Schooled in Alaska

story and photos by Ted Reckas

Imagine this: The heli just dropped you on a huge Alaskan peak. You’re guiding five clients who are bonkers for powder. It’s been clear and cold for three days. In the last 12 hours it snowed 3 feet, with a steady southwest wind. You scoped a 30-degree line down the west ridge on the way up. There is also an east-facing bowl. Because of the cornice below, you can’t see the entire bowl, but it’s roughly 40 degrees. The ridge is wind-packed sestrugi. The bowl is deep pow. Your clients are chanting, “Let’s ride the bowl!” You dig a pit that reveals a rotten facet layer 4 feet down. You also get a Rutschblock 5, Quality 1.

Several thousand dollars of your clients’ money, possibly their lives, and definitely respect from your fellow guides—not to mention your own life—rest on your choice of a descent. By the way, all your clients know great lawyers. Where do you ride?

Hopefully you make the kind of choice Seth Koch, Head Guide at Alaska Heliskiing, makes all the time. Their guide school is designed to teach you how to do just that.

 

I met Alaska today. Literally. A massive glacier lies right outside Juneau—a huge arm of chunked-up Arctic mass extending down, as if being released by the giant granite spires above. You can walk across the frozen lake, right up to the head of the glacier, wiggle your way into a crevasse, and there, with a hand on each wall, surrounded by gleaming blue translucence, you can hold a conversation with Alaska. You hear the odd creak, then a thumpf and a loud crack as the ice breaks somewhere you can’t see. The ice squeaks under your feet as you move. That’s Alaska talking.

The mountains are so massive and steep, when you’re outside town you can’t see it, and when you’re in town, you can’t see out. You can’t even drive there. We have built a 6,529-foot suspension bridge in Japan, the Panama Canal, boats so big you can land planes on them, and particle accelerators two miles long. But putting a road through these mountains? No, thanks.

Everything is big here. Sean Dog, founder of Alaska Heliskiing, once caught a 375-pound halibut with a fishing pole. People don’t take bug spray when they go camping, they take a shotgun. The mountains are so big you don’t hike to your line, you take a helicopter. The sloughs you start here would be called avalanches back home, and the avalanches would be called natural disasters. Sean Dog once saw a 40-foot crown. Forty feet. The Juneau Ice Field averages over 100 feet of snowfall per year. Taku Glacier was growing until a few years ago. And we’re about to go get in that stuff and ride the steepest lines we can find. This is the captain speaking. Take your protein pill. Put on your helmet.

 

The sun is going down now and the mountains are turning pink. As we drive up the valley from Haines, Sean Dog hands me a beer and we keep our eyes out for bald eagles. “Gotta get you that money shot,” he says, smiling through his chaw. Twenty-six miles out, we go over a frozen bridge at Porcupine Crossing and around a snowy hill, and see his house set back from the road. Hand built, rough wood, low ceilings, plywood floors. Large rounds of wood lie outside, waiting to be split for the stove. It’s warm inside, and dinner simmers. Sean Dog’s partner, Vicki, wears tie-dye pants, fur boots and a thick sweater. Fishbone, one of the lead guides, is helping Clay, Vicki’s 9-year-old, with his math homework. Brett, one of the tail guides, comes in with a bundle of chopped wood. Two-year-old Hali Moon is asleep on the couch. On the wall hangs a picture of her playing in the water, cradling a salmon as big as she is. She slowly comes to life as Sean Dog holds her and quietly explains that all her friends from last season are back in town. “There’s Tim, and Brett and Uncle Fishy over there…”

Vicki is stirring a pot  of chicken.  Jars of smoked salmon line  the kitchen shelves. A platter of goat cheese, salmon and capers gets passed around. Several cases of beer lie open-ended—no one goes thirsty around here. Hali comes out of the kitchen with her grape juice and clinks glasses with everyone as she wanders around the stove toward her dad’s lap. Sean Dog’s kids have been taught to spread the good vibe. It’s pretty clear he lives a sweet life and creates one for others. As he put it, “I shot seven deer this year, and I’ve got tons and tons of halibut. I’ll give you a ten-pound slab to take back to your place. I’m food rich.”

He eats the best food you can get, for free, has a loving family, and flies around the best terrain in the world, riding any line he wants. The man has things pretty well figured out. His crew does too.

Case in point: opening day, Alta, 1989. Certain snowboarders, future AH guides, had hiked up the ski area and hidden in the trees. It was a powder day and hundreds of skiers salivated as they rode the lift, seconds away from getting Alta untracked. Just then, said guides popped out of the trees and shredded the best lines on the mountain, to the horror of all skiers watching. Sean Dog and the boys have continued to carve a swath through life, finding the goods and getting after it. In Haines, they just do so on a much bigger scale, and you’re the skier. (This should be included because it gives a hint that these guys have figured out something that most people haven’t. They have created a cool and unusual life, living and riding in Alaska, and you (the readers) are the skiers watching from the chair lift of life, going to work everyday, watching videos of them riding the dream lines, only wishing. I’m not trying to rant, but I think this ending to the sentence conveys something important to the story, something having to do with the fact that these guys have turned away from a typical life and live something in contrast to the majority of us.)

I  step out of the house, coffee in hand. Smoke rises from the neighbor’s chimney and the sun is just up. I look past thick, dark trees up a steep mountainside to sunlit peaks so high above they seem like another planet. Imagine looking up at Whistler/Blackcomb, then looking  over and seeing Jackson Hole looming above, then looking left and seeing Portillo, then looking  right and seeing Les Arcs. That would be like  a portion of this view.  I walk  across the chalky snow to the fire house.

Waiting outside is Erica. She grew up here in Mosquito Lake. She spends summers pulling halibut out of the ocean on her dad’s boat and winters riding snowmobiles and snowboards.  She’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed and pretty. And she’s in guide school. That brings the female total to three: Kelly from Breckenridge, April from Tahoe, and Erica from Mosquito Lake. The ladies are stepping up. Statistically, they die much less often in avalanches, and some attribute that to having a cooler head in the mountains than guys. Cool head or not, the guys don’t mind having a few girls around.

Everyone piles into the steel-sided firehouse for Wilderness Advanced First Aid class taught by Lucy Tate. We are being trained to be heli-guides in huge, remote mountains in Alaska, and we’d better know what to do if the shit hits the fan. The heli won’t be here for three more days. For now we have plenty of time to read our first aid books and think about things you don’t want to think about, like broken femurs. We practice immobilizing a victim’s spine in the snow and get drilled on intracranial pressure as everyone begins to understand how bad first aid situations can be in the backcountry.

My weakest area in guide school is avy skills. I can search with a beacon, but I’m not leading the charge when it comes to snow science. So I am looking forward to Bill Glude’s class. Bill is a weathered Alaskan snow guru, old but as strong as most men in their prime, and he knows as much about snow as the Klinkit natives do. When he squints up at a high peak, you can imagine his brain processing all the factors at work: the snow pack, slide paths, safe zones, contingencies. When Bill rolls into Haines, all the guides breathe easier. Sean Dog puts him in the heli just to have him look at their snow pack. He is teaching our Avy 1 class, which means it’s more like an Avy 2 class.

Ever see Blood on the Pavement or one of those videos they show in driver’s ed classes? Bill has the avalanche version of that—disturbing footage of riders getting caught in huge slides—the massive, inescapable, Niagara Falls–style slides that bury people under meters of ice-hard debris, where they stay till the spring thaw. I left Bill’s class feeling more knowledgeable and more aware of the risks. I wondered whether I wanted to get into those huge mountains with those indifferent masses of snow hanging up there, waiting for something to set them off.

Bill has spent years writing books about avalanches, and he also has spent years in the mountains. This practical experience is what makes him invaluable to guides all over. He skis. He snowboards. He guides for AH. He has been in several avalanches and witnessed many. He developed several means of rapidly sampling the snow in many areas while riding, so you can make real-time decisions based on a wider range of data instead of more in-depth data in one spot. His AK Block test is similar to the Rutschblock test, but faster, so you can do several tests on different slopes. Combine that with the no-excuse test (because it is so fast and easy there is no excuse not to do it), the shear test, ski pole test and slab test—all doable in a few minutes—and you are a much more informed guide.

We were in avy class, trying to get our heads around snow shear strength, when the door burst open. It was Bruce in a bright orange jacket, eyes wide, hair flying. He pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and rasped at us: “Heli’s here. Get your gear and be ready to ride after lunch. Weather could clear anytime. From now on it’s official. As soon as it pops, we’re heli-skiing.”

There were still thick clouds, so Bill went back to explaining the viscoelastic properties of snow. We tried to listen, but all we needed was the sun to pop out of those clouds and we would be standing at the pearly gates. Our heads were swimming, swirling with thoughts of descents we had seen only in movies. Butterflies. Eagerness. It was going to be on.

Thirty minutes later Seth came in.

“It popped—”

Before he could finish, the entire class was scrambling.

“—be at the heli pad in 30 minutes.”

Back at the house it was a gear-sorting flurry. I grabbed my gear, jumped in Nick’s truck with Yvon and Kelly, and headed up to 33 Mile. As a line of vehicles peeled out of Mosquito Lake, Bruce stood atop a snow mound in his front yard, in that bright orange jacket, waving us on like an air traffic controller sending out a squadron of fighters.

I used to think I had pretty good nerves. I’ve been in some intense situations and I thought I dealt with them pretty well, but as the heli came over the ridge my heart did that “holy shit” thud beat. I had never been in one of those things. I had never even been close to one of those things. That thwopping monster was going to be at my feet in a few seconds. Fishbone was our guide. I looked over and he gave me the “Game on” look.  As the heli landed, we were hit with a blast of air and everything went white for a seconds before the snow was blown away. We were deafened by the sound of the rotors. Heart rate  way up now.

As I buckled my seatbelt I thought, “Funny, my seat is moving.” Then I looked out the window and we were 50 feet off the ground. The landscape was flying by and the Back Nine came into view. “That’s where all the media shots you see are taken. Videos, ads. That’s where the pros go when they’re in town,” said Fishbone.

We looked at the landscape from this sky-perched vantage point. It was vast, serene, and overwhelming. Fluted walls and jutting peaks layered with snow. Some mountains caught my eye because of the rideable lines, some because of the climbing lines, some because of the huge crowns and slide debris, some because of the way the sun lit up the terrain undulations. All of these mountains were huge, caked and waiting.

Three minutes later, literally three minutes, we were on top of a mountain that would have taken more than a day to climb. Back into the crazy wind and noise and unloading gear and lying across our boards so they wouldn’t fly away. Fishbone gave the pilot the go sign and the machine jumped up, dove over a cornice and was gone. It was silent. We were on a huge peak in the middle of Alaska, with more huge peaks rippling on in every direction. I could still taste the coffee from that warm, safe diner. That was only five minutes ago.

We all scrambled into our bindings and looked at Fishbone like hounds that could smell a fox, waiting for the command. We rode down a ridge and looked for a good line. Fishbone found a run he wanted to open (it was the guides’ first day of the season too). We all stood and watched as he edged toward the rollover. He looked back.

“Hey, guys?”

“Yeah, Fishbone?” we said in unison, like kindergarteners.

 

“Can you do me a favor? If this thing rips when I drop in, come get me.”

 

“OK.”

 

We weren’t just there for a class. We were being trained to be part of a team that makes sure everyone comes home safe every day.

 

About 27 miles outside Haines, toward the 33 Mile heli pad, is the turnoff to Mosquito Lake. It is home to one snowplow, a volunteer fire department, a tiny school, some cabins and good fishing in the summer. This is where Alaska Heliskiing lives.

The Tin Shack sits back from the road. Most clients won’t stay there because they can’t get in—try dealing with a 30-yard icy, twisting walkway in the dark after 12 beers. The Tin Shack has been home to guides and guide schoolers over the years. The current residents are a group of hard-hitting riders from Anchorage: Andy, Mark and Chad.

The Tin Shack is not the kind of place you would find at CMH or Wiegele’s—it’s plywood with a tin roof and looks like a cabin from an old Civil War movie. It was 8 degrees outside, it was 8 degrees inside. No insulation, just a small wood stove. To get it going, you have to get out of your sleeping bag, put on ice cold boots—your down jacket is already on because you slept in it—and go split wood on the porch. Pasta, jars of sauce and several pounds of butter line a shelf. Climbing gear hangs from nails in a post. There is one raised bed, a mattress beneath it, and another sleeping pad on the floor. No running water, but who needs a shower—guide school is less than two weeks long.

Andy, Mark and Chad had no omelet bar waiting in the morning. There was no relaxing in a plush lobby while someone fetches the weather fax. There is no lodge at AH. There is 33 Mile Road House with a sign on the wall that says “Be careful or I’ll include you in my plans.” You wait here and when  it pops, someone walks 20 yards to the pilot’s cabin and bangs on it. You get in the heli and fly off to a day of riding you’ll remember the rest of your life. There will be no hot tub waiting when you return. It’s not a package deal—you pay for heli time only. You can stay at a motel down in Haines, or Sean Dog can set you up in one of various Mosquito Lake cabins, but he makes no profit here—it’s just a favor to riders and locals in need.

In Haines, guides and clients alike converge on Mosquito Lake every spring to ride as hard as they can. The only thing close to a distraction is beer at the end of the day. Fill your pockets with a few PBRs on the way to night class (check the back of anyone’s truck if you’re out). Crack one and get comfortable, because you’re in for crevasse rescue with Seth Koch.

It has never happened in Haines, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. If someone did fall into a crevasse, there would be only one solution: The guides get them out. Once the film crews hit town, riders are regularly doing lines with monster bergschrunds and mandatory turns around huge crevasse fields, so this is a real issue.

Seth taught us about knots, anchor systems and ropes, and we practiced in class, then got in the heli. Today we were not scoping lines, we would be rappelling into a crevasse and pulling riders out.

The heli’s thermometer read –22 degrees F as we were dropped on the glacier. We buried skis and snowboards for snow anchors, then dropped a rope down to the victim. In reality you would be the only guide with your group, so you’d radio to other guides to come help, hope they’re within a short heli ride, then rappel into the crevasse. You get to your patient, tie yourself off and administer first aid hanging above the yawning maw. You hope that one of your partners shows up soon and that they know their rope systems. When thinking through the fog of early hypothermia and setting up anchors and pulley systems with frozen ropes with gloves on, it becomes evident who is rock solid and who is not. For heli-guides, rock solidness is a required job skill.

 

The heli was filled with all-stars: Seth, Fishbone, Ted, Yvon and Jake, a skier and fisherman from Seattle. It was bluebird but windy. We thought we’d go out and try to get some shots anyway and ended up plopping down into several thousand feet of windless AK pow.

Hangover Helper was our warm-up. It’s a big northeast-facing bowl, 35-40 degrees, with spines down the sides. Turn a corner, come out into a giant powder field, then skirt an icefall, ride down through a gulley and you’re at the pickup zone.

To the left is Indy 5,000: north-facing, 45-degree spines, chutes and cliffs for 5,000 feet. Its name is obvious: The speed you get on that thing is like the Indy 500 times ten. It was only a few days since it had dumped and there were still some weak layers lurking, so Seth pointed us toward the spine on the far left of Hangover. Fishy went first and surfed monster pow turns, one after another, all the way down the rib. He disappeared around a turn at the bottom, and all was silent until we heard his evil laugh crackle over the radio. Then I watched Ted as he dropped in, aired off the spine and drew big-speed carves through thousands of feet of fresh snow. It would be my turn in a few seconds.

Let’s get something straight. When you go to Haines, the boys are not going to fly you out to Stormtroopers (see Jeremy Jones in Tangerine Dream) or Dirty Needle. We’ve all seen footage of the hero lines in Haines and we all think we’d love to ride them. But you’re probably not going to. Seth and the boys (soon to be girls too) are too smart to take you to those lines until they are confident that they aren’t going to have to rescue you if they do. Half the time the pros don’t even ride those lines because the snow’s unstable. So before you plan your trip to AK, realize you will not ride the stuff you see in movies unless you are Tom Burt, Jeremy Jones, Victoria Jealouse or someone they ride with. And you certainly will not impress anyone up there. I know it’s a tough one to get your head around—I even had delusions of doing some serious lines. But even the mellow lines are pretty serious.  If you don’t pull an air, or your slough gets you, it could be really bad. Deep in the Takhinsha Mountains is not where you want to have a spinal injury or get buried. With that in mind, when I watched Ted stomp a 15-foot Indy at full speed, I was witnessing some pretty heavy riding.

He was at the bottom now. I nudged over the ridge and looked down. It wasn’t 60 degrees. There were no mandatory airs or straight lines, no monster cliffs. It was 40-degree pow for as long as your legs could handle it. It was as fun as it gets.

Then we went to T Top, traversed out a sharp, icy ridge with thousand-foot drops on both sides, and dropped in. This one was full of airs and spines and features. I snapped shots as Fishy and Ted went into playground mode. Yvon and Jake took a line to the side of the main bowl. Then the whole group looked back up as I dropped right into the gut. Even Ted and Fishy were surprised. Hey, Seth said I could.

And man, am I glad he did. Untracked super fluff boiled around my legs as I made arcs through a wonderland of steeps. There was nothing but smoke behind me. Three sloughs, one air and many slashes later, I was at the pick-up zone and the bird’s rotors were already spinning.

The run was so good we went back up and did it again (up there you could do the same run all day and not cross a track). This time we had every little feature scoped, so the whole group crushed it—full-speed airs off rocks, surf turns on sunny spines, monster slashes in the pow—you could tell Ted and Fishy had watched the masters up here for years. Those runs are burned into my cortex forever. When this place is good, it is sooo good.

 

I look down at my beacon. Nothing. No goddamn signal. I take a few hurried steps. Still nothing. The debris field from the avalanche is three football fields wide. Where is the goddamn signal?! Yvon Foessel has been a backcountry ski guide in Val d’Isère for 13 years. He was here to add to his already strong skills. He was the star of guide school. Now we were losing him. If he survived the trauma from the slide, he is suffocating beneath the ice mask created by his breath. A faint beep from my beacon—it is distant, quiet, as if the sound itself is frozen. A few more quick steps. The beeps get a little louder. Yes! I have something! But shit, it is taking a long time. Yvon’s exhaled  CO2 is starting to poison him by now. I keep walking toward the beeps, but they’re fading. Back to the strongest point and walk off 90 degrees. Nothing. Brain damage occurs in five to seven minutes without oxygen. Other direction. Beeps come back. I’m running now. Stronger beeps. Turn the dial to fine search. I find a transmission line and follow it in. He’s only 1.3 meters away, but where? Yvon’s hypothermia may slow the brain damage, but he didn’t come over here to die because I couldn’t find him fast enough! Where exactly should I dig? I’m right down on the snow now. 0.4 meters. I move the beacon two inches. 2.3 meters. What?! This is taking too long. Where the hell is he? Finally it stays at 0.2 meters. Dig! Dig, pull, rip at the snow, move it faster than anything ever has.

A plastic bag emerges. In it is Yvon’s beacon. “Five minutes and 25 seconds,” he says, standing over me. “Not bad.”

I look up at him. He found my beacon in half the time. We do several more searches, and I watch Yvon’s methodical technique—go slow to go fast. I get my time down to two minutes, and we both feel good about it. We walk back behind the house, where Nick, Brett and Kelly are doing practice searches. Fishbone looks over at me. “Most people say five minutes, but get it down to two and you’re getting in the heli with me.”

In guide school we were not getting AMGA certified. We weren’t getting PSIA certified either. We were getting Sean Dog certified, because he’s among the few who can say “I’ve got your back” in this environment and have it mean something. Guides come back every year to continue learning and to train the new members of the family. It’s an apprentice program—if you go through guide school and volunteer as a tail gunner for the lead guides, maybe you’ll end up working there. It makes sense—the best quality control will come when your quality inspector’s life depends on it.

 

It was a town night—time to drink it blue. Everyone made the drive from Mosquito Lake to Haines. We took over the Pioneer and raged until 3 a.m., when someone walked outside and saw stars. By the time we got home, no one could see a clock clearly enough to set an alarm. Except Jake, the 230-pound fisherman from Seattle who rocked AC/DC at top volume at 7 a.m. He got the job of making sure everyone got to the firehouse by 8 the next morning. No class, we were flying straight off.

Jake overslept. He woke up around 7:45and freaked. His panic spread to the whole house, and before I knew it I was stuffing gear into my pack while holding down puke and tying my boots. We made it to the firehouse at 8:06 after raiding Bruce’s kitchen for coffee, but it was cloudy and everyone else was still in bed. Fishbone had crashed on our couch and he picked up the phone and began heckling the other guides. Eventually everyone showed up, squinting through their sunglasses, and Seth held class and talked about risk management and route finding. He told us about the time he got caught in a slide while climbing in the Fairweather Range. He was swimming down the mountain, buried so deep and headed for such big cliffs he totally gave up and accepted death. After a 2,000-foot ride, just before the debris cemented to a stop, he popped to the surface unhurt. He had his life back. As he put it, “Even having an ice cream is a pretty cool experience now.”

 

Then he looked out the window.

“It’s too cloudy to fly. You have the day off.”

 

I’m on the ferry headed toward Juneau. The moon shines on the Inside Passage. Immense, shadowy mountains with silver shoulders plunge into the dark water. I’m trying to process what would be a season’s worth of experiences back home. I’m reminded of the Northern California big-wave surfer Jeff Clark. He surfed a huge, cold, dark surf spot with some of the biggest waves in the world alone for years because no one knew or cared. He told some friends, who eventually came and were blown away. Now it’s one of the most famous big-wave spots in the world. As big-wave riders from all over started showing up, Clark was the guru, with years more knowledge and experience of the place than anyone else. Sean Dog is like that. He came up here and started flying into these mountains with eyes open, realizing the potential of the place before anyone was here and figuring it out on the fly—Alaska style. He built up knowledge of the area and started inviting people to come ride. Then film crews started returning home with footage of groundbreaking descents. Some of those who came went through guide school and stuck around to be guides. Season after season, run after run, they have become a family that shares some of the most amazing experiences possible.

Sean Dog lives near the heli pad and watches the level of riding here get pushed to the limit and past it. But like Jeff Clark’s surf spot, it takes serious time, effort, money and skills, and there still aren’t many people really getting after it. I would often point out a line and ask the guides how regularly it was ridden. The common reply: “No one ever has.”

As you spend time in Haines you realize that things are still being pioneered here, and that’s where the AH crew’s strengths lie. On a regular basis they get into the gnarliest terrain anyone is riding, anywhere. They do the hard work like carrying heavy packs, and scary stuff like ski-cutting slopes, so the pros can ride and get their pictures taken. Every one of these guides has been in big slides, every one wears an avalung, and every one has flown off the top of a mountain because they didn’t like the snow.

If you feel like going to the next level, go to guide school. Get in the heli, watch some avalanches, learn from a few masters, make some tough decisions. At the end of each day you’ll crack some PBRs, eat some halibut and, after gaining tons of experience, maybe you’ll end up a guide, or maybe you’ll just do a bunch of really good snowboarding.