By Clem Smith
Wow, what a trip….
Sitting down now trying to contextualize this is proving to be pretty hard! In short, it was the the icing on a big fat cake of a ski season. The season itself as everyone knows was all time here in the west. Dana and I were fortunate to get a ton of good days skiing in this winter. Skiing is a huge priority for Storm Day.
Two winters ago Dana was invited to up to Juneau, AK by Points North Heli Adventures owner/operator Kevin Quinn. I was pretty jealous of that especially since he had great company: Quinner, Arne Backstrom, and Tucker Patton (PNH Guide) and photographer Court Leve. Together the five of them scouted and skied new terrain around Juneau which Quinner would later lead clients on. I really wanted to be on a trip like that with your bros in a helicopter scoring great terrain. Dana came to SIA raving about how sick it was. AK has always been in my mind’s eye as a pinnacle destination for skiing. I went a few years ago for work, and got some good days but unstable snowpack kept us on mellow terrain. I didn’t quite get what I consider the “AK” experience I had been dreaming about since watching Jeremy Nobis charging down peaks in TGR’s Harvest & Further. Fast forward to October 2010. I was calling Quinner to check in on his and his wife Jessica’s boots. They are longtime Tecnica riders and I wanted to make sure they were dialed in with their new product for the upcoming season. That turned out to be one of the most expensive phone calls ever. Quinner can sell ice to the Eskimos. He talked me and Dana into coming up to PNH in April. I figured we could swing with deadlines etc, and we decided to go for it. I figured “Arne Would Go”. Over the next couple of months I talked my buddies Glen and Jason into joining us up there. This was key having these guys with us. It meant that we would all be together in the same group, as you are only as good as your weakest link in these situations. This insured us someones ability wouldn’t limit us terrain wise and having your best friends share a helicopter is priceless.
We arrived the last week of April with fingers and toes crossed. AK was the one place outside of Pennsylvania that was having a sub par ski season. Around Cordova they had been getting snow from about mid march through the first part of April. Prior to the 22nd I think they had 9 days of skiing in a row which meant they hadn’t had any new snow in a while. Fortunately for us the weather socked in on the 22nd and didn’t let up until the 27th.
The Down Days:
With the weather what it was we had a lot of down days in a row upon arrival. The PNH lodge is situated at the end of the road in Cordova, and utilized and old fishing cannery property and with a really cool guest lodge. I loved the place. It was nice, simple and truly authentic AK. Seriously, if you’re bitching about thread counts you’re at the wrong latitude. We had a sick room for the four of us, which quickly turned into what we called “The Wolf Den”. We ate our meals at the main gathering area, the NEFCO lodge. We had great meals prepared but PNH’s excellent chefs, and it was really fun interacting with all of the other guests and PNH staff. There were a lot of great folks up there the last week. Like Dr. Grant Kaye, Chris and Sarah from Marker/Volkl and even the Unofficialnetworks.com crew was up there. It was hilarious getting in some “pro call outs” 3000 miles from home.
Despite the weather the guys kept us occupied with glacier hikes, avalanche beacon training, shit talking, ping-pong, gear prep and exploring around Cordova and The Cannery. We embraced every moment of being there. We were all fired up to be up there and were keeping ourselves entertained by filming each other doing the ridiculous “lifestyle” shots all over the cannery. We love spoofing on the ski industry’s movies and all the ridiculous shots of all the athletes looking so serious and “pensive” as they stand in front of the camera trying to look as cool and stoic as possible. We took this to the next level and got so many dumbass shots of each other I still am cracking up. We knew we would be going full nerd with helmet cams so we decided to shoot this stuff as filler around it in order to keep all 14 people who watch thevideo entertained with some laughter. And yes, we did shoot some awesome guns and drink lots of beer and whiskey.
The weather on April 28th finally let up. We were really lucky as we were the 2nd group out that morning. Tucker is one of our best friends and were super luck to have him as our guide as well. We got dropped off in Upper Guilt Trip in the Ate the Worm area. The first 400 yards were a shocker, they had this terrible sun crust on it. We got down to a better aspect that was a more northerly aspect and had some great warm up turns. We then got bumped up to Sweeter than Wine and Full Support. These runs were a lot better. It was insane how long and perfect they were. Both of these were in the mid 30’s as far as pitch goes. They were really fun to just open it up on the 196’s and make super G turns in bluebird pow!.
Tucker then brought us up to Test Monkey. This was a fairly critical line where slough management really came into play. I think Test Monkey was a critical run to nail as it would set the stage for getting into some hairy lines. Test monkey was sweet, it was really steep, but shorter and you could figure out how to use the terrain and get away from your slough but still ski aggressively. We got down to the bottom and we were all pretty stoked. We ran into our buddy Will Paden (another PNH guide) and his group at the bottom. He and Tucker made the call to take both our groups up to a line called Bean Pod. With two guides and two competent groups up there backing each other up the call was made to get into some of the real AK shit! They sent Tucker up there first to dig out the Landing Zone. We then got up to the LZ, landing under power, or “towing in”. We were fired up. We helped dig the rest of the LZ out to make it easier for our pilot Cooper (a.k.a. Air Wolf) to land with Will’s group. When Will’s group landed a few minutes later we got organized to start sending it down one of the best runs ever.
Will and Tucker volunteered me to go first. My heart rate still goes up when I think about that. Bean Pod is a 2000 foot long , 45 degree apron that follows a shadow line off of Ate the Worm. It was insane. Tucker yelled “WWAD” right as I was dropping in and got me inspired. I was lucky, I figured out how to just hang onto my left footed turns just a touch longer as I made my way down, working left to right. I had my head on a swivel as I watched my slough gradually build up and cascade over a rock out cropping two-thirds of the way down. Tucker was great making me aware over the radio and I got away with as much greediness as I could before posting up high on a shoulder and let my slough clean out through the choke area. I finished the line with super G turns through the bottom Apron and at that point was the best run I had ever had in my life. The adrenaline was off the scale for me! See the video below, check out my claim at the end- what a kook!
Opening up that line was a ski career highlight for me. It was so much fun I can’t even tell you. Dana went second, followed by Glen and Peck. I could have ended my trip right there. That was what we came up for. Tucker met us at the bottom at the LZ. We were all stoked when Quinner came over to our group to check in. We were all going off on how sick it was. Quinner looked at us then looks at Tucker and says “Why don’t you take these boys up there?” and points up to Humble Pie, which is one of the biggest lines they access in their zone of the Chugach. It looks so huge from the base of it, I had no idea what part you actually can ski down. Tucker and Quinner got on the radio to Will and got them to back us up on it as well. It was go time.
As we flew up the center of it looking at our lines, I still couldn’t figure out what exactly we were going to ski. I was so elated after bean pod I didn’t even care. We got to the top and got organized. . Tucker dropped in and got positioned underneath a cliff in a safer zone exposure wise. To put it in context. Humble Pie was skied the week before by Kip and Seth Wescott for the upcoming Warren Miller movie. I guess we were the first clients to ski it in over 5 or 6 years. It is about 4000 ft of vert. With average steepness of around 52 degrees with steeper pockets. Where Tucker and Will later posted up a third of the way down was 52. On your skiers left side was a massive 200 ft cliff section and in the gut of the run was spines and fingers for a few thousand feet. Falling here was not an option. The exposure here was pretty high which is why it’s so limited access wise. We were also lucky that due to the below average snowpack the spines and slough runnels were more exaggerated as well as the safety of the snowpack was better due to the lack of build up and loading.
Dana dropped in working his way a third of the way down to Tucker, who would then instruct us through a peppery minefield at the start of the spine section. A fall there and we would suffer a catastrophic tumble for the next 2500 feet or so. I have a great respect for athletes that are charging high exposure lines like this. Dana made it down calling up on the radio that it was good to go. It took him about 4 minutes to get down and we knew he had been ripping. It was the longest four minutes ever- we were gripped!
I dropped in next and it was just unreal. Working high angle pow turns diagonal to Tucker, then making my way zigzagging through the spine section. I skied very conservatively. God , all I can say is watch the POV vid below. About at the 2:00 minute mark I stop to let my slough pass and I look back up, you can really see how steep it was looking up!
The snow was perfect, just unreal, and the acute mental awareness and focus I felt during the run I will never forget. After about four minutes of making my way down to the PZ I pulled up to Dana exhausted but just buzzing with adrenaline. It will stand out as my best four minutes on skis probably forever. The rest of the day we took it pretty easy after that, especially since we all escaped safely and one of the guides George was caught in an avalanche on Wizard Rings and got pretty hurt. We got back to base concerned for George but still all of us were mind-blown from the day. I can’t thank Quinner, Tucker and Will for getting us up there and down safely. Unreal. Thanks again to PNH!
Overall it was exactly the experience I had been dreaming about getting in Alaska. The crew up there is world class, they make you feel like one of the bros instead of simply a client. I highly recommend getting a crew together for your trip. Its a little extra effort, and its not cheap, but having your friends in the heli is an unforgettable experience. If you and your crew keep it tight and can ski, PNH will get you into some rowdy lines and keep you as safe as possible while you score the run (or runs) of your life!