocean route from the Pacific to Anchorage’s ports. I was surrounded by beauty and silence. I was literally and figuratively as close to the top of the world as I had ever been.

Last spring, on a clear, picture-perfect Alaska day, I came to the western range of the Chugach Forest, south of Anchorage, to fly with the Chugach Powder Guides and snowboard down 19,500 vertical feet of glacier snow.

It was the single most exhilarating day of my life.

The forest stands on the Kenai Peninsula, stretching south of Anchorage along the Cook Inlet across to the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound. At nearly 6 million acres, the forest offers hundreds of square miles of backcountry skiing.

Two years ago, National Geographic Adventure magazine ranked helicopter-skiing in Chugach as the 21st greatest adventure in the world. It sounded like the ultimate snowboarder challenge: off the-chart runs fraught with endless avalanche dangers, heart-stopping vertical drops and jumping from hovering birds.

That’s not quite the reality.

“The reality is a lot of people tend to sell themselves short and tend not to go helicopterskiing when they will do just fine,” said Chugach Powder Guide Mike Davidson, my guide for the day. “The reality of most helicopter skiing is really nice, cruiser runs.”

Not that heli-skiing is 100 percent safe, of course. In January, for example, four-time world-champion snowboarder Craig Kelly was among seven killed in an avalanche while heli-skiing in the Canadian Rockies. While the Chugach guides warned of such risks, they also calculated them in ways that I never felt afraid.

One skier at a time

My day began early, with nearly an hour’s worth of classroom instruction followed by another hour’s worth outside. Instructors talked weather patterns, how to “swim” out of moving snow and how to locate and use the avalanche beacons with which we were all equipped.

While there was always a chance for avalanche, we were told, our guides would steer clear of unreasonable risk. We would fly in groups no larger than five. The helicopters would always land — our gear was kept in baskets outside the door.

One guide would lead four skiers and the guides would always ski out first. Just one skier would follow at a time.

While the runs were long — each taking between 20 to 40 minutes to descend — we’d always take short breaks throughout. We’d meet along the sides of the slopes, where Davidson would give additional instructions each time. And at the bottom of each run we would wait for the helicopter, which would ferry us to our next run.

In flight

I have flown in a helicopter many times, but the takeoff from the tiny Girdwood Airport ranks among the most breathtaking flights of them all.

We had already been told how to huddle as the chopper landed in front of us: Down on one knee, our faces covered with one arm to protect us from the blowing snow and our other arm holding down the gear. We loaded our equipment and climbed aboard. Slowly the helicopter hovered and turned. Eggl gave us a look, tipped the nose down and we shot down the runway like a taxiing plane as the helicopter lifted off. It felt as if our feet would skim the glades below.

My first run, “High Five,” is still a blur. It was a 20-minute, gradual descent, a bowl run through waist-deep, untouched powder, which I carved with wide, fluid turns. It was an easy run, but still left my heart in my throat. It was, after all, my first time.

“It’s just so much to take in all at once,” Scott Van Timmeren later assured me. Van Timmeren, a member of my group, was a young heli-ski veteran from Michigan. “You’re looking at all the scenery, you’re looking at the runs, you’re worried about listening to the guide and you’re worried about your skiing. It’s just information overload.”

We skied nearly 20,000 vertical feet like that all day long. I traversed canyons, hiked mountain saddles and floated across the fine powder of the Chugach’s untouched, isolated glades.

Recounting it now, I still have to remind myself the obvious:

Breathe, Troy. Breathe.

This story originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on March 2, 2003. It’s as exhilarating to read this story today as it was to write it 15 years ago.

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