Photos Nick Hamilton
The Alaska Heli Experience
From the March 2010 Issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding
You might live in the flattest state in the whole country. And maybe you only ride the streets or that crappy excuse for a park at your local hill. Hell, you might not even have cash for lift tickets, but you snowboard. And snowboarders are dreamers. So, even if you only hit the groomers like twice a month, the dream of an epic trip to Alaska is growing somewhere deep inside you. You may only be realizing this now-as you stare at these towering peaks and open powder faces. But it’s there.
Alaska. It’s called The Last Frontier for a reason. That’s because it’s the wildest place to ride on Earth-the steepest and the deepest. The type of unreal stuff that movies are made of. A heli trip in Alaska tops just about every rider’s bucket list, but it doesn’t have to remain a far-off dream. We’re here to tell you, you can do it. Sure, it’s expensive, hectic, and dangerous-but it’s not impossible.
Case in point-last season, TransWorld sent a crew of riders up to Valdez to get their feet wet with the Alaska heli experience. To guide and educate our crew of AK virgins-Pat McCarthy, Eero Niemela, and Scotty Lago (who’d been once before)- we employed the services of H20 Heli Guides to lead us through six days of incredible heli-boarding. TransWorld video dude Joe Carlino was floored: “You fly into Valdez in the little prop plane and you’re surrounded by 8,000-foot peaks coming straight up out of the ocean. It’s crazy-and a little intimidating.”
Under the tutelage of H20′s head guide, Gabe Monroe, the crew got a daily dose of snow science, guidance, and safety instruction as we made our way tentatively around the flight zones. While many riders wait until April for longer days and more stable conditions, we went up in February, for the promise of powder on every aspect. But unlike any other shred destination, weather and riding in Alaska is absolutely, completely unpredictable. Photographer Nick Hamilton concurs, “Videos make the runs looks like bottomless powder from top to bottom, when in fact you can really hit ten different kinds of snow in ten turns! Powder, ice, slush, wind-affected, sun-baked …” Basically, the guides assess safety and conditions as you go, and the day’s riding plan is dictated by the educated avoidance of peril. Solid, experienced guides are the essential ingredient to riding up here-and when everything is working in your favor, it doesn’t get any better.
Powder hound Eero Niemela claims he “learned a lot up there-about avalanche awareness, reading the terrain…” Run after run, the bird set down amid postcard peaks surrounded by snowboarding lore. From every LZ-that’s landing zone-Gabe pointed up to shady chutes and overhanging cornices tracing out legendary lines from guys like Jeremy Jones, Travis Rice, and Johan Olofsson. He dropped video names and pointed out avy paths that carried so and so down to the valley floor. But our group-though talented and confident-spent the week on the mellow faces, the lower aspects, and yet even down in the mellows, the exposure was eye-opening. The way Lago saw it, riding in AK can only be done in baby steps: “There are so many factors-wind, snow conditions, everything-that you take what you can get. You want to get the shot, but you also want to come out alive. It takes some time up there to find that balance.” And after a week of listening to the guides and following their lead-taking baby steps and riding with climbing harnesses wedged up our ass cracks, we felt we’d accomplished our mission. Alaska is a big deal-huge-even on the comparatively small-scale that we hit it. But it’s not the size that matters, it’s about the memories-all of them growing more epic as time passes. Turns that will never be forgotten. The queasy memory of that first big, blind rollover, the vistas, panning for gold, and our nights in Anchorage. We did it: a heli trip to Alaska with sunshine, powder, and the pictures to prove it. Now it’s your turn …
Deadline for entries has been extended until March 15th
Check out the Video and more photos HERE