Cordova, Alaska - I'm standing atop a conelike summit deep in Alaska's Chugach Mountains, possibly the steepest and most gargantuan peaks I have ever seen.
It's a cloudless March day, the sky cerulean, the bold sun beating down. In every direction there are summits sharp and straight whose narrow chutes and fluted flanks have tested some of the world's best skiers. I have paid almost $6 000 (about R84 000) to be here. I've come with my best friend, Maggie, to celebrate our 40th birthdays, and each of us has left a husband and two young children behind with the goal of testing our prowess in what has become the Holy Grail among skiers: heli-skiing in Alaska.
A helicopter has delivered us, as promised, to the top of a remote slope of untouched snow. The view alone demands reverence. The skiing itself requires absolute focus. Or so I'm told. After noodling around in the snow for a heartbreaking 15 minutes, my group of four nods at our guide, and he radios the helicopter pilot to come pluck us from this wintry perch. If you looked at our feet, you'd see that we hadn't even put on our ski boots.
We cannot ski because the previous six days have been a torrid mix of rain and snow - wet, heavy slush that has triggered avalanches on nearly every slope in the immediate area. Although today dawned bright and blue, the temperature rose to a balmy 68 degrees, more than 20 degrees warmer than average temps at this time of year. And that was down in the valley at the lodge. About 4 000 feet higher, where I'm waiting for the helicopter, it's freakishly warmer. I'm actually sweating just standing still.
You don't need to be a snow scientist to know that these are subprime skiing conditions. But in case there was any doubt, Kevin Quinn, co-owner and lead guide at Points North Heli, put it this way at breakfast after flying the company's 1 500 square miles of terrain: “Every hazard in the world is out there today. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The worst day out there [skiing] is better than the best day here. But in my 20-plus years of skiing the Chugach, I've never seen anything like this.”
Kevin's main priority is to keep us safe. Roughly 30 skiers have congregated at Orca Lodge just outside of Cordova, a fishing village in southeastern Alaska. Since we arrived (in a rainstorm that lasted five gloomy days), we have orbited one another in the spacious dining room where ping-pong keeps the Czechs occupied while the California guys watch ski porn on endless repeat. Maggie and I have jogged into town and taken an aerobics class with a handful of Cordova locals at the Rec Centre. One day, we borrowed kayaks and paddled up Orca Inlet on Prince William Sound, but we turned around after 45 minutes when the rain graduated to hail.
When heli-skiing in Alaska, down days are expected, and so is bad weather. Points North is very clear about this on its website, where it warns: “The Gulf of Alaska is a giant weather maker that provides the Chugach with over 50 feet of snow annually and makes the runs world famous. . . . All of the heli-skiing in Alaska is in heavily glaciated terrain. We need clear skies to fly and ride safely.” According to freeskiing pioneer Kristin Ulmer, who spends two weeks at Points North every winter and whose trip overlapped with mine, on any spring heli-ski trip to Alaska you have a 33 percent chance of not flying at all; 33 percent change of flying but skiing low-angle, mellow slopes; and 33 percent chance of having the best, most life-altering, extreme ski run ever.
The high likelihood of down days is baked into the $5,875 trip price, which breaks down into food and lodging (guests all stay at the Orca Lodge and receive three meals per day for a week) and four hours of helicopter time. This is generally enough for three days of flying and eight to 10 runs of skiing. If you run out of helicopter time, you can book more at $1,000 per heli-hour. When I sent in my deposit, the optimist in me wondered how much I should budget for extra heli-hours. It never occurred to me that we would get completely skunked.
And yet, I departed Alaska without even buckling my ski boots, a potentially crushing end to a once-in-a-lifetime dream trip. In the weeks since returning home, I've reread my journal and thought deeply about the adventure and the grief - yes, grief; at first, I thought I was being melodramatic, but bear with me and I'll explain - caused by my trip's implosion. The upshot is that there were some silver linings and valuable lessons (among them: Buy trip insurance! I did for about $280 and got a fat check for all of my unused helicopter time, almost $4 000). I also got a refresher course in how to deal when things don't go as planned.
The five stages of grief when your trip implodes:
Denial: Even though we arrived in Cordova in the gloomiest weather, where the thick, gray clouds didn't rain so much as leak, and even though that weather persisted for days, neither of us drank any wine at dinner, firmly believing the next day would be clear and cold, and we wanted all our faculties intact so we could ski our brains out.
Anger: “Rain, rain, pouring rain,” I wrote in my journal on March 29. “It's a complete waste of time to be twiddling my thumbs at the lodge here in rainy Alaska. If I were home (Colorado, which was getting hammered with actual snowstorms), I'd be in deep powder. I could take a week off and ski. Get a cheap motel. Eat cheap. It'd be a lot cheaper than paying thousands of dollars to watch the rain in Cordova.”
Bargaining: “If it clears and we ski, I won't leave my family next year for another trip,” I wrote on Day 4 in my journal. “All I need is a few good runs in AK, and I can have a mellow season next year.”
Depression: We had one sunny day, and that's when we flew to the mountain summit for a picnic. When we returned to the lodge, I was heavy with sadness. On one hand, I knew that in the big picture not getting to heli-ski was inconsequential, especially in light of the world's true problems: poverty, violence, refugees. On the other hand, this was the thing I'd spent more than a year saving for and training for. It was my dream to ski those mountains, and my dream was fading. That it wasn't going to happen was, momentarily, devastating.
Acceptance: Here's the thing: The weather was completely beyond our control. The only thing I could (and did) control was getting into the best shape of my life so I could ski these mountains, packing all the right gear and showing up with a positive attitude.
Once I finally accepted that, I felt better. Instead of concentrating on what I did not get to do (ski), I focused on what I did: I logged quality time with one of my favourite people in the world (Maggie and I live in separate states and are lucky to see each other once a year, if that); I slept, a lot, which is priceless when you're a working mom of two young children; I worked on a fun creative writing project that I had wanted to start but had not made the time for at home; I explored one of the most beautiful fishing hamlets in the world (if you ever get a chance to go to Cordova, go); and, finally, I met kindred spirits. Though we didn't bond over ski lines, we all shared a love of the sport, the mountains, and the wildness of it all.
Skiers are a special breed, and those who opt to be heli-skiing guides in Alaska are a hardy bunch. They're fun to drink whiskey with and throw old, battered skis onto a raging bonfire with in hopes of appeasing the snow gods, even if it proves ineffective.
Will I go back? I hope so. Am I glad I went, despite getting skunked? Without a doubt.
* Walker is a writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @racheljowalker.
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Points North Heli-Adventures, Inc.
Since 1998, Points North has been taking skiers and snowboarders to the southeastern Chugach Mountains. Owners Jessica and Kevin Quinn are both certified guides and professional skiers. A week-long trip, including lodging, meals and four hours of helicopter time, costs $5 875.