Crevasses–covered only by thin snow bridges–loomed around me. And above, the massive Sphinx hawked and spit, letting go point release after point release in the warming midday sun.

Jim and Adam, and our guide Kevin, stood on top of the diamond-shaped face of Sphinx, planning their lines. I could just make them out. But down here on the glacier with Marguerite and Greg, waiting for the heli, there were decisions to be made. Moving around was not a good idea. We were all wearing harnesses, but the prospect of diving into a crevasse wasn’t exactly appealing. At the same time, the slough barreling off of Sphinx kept getting bigger and closer to our position.

Fixating on the slopes above, we tiptoed farther out on the glacier. Greg used his probe to scan the path in front of us like an old man on the beach looking for change with a metal detector. I followed Marguerite exactly; if her route worked, there was no reason to test my luck in the minefield. Each step sunk in and then stopped. I gripped my board horizontally so that if I did find my way into a hole, it might bridge the gap and arrest my fall–it’d worked once before.

Without incident, we settled in on what seemed like a safe spot. Up on top of Sphinx, Adam and Jim were chomping at the bit, but it was getting late. Jim’s line looked more and more sketchy from where we sat. I wished I could tell him, but he was out of radio contact. They were probably saving batteries. No way could he avoid that slough. It was pouring down the runneled slope like hurricane runoff in a rain gutter, and that was without a rider. The gasping bergschrunds seemed to widen in the transition between the glacier and the open face of Sphinx, and the sloughs leapt and burst on the far side of the cracks, filing ominously downward. Nervous as hell, we waited for them to drop.

The wall in the office of Points North Heli was a collage of Polaroids naming and describing runs: date, vertical feet, riders in the party. The shots were largely labeled “first descent,” and the oldest one dated back just a month.

The forty-ninth state’s newest heli op, Points North began escorting riders into the western Chugach mountains in the spring of ’99. The goal was to stay small, take baby steps, and establish a safe, viable heli-ski operation in Cordova–just beyond the reach of the Valdez heli metropolis. But it wasn’t easy.

“Four days prior to having clients come to Alaska, I had no helicopters,” owner and guide Kevin Quinn recalled. The other Alaskan heli operations, in fear of more competition, made it almost impossible for the upstart to get its rotors spinning.

Kevin, the only real Alaskan among the operators, looked like a guide. I studied him because I didn’t know him and because I’m always scared in Alaska. This was the guy I’d have to trust. He was well-built, looked strong–like he’d been in the mountains a while. A wavy blonde ponytail reached the middle of his back, a slightly darker goatee framed his mouth. All that’s typical, though. Looking the part of a guide is easy. I look for other kinds of strength in people, and what I wanted to know I’d have to find in his eyes, or just by experience, or by how he described a good guide. “You have to be a good people person, warm and sensitive,” Kevin said. “You have to read people and get into their heads and have a real open, communicative relationship. It helps to be able to ski, but even a great skier could be a horseshit guide.”

Cordova’s Orca Cannery served as the base of operations for the Points North outfit. One of the first canneries on the west coast of Alaska, it shut down after the oil spill ten years ago.

The site was strewn with weathered buildings–the majority strictly functional–along with traired boats and heaped gill nets. An A-Star helicopter sat outside the big, sky-blue dormitory. Two short beds, a new Berber carpet, and thin, darkly paneled walls made up the simple-but-sufficient twelve-foot square that would be my home for a week or two, or until it got sunny. I saw no alarm clock.

“Breakfast starts at 7:30 and goes until whenever on no-fly days,” I was told. “On fly days the helicopter will be your alarm.”

Adam Hostetter had arrived the day before and was comfortably attuned to the pace of bad weather, working on a jigsaw puzzle or reading a book. I joined a friendly but typically sullen crew waiting it out in the homey warmth of the Nefco Cafe, the camp’s dining hall and gathering spot.

From my window, the shoreline along Orca Inlet bent through black cobblestone coves and big pines laden with snow accentuated the steep rock walls that met the water. Barely visible offshore, islands bled through the fog. A boat shifted slowly in the narrows, and bald eagles perched atop the tall, widowed pillars of a dilapidated pier.

Marguerite and Greg showed up in the afternoon on the same 40-minute commuter flight from Anchorage. Marguerite was the only female customer at Points North. Welcome to Mancamp, I thought. It’d been one of the first things somebody said to me that morning.

Jim Smith came in the next day to round out our heli; the A-Star holds five riders, a guide, and the pilot. Traveling with an exact heli-load of riders ensures you’ll be on the hill with people you know and trust, and that you won’t be the odd man out, flying with a random group or left behind altogether.

By the fifth day of bad weather (the eighth for some), the snow at sea level fell in suffocating sheets as we made our way through the mud and intrusive fog from the blue bunk house to breakfast. Morale was at an all-week low. A line formed at the phone; there are only so many flights out of Cordova, and at 100 dollars a day–even with the unbeatable food–time was literally money.

While riders waited at the phone, debating what would break first–the weather or their credit cards–the local fishermen were waiting for the herring to spawn–the water temperature still had to rise a couple degrees, up to 43 or 44 Fahrenheit. In Alaska, nature mandates everything. The weather binds you, sending some running for home. But it’s also what makes the riding so good–a love/hate thing. And, as Kevin said, when you can’t ride, “There’s more to do in Alaska than just drink and beat your liver.”

We sea-kayaked, rode the local ski resort (it’s no Alyeska, but when it’s open, Mt. Eyak can be a fun diversion) and went fishing with Buddy, a friend we’d met in town. It’s easy to make friends in Cordova.

Buddy stood at the controls of his boat in a black cotton sweatshirt, wool overalls, and knee-high rubber boots. The diesel motor knocked on the floorboard of the aluminum hull as he took us in the direction of Hawkins Island.

“I’ve seen killer whales come in and work the buoys,” he related, “knock the sea lions off and feed on ’em.”

The sky was gradually clearing, and while Buddy affixed a green-over-white lure to an 80-pound leader, the peaks finally came into view. It was the first time we’d seen what had surrounded us for a week. Not only was it clear, but being on the boat, we were a giant’s step back and able to take in a whole world of mountains–a thousand Sierras and a thousand Rockies. We trolled for about an hour, careful not to watch the poles because that scares the fish away. We got one bite, but caught nothing.

“That’s why they call it fishing and not catching,” Buddy pointed out.

As the ratio of down days to fly days was approaching that of men to women in camp, the Nefco Cafe was becoming all too familiar: the chipped, red painted floor, the pool table–more charged with corked testosterone every day–and the video library (Austin Powers just beating out South Park). But our break in the weather came. It always does if you have the time.

Kevin dug a snow pit. He dug another pit, then gave us the go ahead. Buckling in, I paused to listen to the rumble of nearby–or even far-off–slopes as the heavy new snow lost its grip and let go. It was unnerving, but only happening on isolated aspects. Or so I hoped. Kevin made it subtly clear that he wasn’t blind to the conditions, something about the hair on the back of his neck sticking straight up.

We dropped in for a few turns on wind-blown powder before the snow turned hard. It’s amazing how steep a 35- to 40-degree slope can seem when you’re faced with variable conditions and hardpack for thousands of continuous feet.

Our second run was named Test Monkey for the way I purportedly looked in a helmet. Alaska isn’t familiar ground to me, and I usually leave the heavy stuff to riders with more really-big-mountain experience. No ego problems here. So when I suggested my line to Kevin, far to the rider’s right of where the others were, I was surprised to hear, “It’ll be a first descent.”

Part of the beauty of riding in the Cordova area is that it’s untapped, virtually all first descents. Only a couple of the big peaks have been done. Even a run as straightforward as Test Monkey hadn’t been ridden before. But then again, most of Alaska has never been ridden.

The gang spread out along the ridgeline, each scouting and descending their own utopian line. Jim found a bony entrance to a cliff band. Marge–with her inherent grace–laid it down confidently. Adam, fully in charge, collected and coolly powered his way to exactly where he’d planned.

The consistent pitch and stable snow on Test Monkey (it was barely sloughing) made for a lenient initiation to the big stuff. It was a run every rider could do: your choice of turns, the perfect pitch, and a small, almost unnoticeable bergschrund at the bottom. Not an issue. My trip was made in a single discharge of rapid-fire turns–a progressive weighting and repeated drift.

The radio crackled below Sphinx and reconnected us with the guys on top. Everyone fell quiet as Kevin’s voice came over. He sounded far away and small. As the guide, his wasn’t an enviable position, and a lot rode on what he’d say at that moment. Situations, it seems, are universal–everyone is faced with them. But decisions are the difference between people. Would Kevin live up to his own definition of a good guide?

“I hate to say it … ” he started. We knew then our day in the sun was over. It wasn’t going to happen. The tension broke and the wait was over. We’d lagged, the window of opportunity had passed us by, and Kevin recognized it.

Backing off a peak is a hard call to make, and never a popular one even when it’s right. And as the heli scooped us up, delivering us from the glacier, the crew was deflated. But in the tough-guy world of big-mountain riding, where everyone wants to be The Man, I was anything but sorry. Because we didn’t ride that one run, we’ll all be riding another day. I’ll be back to Points North, with guides I trust and a little less to worry about. Maybe I’ll even step it up a bit.

By season’s end, Kevin had skied upwards of 70 runs–most of them first descents–and Points North was on the map. In contrast, my first day of riding, only three and a half runs, turned out to be my last. I didn’t have the luxury of time that Alaska requires. We only got a taste, a small bite of Cordova’s ridching that of men to women in camp, the Nefco Cafe was becoming all too familiar: the chipped, red painted floor, the pool table–more charged with corked testosterone every day–and the video library (Austin Powers just beating out South Park). But our break in the weather came. It always does if you have the time.

Kevin dug a snow pit. He dug another pit, then gave us the go ahead. Buckling in, I paused to listen to the rumble of nearby–or even far-off–slopes as the heavy new snow lost its grip and let go. It was unnerving, but only happening on isolated aspects. Or so I hoped. Kevin made it subtly clear that he wasn’t blind to the conditions, something about the hair on the back of his neck sticking straight up.

We dropped in for a few turns on wind-blown powder before the snow turned hard. It’s amazing how steep a 35- to 40-degree slope can seem when you’re faced with variable conditions and hardpack for thousands of continuous feet.

Our second run was named Test Monkey for the way I purportedly looked in a helmet. Alaska isn’t familiar ground to me, and I usually leave the heavy stuff to riders with more really-big-mountain experience. No ego problems here. So when I suggested my line to Kevin, far to the rider’s right of where the others were, I was surprised to hear, “It’ll be a first descent.”

Part of the beauty of riding in the Cordova area is that it’s untapped, virtually all first descents. Only a couple of the big peaks have been done. Even a run as straightforward as Test Monkey hadn’t been ridden before. But then again, most of Alaska has never been ridden.

The gang spread out along the ridgeline, each scouting and descending their own utopian line. Jim found a bony entrance to a cliff band. Marge–with her inherent grace–laid it down confidently. Adam, fully in charge, collected and coolly powered his way to exactly where he’d planned.

The consistent pitch and stable snow on Test Monkey (it was barely sloughing) made for a lenient initiation to the big stuff. It was a run every rider could do: your choice of turns, the perfect pitch, and a small, almost unnoticeable bergschrund at the bottom. Not an issue. My trip was made in a single discharge of rapid-fire turns–a progressive weighting and repeated drift.

The radio crackled below Sphinx and reconnected us with the guys on top. Everyone fell quiet as Kevin’s voice came over. He sounded far away and small. As the guide, his wasn’t an enviable position, and a lot rode on what he’d say at that moment. Situations, it seems, are universal–everyone is faced with them. But decisions are the difference between people. Would Kevin live up to his own definition of a good guide?

“I hate to say it … ” he started. We knew then our day in the sun was over. It wasn’t going to happen. The tension broke and the wait was over. We’d lagged, the window of opportunity had passed us by, and Kevin recognized it.

Backing off a peak is a hard call to make, and never a popular one even when it’s right. And as the heli scooped us up, delivering us from the glacier, the crew was deflated. But in the tough-guy world of big-mountain riding, where everyone wants to be The Man, I was anything but sorry. Because we didn’t ride that one run, we’ll all be riding another day. I’ll be back to Points North, with guides I trust and a little less to worry about. Maybe I’ll even step it up a bit.

By season’s end, Kevin had skied upwards of 70 runs–most of them first descents–and Points North was on the map. In contrast, my first day of riding, only three and a half runs, turned out to be my last. I didn’t have the luxury of time that Alaska requires. We only got a taste, a small bite of Cordova’s riding. When you really catch it, the snowboarding will be all-time, something you’ll never forget. But then again, they don’t call it catching, they call it snowboarding.

This season, Points North expands its down-day activities by adding eight snowmobiles and a hot tub to the setup. In addition to the A-Star, they’ll be running two new and higher-powered (four rotors instead of three) 407s, which will reduce travel time and cost per run. All the great guides from last year will be returning for the 2000 season.

Points North is one of the only all-inclusive operations in Alaska, so you’ll get to know a lot of cool people and get a feel for the town of Cordova (check out the Orca Bookstore and access the Internet at Susan’s). The cost this season is 100 dollars a day for food and lodging. Heli usage is charged by the hour in what’s called “Hobbs time.” Points North’s rate of 450 dollars an hour is about on par with other operators that charge by the day or by the run for an equal number of runs.

Call (877) 787-6784 or check out www.heliskialaska.com to head up, and tell ’em Test Monkey sent ya. Just kidding, don’t call me that.

riding. When you really catch it, the snowboarding will be all-time, something you’ll never forget. But then again, they don’t call it catching, they call it snowboarding.

This season, Points North expands its down-day activities by adding eight snowmobiles and a hot tub to the setup. In addition to the A-Star, they’ll be running two new and higher-powered (four rotors instead of three) 407s, which will reduce travel time and cost per run. All the great guides from last year will be returning for the 2000 season.

Points North is one of the only all-inclusive operations in Alaska, so you’ll get to know a lot of cool people and get a feel for the town of Cordova (check out the Orca Bookstore and access the Internet at Susan’s). The cost this season is 100 dollars a day for food and lodging. Heli usage is charged by the hour in what’s called “Hobbs time.” Points North’s rate of 450 dollars an hour is about on par with other operators that charge by the day or by the run for an equal number of runs.

Call (877) 787-6784 or check out www.heliskialaska.com to head up, and tell ’em Test Monkey sent ya. Just kidding, don’t call me that.