Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Chugach Balance

Climbers and alpinists love challenge--in fact, the act of overcoming adversity is what makes their respective crafts all the more rewarding. While more glutonous, heli ski guides in the Chugach have their own obstacles to overcome in their passionate pusuit to guide descents of the range's biggest peaks.

The combination of good snow, good stability, capable clients, and perfect weather for landing a single engine helicopter on a knife edge ridge to descend a 3000' 50 degree ramp requires patience, self-discipline, group awareness are of course, luck.

In 2009 in Valdez, we have had an ample amount of these lucky days. In the face of an ailing economy, an erupting volcano (Mt. Redoubt), and typically challenging weather, we have had a hell of a lot of solid clients, stable snow, and weather windows. All this adds up to deep snow on steep classics like Pontoon, Meteorite, East Peak, and the many unnamed peaks in the Lost World out beyond the Stevens Glacier to the west.

One such day was April 2. Along with Jeff Zell, a veteran of 15+ seasons skiing in the Chugach, I guided a group, trained up by none other than late the Doug Coombs. In fact, many of us met just days after Doug's passing.

It is one day before the anniversary of Doug's tragic death in La Grave in 2006, and we are starting the day with Meteorite, one of the most sought after runs in the range--a 3000' ramp with a 55 degree entrance in the no-fall zone followed by another 3000k of powder to the valley floor. Not bad for a warm up run.

The upper 2/3rds of Meteorite. Photo: Simone Blei

As the day unfolds there are many more steep runs in deep, stable powder--some with rather harrowing landings in outrageously exposed locations. It is quite a feeling to step out of a helicopter onto a knife edge ridge no wider than your shoulders. There is no transition as there is in climbing, where even the hike to the cliff eases you into the vertical world.

Doug Workman, after being dropped off alone to build a proper landing zone. Photo: T. Koether

Standing in such places, as all climbers know, changes ones' entire sense of place in this world. The mountains' dauting size and sheer walls put us in our place--forces humility upon us. Being able to ski down their flanks allows us to regain some sense of control.

East Peak, with Doug, a microdot, below. Photo: Christian Cabanilla

By the end of the day, we had skied runs I had never even seen, far away on the outer edges of our zone. We had wandered amoungst deep glacial holes, skied deep powder, and danced with fast sluffs keeping our egos in check. And we did it in the presence of friends all brought together by the passing of a good friend and mentor.

Doug Workman, after a most pleasing run in Clueland, in thigh deep powder.