Every run every sent during the season, every line chosen(and a part of every paycheck during the year) is part of the yearly pilgrimage north just get a chance to sample AK terrain and snow. It’ll test you mentally with weather, group logistics and fear. Physically with the length of runs and spring snow conditions and objective hazards. Bring your a-game and be prepared to ride the wire no matter what the trip brings. A shitload of disposable income helps. Glenn Plake once said that thousand dollar heliski days weren’t the soul of skiing. No, maybe not, but they sure are fun.
L-Dog and I chose SEABA and not being trusties, we had to split our time and blue collar budget between tour camp and a day or so of heli opulence.
Ben, fellow Big Sky resident/GMOwner/guide/new dad went out of his way to accommodate us and our late season cherry picking. There had been, in true Haines style, a ton of weather and some avalanche concerns before we arrived. We managed to skizzle in after the fact and get a window after the last significant storm of the Haines heli season.
The new touring option from SEABA bases out of a weather port 3000 feet above the Lynn Canal. It sticks you above the below treeline gnar that makes the Haines lowers impenetrable. A new option offered by them this season, we were eager guinea pigs.
After three weathered out attempts at getting the goods in Haines spanning 12 years, the weather and snow lined up getting a foot of fresh before clearing out the day of our arrival.
The first tour out of camp day two, three out of the four of my Salomon Guardians rails shit the bed. AK curveball? Check. Now the trip can begin for reals.
What do you do? Call for heli support? Hell. No. Not calling in help unless both legs are broken. As a former boss told me once, if you’re going to be dumb, you better be tough. I had a moment for sure, let out a stream of profanities into the heavens. After determining the downhill option worked I shut up and booted the next five days with a smile. I love my Bodacious like a far kid loves cake and I wasn’t going to to have some Atomics with rental bindings thrown out of a heli for me. That’s cheating.
L-Dog crafted me bush snowshoes out of pine boughs, pallet wood and P-cord. They didn’t last long, 300 vert but more importantly symbolized friendship and our solidarity and raised my spirits. A stellar ski partner because if you just let L-Dog do, he’ll have camp set up organized, food going and gear fixed all in about twelve minutes and not say a word. Those bush snowshoes now hang proudly at the FT. Seward lodge.
Daily flights over our area confirmed we were one, still alive and two, managing our own shit. From planning preparing our food to mitigating avalanche terrain and glacier hazards on our own, our goal was not bother the operation or guides while they were dealing with a full house of scheduled heli clients that were paying the bills.
I had to leave forty-five minutes early every day to match L-Dogs pace on his appropriately chosen big mountain touring gear, but we got to where we wanted to go and had an amazing experience. The views were insane and even the milked out day was special knowing all helis were down and we were the only humans in that section of the Chilkats. Beyond cool.
The weather port, dubbed the casino, (with the door closed it always seemed to be eleven p.m. inside) was warm and comfortable, propane stove kicking. The routine of ski sleep and eat as much as humanly possible became our existence. After a couple days of sussing out routes and ski terrain we were locked in. We were choosing moderate plus terrain for safety reasons and respect for our surroundings. Snow was pow settling to orange peel pow pow on north through west aspects.
Up and down with the sun, time melted away. Our last day, we sat chilling in the sun and drinking the daily reward Raniers. The cell phone rang. It’s Ben asking if the we wanted to heli the next day. Of course we did. Our budget was allowing for a day or two of opulence. With the weather still uncannily blue and windless, it was a no brainer. You get the call, you go.
We woke up to the sounds of the approaching A-star. The pilot, waited for us smoking a Swisher Sweet, leaning against his steed. Loaded gear, off to the airport and shuttled back to Ft Seward lodge. Time for a shower, a breakfast sandwich and back in the van to the airport, we waited to see what our day would bring. We were a group of two so anything was possible. We were riding the wave and waiting to see how this one would break.
When Tom Wayes introduced himself, I knew we were going to get it. Lead guide for 20 in AK years, cool as shit and a total beast. I remember a 10 year old photo in Powder mag of him sidehilling on impossibly steep spines, guiding and scoping.
We had Paul, cheery four-star comp skier from Europe and Robert his snowboard equivalent, L-Dog and myself. No warm up. The first four runs in the Trinity peaks area. East, Middle , Middle West and West, all toe ins. Baller. Haines steep.
Didn’t say much during the day, just observed. Listened. Always a cool thing to watch someone do something well. More like a clinic with great skiing as Tom described what he was seeing and doing. He was managing not only our group, but the all people and guides in the field. Shit that would cripple most with fear was his job description on a daily basis. The Dutch boys had traveled a long way, worked their way through sub guides and had teed up name brand Haines runs all week. Bellringer. Sanitarium. Tomahawk. We had been thrown in.
We skied to the waiting heli in golden light after the last run. Our day finished with the pilot showing his chops on the way out. Headed back to base and sat on the deck with the Dutch boys and Tom. Talked with Tom a bit, listened to a strange diatribe from Chad from Pocatello on the mechanics of a volleyball jump vs. basketball jump. With no break from the week booting, then an epic heli day, and finally a surprise shot of whiskey from Bindu at the Ft Seward lodge bar, I hit the wall. I started to lean over at the picnic table and had to excuse myself for a nap.
That evening was a blur of food and booze. I staggered from the P-bar late that night singing some skiing version of Sister Nancy’s reggae tune Blam Blam at the top of my lungs. My walk back to the lodge took me in front of the Haines police station. Here comes a Haines Burroughs cop car rolling up. Shit. Damn brown brown….
He first thanked me for not driving. He took my ID and after finding no warrants, expressed clearly that he was glad I had a good day but if I didn’t shut the hell up the last run of the day was going to be called Drunk and Disorderly. I took the hint, apologized profusely, shut my flan hole and staggered to bed.
Wanted to chase the dragon the next day but financial reality set in. We had a cool ass week and would be back. Plus got no takers for my kidney on Craigslist, so our time was done. I’m excited to return next year to redo the mix of touring and heli. Gonna throw in a drop by Drake air into Glacier Bay for the trifecta.