Monday, April 20, 2009

Free-Riding Valdez Part I

Due to the recent economic slump, I needed a refresher course in free-riding.  Enter Lars and Dylan.  They had just crushed it in the World Extreme Bro-Gnar-Huck-Booze-Straight Line fest and were stuck in Girdwood.  The call came in.  "I think we got a ride, where do you live again?" They showed up about an hour later.  They had convinced a bell hop at the Alyeska Prince Hotel (where they stayed free for a week) to give them a 40 mile lift from Girdwood to my place in Anchorage.  I put out some snacks, cracked a few beers, and threw in a frozen 'za.   I knew that they had about a week before their flights back to reality.  I had some unscheduled time off.  Valdez.
Katura threatened to get a cat if I went.  8 years of shredded furniture and fur covered clothes for a 5 day road trip.  

Lars, Dylan, and I left the townhouse on Wednesday heading towards Valdez area with ski gear, some winter camping equipment, very little money, left over food commandeered from the Scandinavian trip, and the name of a cook (who we didn't know) who works at the Rendezvous Lodge and Heli Guides.  

We had a day to kill before the Valdez lodging hook-up would be in place so we skied locally.  The three of us drove 13 miles North out of Anchorage to Eagle River on the Glenn Highway and exited at Hiland Road which boasts the Anchorage dump, a camp ground, and a women's prison.  Hiland is a winding road that ascends a picturesque  valley whose quiet is only interrupted by the incessant barking of dogs.  There is good skiing on both sides of the road but the avalanche danger is typically higher here than Turnagain.  Harp Mt. (5,008') stands 3000' above the end of the road.  The milky white peak against the milky white sky held the promise of excellent skiing and riding.   Two hours of skinning/booting put us on the top.  Milky white clouds had lowered further obscuring what can be a jaw dropping view.  The wind had loaded the West face with 3-4" of cream on top of supportable crust.  The skiing was surprisingly good.  After splitting one PBR three ways we headed North to crash with Chandra and Tom in their dry cabin in Sutton.  They requested fish; a fair trade for a night of lodging, a bomb dinner, great company, and 60 miles closer to Valdez.   

10:00 AM came quickly.  Tom provided some pancakes with real syrup (no Berkshire Gold, but good nonetheless) and in true AK style we were off just after 11.  The drive up the Glenn was spectacular: sun highlighting blue glacial ice and spines, couloirs, and faces of countless towering peaks for 100 miles of driving.  Dylan and Lars slept through and awoke in Glenallen,  which has a front row seat of 12,000' Mount Drum. 

The plan was to meet Garret (Dylan and Lars' buddy from the tour) at the Rendezvous Lodge at 46 mile.  Garret knew Matt, the cook, and assured us that lodging was covered.  Lars touched based with Garrett and found out he was running late.  Oh well.  We threw back some PB&J's and pushed on under blue skies.  As we climbed back into the Chugach, the skies got grayer and the clouds got lower.  We were making good time so we decided to check out the scene before tracking down the cook.

All of the heli-ops require the standard legal waivers.  They also make you do a beacon search (1 beacon, 2 minutes), a 20 minute hands on heli primer, and another 20 minutes of snow safety.   Each company requires you complete their "check out" and is free even if you don't fly with that outfit.  They are actually pretty useful and it is fun to climb into a copter even if it isn't spinning.  The mandatory beacon search was helpful for those of us who don't practice as often as we should.  All clients are required to wear a harness when heli-skiing;  this is provided but come on folks, we're professionals here.  

There are multiple heli-ski operations strung out over a 45 mile stretch of highway.  The first is a mile post 45 at the Rendezvous Lodge.  This operation (1 bird) accesses some big vertical lines.  Their stadium shot is called Happiness, a 45 degree, 4500' vertical face.  They wanted $250 for 2 runs.  Valdez Heli Guides (3 birds) is at mile 35: 3 runs; $300.  The runs here are shorter, but they can get you into the terrain that will leave you gripped.   At mile 30 is ABA (1 bird).  This is ground zero for the scene.  There's a huge snow-machine trail head filled with RVs, sleds, hot dog carts, booze, fires, roaming packs of dogs, and the best gossip around.  Thompson Pass is at mile 25 and has insane views of those Alaska spine lines we've all be drooling over for years.  Unfortunately the approach eliminates a ground assault.  The road does a long switchback here allowing for 1,000 vert of skiing.  Dylan and Lars skied it twice and claimed it was good.  I had my doubts.  I picked them up around mile 20.  This is as close as we made it to Valdez.  H2O is located in Valdez proper (mile 0), but they (along with a few other outfits) had already packed it in for the season.  

After the epic road laps we went to 35 Mile to check out the scene.  As soon as we rolled in, the bird landed and out walked 4 familiar  Altoids.  We caught up over beers over at their RV.   After a day of grey-bird, folks try to "drink it blue."  So we tried to drink it blue.

To be continued

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