A four-rider jury judges four means of powder access-it’s a tough job, but someone had to do it.

Words and photos by Dan Milner

We were supposed to be hiking, but we got distracted. Faced with a choice, we ditched that option and flexed the plastic for an afternoon of heli-fed, steep-powder laps. If the decision had been yours, you’d have done the same, right? But at 2,400 dollars per hour, the lure of the chopper could quickly start to wane and the snowshoes might seem a little more attractive. After all, hiking the mountain is not only a free workout, it lets you appreciate your surroundings while justifying the liberal use of duct tape. But hiking excludes the zero-gravity, stomach-churning surprises that heli pilots love to spring on you and the subsequent opportunity to squeal like a scared five-year-old girl. So, hiking or heli, what’s it to be? It’s a tough choice, but once in a while, a fistful of cash is worth the chance to free the five-year-old girl trapped inside you, that’s for sure.

With both fantastic terrain and a reputation for sucking the last dime from your wallet, Alaska as a backcountry destination is a double-edged sword-it’s all about costs and rewards. With this in mind, it was my mission to evaluate the various means of accessing Alaskan terrain. There’re plenty of options out there-from hiking to heli, from sled to ski plane-depending on your appetite for adventure, your willingness to sweat, and the obesity of your wallet. I got together four riders-Axel Pauportà‡ (France), Eric Themel (Austria), James Stentiford (U.K.), and Tara Dakides (U.S.A.)-each with a limited budget of 2,000 dollars, and after ten days of attacking the backcountry by all possible means, we attempted to boil down an overall verdict.

Day One: Heli

Cost per person: $350. Rolls of film shot: 8. Cost per photo: $6.16. Number of descents: 5. Stress level 4/10.

The heli has already proven too much of a success, despite the price. Everyone is smiling like spectators at a Victoria’s Secret swimwear shoot. Where the hell was the pressure, the “We’re here to work, damn it!” attitude that shrouds the typical shoot? We’d lapped three 2,500-vertical-foot deep-powder runs, recording some “charming” powder shots on the way, and had a lot of fun I admit-but it was time to step up to something a little more challenging.

Before us sat some incredibly photogenic, steeper spines. They appeared in good condition and were not overly exposed (if you averted your gaze from the cornice above them). Our guide gave it the nod, and the laughter petered out as each person turned their attention to scouting a line and calculating the consequences if anything went wrong. Nothing did, and each rider was treated to a memorable line before being plucked up by the heli and whisked back to rejoin me for another 2,000 feet of laughter-saturated pow turns.

My bag was bulging with shot film-a good start for the heli, but it was still early in the game.

Day Two: Ski Plane

Cost per person: $176. Rolls of film shot: 2. Cost per photo: $12.22. Number of descents: 2. Stress level 3/10.

Drake, our pilot, was a mix of the Grateful Dead meets Steve Buscemi-long hair tumbling down to narrow shoulders and framing a pair of shades that I imagine concealed a crazed, piercing stare. The plane was as curious as its owner-small and light in frame, but with something evidently not standard-issue under the hood. I’m right about the plane-it’s a 1955 Cesna that he stripped out and beefed up to handle the Alaskan weather. But when Drake removed his sunglasses, I found a solid look of confidence and trust. I instantly warmed to him, which was good, because our lives would shortly be in his hands.

From the air, all the terrain that looked flat and uninviting to ride down seemed way too intimidating to land on. We flew past a suitable landing zone that accessed an amazing 40-degree face, and then flew by it again and again, each trip alwing me to peer into a gaping crevasse at the end of the ad hoc landing strip. I was almost relieved when the flat light of an approaching storm caught up and we turned our attention to the sunny peaks further inland.

If the heli is the ultimate door-to-door-service mountain taxi to any peak, the plane is akin to the Greyhound-it involves a bit of walking to and from your stop. Drake set us down and we started our snowshoe plod toward a face we’d spotted where Axel, the first to the summit, rode a line for the camera, exiting just before the cloud bank rolled in again. There were more lines to be ridden, but with a storm on our heels, we had to bail while there was enough light for Drake to see the glacier he was landing on. A little frustrated, we felt sure the plane would be back for a rematch.

Day Three: Sled

Cost per person: $100 (4 sleds). Rolls of film shot: 7. Cost per photo: $1.58. Number of descents per person: 5. Stress rating: 6/10.

`Taking a bunch of Europeans sledding is probably not a great idea. The fact that snowmobiles are unavailable across most of Europe essentially means that to the Euro the sled is still a novelty, full-body workout, and/or dangerous weapon. Fortunately, we could call on the expertise of Tara, our guide, and the “always happy to shuttle” Tim Carlson to get us deep among the peaks we surveyed from Haines Pass.

The rolling terrain that lay between us and the steeps would represent a serious barrier to hiking, but we’d rented the ability to cover this ground with a mere squeeze of the throttle. Four sleds between seven people was not an ideal situation, but it’d get us across the flats easily enough. It seemed ominous that when we put our heads together, no one could recall a day’s sledding without something going awry. Sure enough, one of the sleds spluttered to a steaming halt before long, staining the snow with coolant fluid. One sled down, we opted for shuttling to the top of a closer peak, where the riders reduced the face to tatters quicker than I could reload film.

On another peak, we shuttled as far up as we could, which left a twenty-minute hike to the top. Our sweating was rewarded with crusty snow and a roll of mediocre shots. It was clear that we really needed a local sledneck who knew the area like the back of his tattooed hand. We limped back to the highway, towing our crippled sled behind us and accepting that the day had been more fun than epic.

Day Four: Heli

Cost per person; $260. Rolls of film shot: 7. Cost per photo: $5.15. Number of descents: 2. Stress level: 3/10.

Do they put monosodium glutamate in heli fuel? Maybe that’s why we keep coming back for more. It’d been four days since it last snowed, and only the East and West aspects were still shootable. It was an eight-minute flight into the peaks that Tim had in mind for us-that’s 320 on the dollar-o-meter, but worth it. The light was amazing, and we nailed a couple thousand feet of powder turns and good shots-the perfect combination for me, because I hate being left out. We went for one more drop on some “mini-golf” flutes before the sun finally dipped below the horizon and left us pondering the area’s bear population and the whereabouts of our heli. Damn, this monosodium glutamate tastes good.

Day Five: Heli

Cost per person: $350. Rolls of film shot: 11. Cost per photo: $4.41. Number of descents per person: 2. Stress level: 6/10.

Really, today we should’ve been flying in the ski plane or hiking lines from the pass-but our having stumbled across fresh bear tracks while walking in the forest yesterday dampened the hiking enthusiasm, and everyone was wanting to get something a little more “par 5″ in the golf bag. Consensus: the heli, rather than the plane, was the quickest way to get it.

With Absinthe and TGR film crews both pillaging the tech lines that Axel had in mind, we had to think hard, finally deciding on an untouched peak twelve whole dollar-o-meter minutes’ flight time away. We reasoned that the marketability of the shots would be worth the extra expense. Ten minutes in, we heard we’d been snaked and found ourselves circling peaks in search of something worth shooting-all with the meter still ticking. In the end, I felt confident the extra flying paid off as I shot each rider racing their slough down an impossibly steep face before ollieing the bergschrund at the bottom. It was another 400-dollar flight back, so we opted for a free run en-route, leapfrogging with the heli as we made our way home.

Day Six: Ski Plane Attempt

Cost per person: $90. Number of rolls film shot: 1. Cost per photo: $12.5. Number of descents per person: 0.

Despite the aura of calm that emanated from Drake, I had a white-knuckled grip on anything I could reach as the wind shook the plane around like a Tonka toy in the hands of a hyperactive kid. Our preselected LZ was closed in by a cloudbank, and after two somewhat scary passes, Drake pulled away to land elsewhere and decide on a course of action.

Leaving smoke-like trails of snow behind us as the plane lifted off from the glacier, we flew for half an hour looking down on suitable LZs that were continually thwarted by wind or clouds. Finally we found a spot, landed, and started a 30-minute hike up to a short, steep face. The weather beat us to the top, and the wind rose to such a force that I considered the option of crawling back to Haines on my hands and knees rather than climbing back into that plane. It was all our pilot could do to evac us out of there.

Back in Haines, the storm caught up with us, shrouding the little town in horizontal rain. Grounded by weather, we reflected on our efforts. We’d only been there for ten days, but our first day’s heli-ing seemed a month ago already. By comparison, the effort of hanging on to a sled only felt like yesterday, while the novelty of hiking for lines up on the Haines highway had lost much of its appeal. For most of the group, the verdict was easy. In this “experiment,” the heli turned out to be the easiest and, unexpectedly, the most cost-effective way of getting the shots. It ate a lot of our budget, but it was addictive as hell.

Later, when I stopped by to collect our invoices from Seandog, the heli organizer, I was sure I saw him hide a can of something behind the heli. Before it disappeared, I just made out the words “Monosodium Glutamate: For Aviation Purposes Only” printed on the can.

(Sidebar)

The Rider Verdict

Snowmobile

Eric Themel: “It’s fun, and you can definitely have easy access to kicker terrain. I always get into sledding too much and stop snowboarding. However, it’s also loud and noisy and a lot of hassle when you have to fix things. It can be a really cool day, or it can be the worst day ever.”

Tara Dakides: “If you’re wanting to ride the more accessible stuff, a sled gives you time to really get a good look at the terrain, as well as the ability to shuttle riders. It can definitely leave you drained and sore at the end of the day, though. If you want some funny stories for later, then sledding is a good way to go-just plan on having a cold beer waiting for you at the car. As for cost, it’s a lot less to rent than a heli, but you never know what kind of sled you’ll get, and breaking down ain’t no fun.”

Ski Plane

James Stentiford: “The plane can access a lot of the same stuff the heli does, as long as you’re willing to walk a bit. Although we weren’t too lucky on this trip, I can see it working really well if you don’t have a heli-type budget and are willing to work a little for your turns. I enjoyed having to hike a bit-there was no time pressure, so we had a chance to look around and appreciate where we were.”

Eric Themel: “You need to have one day of spotting first. If you know where to go, then it can work, but you’re not flexible enough to find lines just flying about. It was pretty easy on the stress, but we didn’t really do ight time away. We reasoned that the marketability of the shots would be worth the extra expense. Ten minutes in, we heard we’d been snaked and found ourselves circling peaks in search of something worth shooting-all with the meter still ticking. In the end, I felt confident the extra flying paid off as I shot each rider racing their slough down an impossibly steep face before ollieing the bergschrund at the bottom. It was another 400-dollar flight back, so we opted for a free run en-route, leapfrogging with the heli as we made our way home.

Day Six: Ski Plane Attempt

Cost per person: $90. Number of rolls film shot: 1. Cost per photo: $12.5. Number of descents per person: 0.

Despite the aura of calm that emanated from Drake, I had a white-knuckled grip on anything I could reach as the wind shook the plane around like a Tonka toy in the hands of a hyperactive kid. Our preselected LZ was closed in by a cloudbank, and after two somewhat scary passes, Drake pulled away to land elsewhere and decide on a course of action.

Leaving smoke-like trails of snow behind us as the plane lifted off from the glacier, we flew for half an hour looking down on suitable LZs that were continually thwarted by wind or clouds. Finally we found a spot, landed, and started a 30-minute hike up to a short, steep face. The weather beat us to the top, and the wind rose to such a force that I considered the option of crawling back to Haines on my hands and knees rather than climbing back into that plane. It was all our pilot could do to evac us out of there.

Back in Haines, the storm caught up with us, shrouding the little town in horizontal rain. Grounded by weather, we reflected on our efforts. We’d only been there for ten days, but our first day’s heli-ing seemed a month ago already. By comparison, the effort of hanging on to a sled only felt like yesterday, while the novelty of hiking for lines up on the Haines highway had lost much of its appeal. For most of the group, the verdict was easy. In this “experiment,” the heli turned out to be the easiest and, unexpectedly, the most cost-effective way of getting the shots. It ate a lot of our budget, but it was addictive as hell.

Later, when I stopped by to collect our invoices from Seandog, the heli organizer, I was sure I saw him hide a can of something behind the heli. Before it disappeared, I just made out the words “Monosodium Glutamate: For Aviation Purposes Only” printed on the can.

(Sidebar)

The Rider Verdict

Snowmobile

Eric Themel: “It’s fun, and you can definitely have easy access to kicker terrain. I always get into sledding too much and stop snowboarding. However, it’s also loud and noisy and a lot of hassle when you have to fix things. It can be a really cool day, or it can be the worst day ever.”

Tara Dakides: “If you’re wanting to ride the more accessible stuff, a sled gives you time to really get a good look at the terrain, as well as the ability to shuttle riders. It can definitely leave you drained and sore at the end of the day, though. If you want some funny stories for later, then sledding is a good way to go-just plan on having a cold beer waiting for you at the car. As for cost, it’s a lot less to rent than a heli, but you never know what kind of sled you’ll get, and breaking down ain’t no fun.”

Ski Plane

James Stentiford: “The plane can access a lot of the same stuff the heli does, as long as you’re willing to walk a bit. Although we weren’t too lucky on this trip, I can see it working really well if you don’t have a heli-type budget and are willing to work a little for your turns. I enjoyed having to hike a bit-there was no time pressure, so we had a chance to look around and appreciate where we were.”

Eric Themel: “You need to have one day of spotting first. If you know where to go, then it can work, but you’re not flexible enough to find lines just flying about. It was pretty easy on the stress, but we didn’t really do much. I’m definitely going to try it again.”

Heli

Tara Dakides: “A heli is the elevator straight to the top of all the sweet stuff, and it can go just about everywhere. However, you’re paying for the A-plus terrain, and the amount of time it takes to check your line is on the clock. Also, you have to make sure you feel comfortable with the pilot’s skills!”

Eric Themel: “Nothing beats a heli. You expect it to be expensive, and you approach it with that knowledge. You can fly to something straight away. Also, if you get hurt, the heli is the easiest and quickest way to get you out, too.”

Hiking

Eric Themel: “I don’t like hiking in AK-I like it in Europe. I come here to do the things we can’t do in Europe-ride planes and helis and snowmobiles. It’s also hard to approach the good stuff by hiking. You have to hike through a lot-through woods and bear country!”

Axel Pauportà‡: “Hiking has its place, although it’s not really that easy in Alaska. The snow is deep, so it’s better to use a splitboard rather than snowshoes, and it takes a lot of energy to access no more than one or two lines in a day. Plus, if you have snowshoes, you have to carry that extra weight on your back on the way down.”

EXTRAS

Costs And Contacts

Snowmobiling: Go to Haines Pass. Rent in Whitehorse, B.C. or find a local in Haines who will rent you their machine and trailer. Sledding and sled repair know-how is a must, as is a local or guide. Rent at least a 600cc and preferably a lighter-weight two-stroke. Expect to spend 150 dollars per day.

Ski plane: Unlike the heli, the plane can land in the breathtaking Glacier Bay National Park and costs a total of 350 dollars per hour. It seats three people plus the pilot. Go to flydrake.com (907-723-9475) for more information.

Heli: The heli costs 2,400 dollars per hour, which is counted by the dollar-o-meter in tenths of an hour spent in the air. This total is split between any groups sharing the heli. The heli seats up to five people plus the guide, and where you land is determined by you, the guide, and the ability of the pilot. Go to alaskaheliskiing.com ((907) 767-5745) for more information. For a complete listing of other heli operations, go to twsnow.com.

Hiking Haines: There is hiking terrain around Haines from the road just the other side of the Canadian border, or you can combine hiking peaks after accessing by plane or sled.

Guides: Having a guide is recommended for any of the above activities and essential for the heli and plane. Alaska Heliskiing can set you up with one for 150 dollars per day.

Haines, Population 1,200: Stay at the Thunderbird Motel (907) 766-2131 from 40 dollars per night per person, depending on your length of stay. For slightly more salubrious accommodations, try the Captain’s Cabin opposite.

do much. I’m definitely going to try it again.”

Heli

Tara Dakides: “A heli is the elevator straight to the top of all the sweet stuff, and it can go just about everywhere. However, you’re paying for the A-plus terrain, and the amount of time it takes to check your line is on the clock. Also, you have to make sure you feel comfortable with the pilot’s skills!”

Eric Themel: “Nothing beats a heli. You expect it to be expensive, and you approach it with that knowledge. You can fly to something straight away. Also, if you get hurt, the heli is the easiest and quickest way to get you out, too.”

Hiking

Eric Themel: “I don’t like hiking in AK-I like it in Europe. I come here to do the things we can’t do in Europe-ride planes and helis and snowmobiles. It’s also hard to approach the good stuff by hiking. You have to hike through a lot-through woods and bear country!”

Axel Pauportà‡: “Hiking has its place, although it’s not really that easy in Alaska. The snow is deep, so it’s better to use a splitboard rather than snowshoes, and it takes a lot of energy to access no more than one or two lines in a day. Plus, if you have snowshoes, you havee to carry that extra weight on your back on the way down.”

EXTRAS

Costs And Contacts

Snowmobiling: Go to Haines Pass. Rent in Whitehorse, B.C. or find a local in Haines who will rent you their machine and trailer. Sledding and sled repair know-how is a must, as is a local or guide. Rent at least a 600cc and preferably a lighter-weight two-stroke. Expect to spend 150 dollars per day.

Ski plane: Unlike the heli, the plane can land in the breathtaking Glacier Bay National Park and costs a total of 350 dollars per hour. It seats three people plus the pilot. Go to flydrake.com (907-723-9475) for more information.

Heli: The heli costs 2,400 dollars per hour, which is counted by the dollar-o-meter in tenths of an hour spent in the air. This total is split between any groups sharing the heli. The heli seats up to five people plus the guide, and where you land is determined by you, the guide, and the ability of the pilot. Go to alaskaheliskiing.com ((907) 767-5745) for more information. For a complete listing of other heli operations, go to twsnow.com.

Hiking Haines: There is hiking terrain around Haines from the road just the other side of the Canadian border, or you can combine hiking peaks after accessing by plane or sled.

Guides: Having a guide is recommended for any of the above activities and essential for the heli and plane. Alaska Heliskiing can set you up with one for 150 dollars per day.

Haines, Population 1,200: Stay at the Thunderbird Motel (907) 766-2131 from 40 dollars per night per person, depending on your length of stay. For slightly more salubrious accommodations, try the Captain’s Cabin opposite.