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When Alaska is Too Big
Conditions Force Temporary Heli-Season Hold

In search of stability
I couldn't decide if I was in Chechnya, Bosnia, or old school Beirut. It was the war zone and we felt like we were going into battle every day. The view on Thompson Pass was ridiculous from the standpoint of a backcountry/heli skier. There were Class 1 - 3 avalanches with crown faces up to four-feet tall on all northern aspects up and down the highway. It was the kind of time you either ski the resort or you go bowling — it's not a good time to go skiing on slopes that have had no control work. In Alaska, we evaluate the hazard on slopes we plan to ski, but do not "control" the slopes as a ski area would.

As guides, we were scared. Almost every day, our morning meeting included a report on some form of avalanche activity or incident with at least one of the four heli skiing operators in Valdez: what slid with which group from which company. We would then determine where to fly with clients on the public ship. Most heli operators have public and private ships. The public ship shuttles all of the groups to the top of six or more runs during the day, then the skiers ski down and await the next pick up.

Our public ship flies four to five groups consisting of four to five skiers each to a zone to ski. Each group travels as a "pod, skiing peaks in that zone. It is thus logistically more difficult for the pod to hop and skip around avalanche terrain then it is for a private ship (one to two groups of four to five skiers per group).

"I left behind several peaks and decided to pull off those entire micro climates for more stable areas...."

As a lead guide on one of the private ships leading the Bogner IMAX crew, I was flying all over the range looking for stable snow and finding it. I left behind several peaks and decided to pull off those entire micro climates for more stable areas. The nice thing about a private ship is having the freedom to go to new zones determine the stability and ski it or leave it.

I dug a pit on one peak and did not like the weak layers I found at 45cm and at 150cm (both buried surface hoar, the lower layer - 8mm crystals). We pulled off and then went a half-mile down the ridge to check out another aspect on the other side of the valley on a smaller face. Just by setting the helicopter down on the landing zone (LZ), we caused a two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half foot fracture that ran on all the northern aspects of the low-angle (25-35 degree) face we had hoped to ski. We were outta there. We ultimately went to a two different zones, found good stability and skied all afternoon.

My private ship, along with two other privates, were having fun, working hard and finding stable zones to take our clients. But we finally determined that the public ships of Valdez Heli Ski Guides (VHSG) and Alaska Backcountry Adventures (ABA) could not continue to operate safely in the Thompson pass area. We were going to have to wait for the cycle of instability to come around. Without the "core" of our company (the public ship) the guides and owners decided we should close our doors and wait out the cycle.

Seven days later, on April 15th, VHSG opened its doors again and I have returned to Valdez this time to guide Standard Films and their crew of the best snowboarders in the world.

The layers of instability have definitely improved. Facets are rounding and the pack is settling and bridging over older unstable layers. This bridging will cause problems when the warming "shed" cycle starts in another week or so, but we are keeping our eyes wide open and are enjoying amazing skiing.

It has just started to snow and the storm is coming in warm, which will help it bond with the old snow. We will see what the new weather brings us, but we are all excited to finish out the season skiing the Chugach mountains of Valdez — the undisputed "North Shore" of skiing.

Dave Swanwick, MountainZone.com Correspondent


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