Super-advanced ski and board hounds are heading north to take advantage of the planet's most extreme winter-sports experience: Heli-skiing in Alaska.
Here in the Great Northwest, vapor trails of powder, tracing the rugged glaciated slopes are the visual norm, making Alaska the Holy Grail for those who worship the great snow wave.
Make no mistake, the difference between schussing at a Rocky Mountain resort and heli-skiing hedonism in Alaska is just as vast as the disparity between struggling in East Coast slush and tearing up West Coast powder.
The first thing to know about heli-skiing holidays in Alaska -- and we know, this is very basic -- is that ski lifts are not part of the equation.
Sure, there are a few Alaskan resorts with traditional lifts and below-tree-line terrain accessible to skiers and riders of all levels. But you've come to the farthest reaches of the continental United States to ride uncharted terrain, and a whirly bird is the only chariot that can deliver you away from the masses to your peak mountain experience.
Helicopter rides of a few minutes or more are your way up the mountain. And all heli-skiing action takes place in the southwest of Alaska in the Chugach Mountains near the town of Valdez.
To powder hounds, the name Valdez hardly conjures a doomed oil tanker. Rather, the town is a prime departure point for forays atop glaciated peaks where razor-sharp ridges and plunging chutes tempt daredevils to dip their tips into the great white beyond.
In addition to Valdez, other heli-ski guide services operate out of the towns of Cordova and Girdwood. The best bet for planning a trip is to get organized early (spots are often filled a year in advance) by contacting individual tour operators about packages on offer.
Don't be afraid to approach organizing your trip with all the detailed vigilance of planning a wedding -- after all, a heli-skiing holiday involves a serious outlay of cash for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you want to make sure you get the best operator for your individual needs. Here are a few companies we recommend.
Points North Heli-Adventures, Inc.
The only heli-ski operator using the remote southeastern side of the Chugach Mountains as a base, Points North Heli-Adventures accesses more than 1,500 square miles of rideable terrain. An average day takes in 20,000 to 30,000 vertical feet and an intermediate skiing ability is advised for all participants. PNH is the only heli-ski operator based in Cordova, a roughly 30-minute flight from Anchorage (there are also daily flights from Seattle and Juneau), and the company's season runs from late February to late April.
Chugach Powder Guides
When it comes to diversity of offerings (including heli-skiing, snow-cat skiing and resort-based operations from Alyeska Resort), this company scores big. The guaranteed access to between 80,000 and 100,000 vertical feet per seven-day heli-itinerary is a big lure for adrenaline junkies. And the exclusive mountain setting of the company's high-end heli-hotel, the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, makes for the ultimate in downhill decadence (packages include lodging, air transfers from the Anchorage airport, all meals and heli-flights). Chugach Powder Guides are based in Girdwood, AK, roughly 40 miles south of Anchorage. Access to Tordrillo Mountain Lodge is by ski plane in winter or float plane in the summer months (40 minutes flying time from Anchorage).
Valdez Heli-Ski Guides
Catering exclusively to advanced and expert riders, this Valdez-based operator offers heli-skiing packages that include lodging at the Valdez Harbor Inn. Seven-night packages include accommodation, breakfast and lunch and a guaranteed 30 skiable runs out of 36 helicopter rides. The company also offers single day packages (with six runs).
A few things to know:
The season: The heli-skiing season runs only 12 weeks, from February to the end of April. The earlier part of the season means colder temperatures-- but also deeper powder stashes, which can easily reach waist height. In April the powder is more likely to come to your shins, but longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures have their own appeal.
The terrain: All Alaskan heli-ski operators access the same terrain in the Chugach Mountains, where weather patterns born in the Gulf of Alaska mix with cold Arctic air to produce powder that's uniformly fabulous. To ensure safety and lessen the avalanche risk, the skiers proceed one by one down the slopes, following the guide who leads them to safety stops along the way.
Heli-Time: Safety standards are uniformly high and helicopter quality, maintenance and pilot prowess is not an issue when deciding between the various companies. You should, however, inquire if the company charges all heli-time (hours flown) up front, as flight time that's cancelled due to the region's often-tumultuous weather patterns is usually not reimbursed.