Saturday, April 25, 2009

Friday, April 24, 2009

Free-Riding Valdez Part III

Team douche had just "broken" their guide and they were quite pleased with themselves.  It appeared these high rollers were going to trump us on the 3 PM bird that we were penciled in on.  VHG has a shortage of guides; injuries has plagued their season.  There would be a copter for us, but no guide.  Damn.  The Douche Brigade flew off into the distance, but hope springs eternal.  The Powderwhores were calling it a day and their guide was up for some more schussing.  

We filled out the necessary paperwork, put on our rental gaper harnesses, and weighed in.  The pilot needs to know everyone's "geared up" weight including pack and skis.  I had never been on a fully guided trip before.  It was a luxury that I highly recommend.  Our guide, Dylan, is a young gun from Utah that enjoys skiing the same type of terrain we enjoy.  He has some medical certs, an avi II, and some experience with Exum Utah.  Right place at the right time was his explanation. 

The bird came in, the guide loaded our skis and packs, we climbed in, and then up.  Most of you know that I've spent considerable time working with helicopters during my lift installation days.  Exhibit A.  Working with these machines seems bad-ass (it is), but is also dirty, dusty, exhausting, scary, loud, and stressful.  Hurry!  Go!  Faster!  I had never been inside one and today was the day for the relaxing heli experience I had always wanted.  
Up.  The lower elevation terrain was isothermic snow, willows, willows, willows, and willows.  This shit is real!  I'm on a A-star Eurocopter B2.  I'm gonna sail this boat to the moon somehow!  Everybody look at me.  The mountains are big and steep.  From the heli they are all around you, to the left, right, front, back, and even above you.  Looking out the "sun roof"  you have to crane your neck to see the sky.  "Do you guys want a warm up run?"  "No."  "Are you sure?"  "Yes." "What do you want to ski?"  "We want to ski whatever you would want to ski."  "Well, I'd be negligent as a guide if I didn't see you skied first."  I was thinking the Dylan and Lars should pull out the Sickbird buckles.  5 minutes and 3500 vert later we were at the Carrot Ramp and landing on a small col at the top of a 45 degree, 1000', 30' wide chute.  Perfect... for me.  The guide ski cut and skied it.  I skied it: creamy, consistent super-hero snow.  From the bottom I got a good view of the venue.  There are about 4 shots similar to what I had just skied separated by cliffs, spines, pillows, straight-runs, and rock.  Perfect... for them.  Enter the billy goats.  Dylan, Lars, and Garret are all skiing A+ style and this is the terrain they wanted.  They sent it.  Double drops.  Big airs.  Big sloughs, real big.  Fun transitions.  We huddled at the bottom of the cirque.  We had a 2000' vertical ski ahead of us.  20 degree creamy pow.  Not so much adrenaline but fun.  The copter came in.  Windy as hell, but expected.  I briefly flashed back to the CTEC days.  Here comes that wind, get ready to move.  Go!  Hurry!  Fortunately I realized we were on a fully guided trip.  I watched the guide load my skis and gear, and than I leisurely boarded the bird fully relaxed.  This is the way to go.
"Where to now?"  "Same place."  "Alright."  I followed Garrett's line from his first run.  The top half of it anyway.  A the midway point I stayed fall line where Garrett's tracks angled toward a 40 footer.  Nice fast Super G turns.  Those guys had unfinished business.  Dylan came first.  Nice send.  He finished his run was some high speed squiggles before stopping.  That's always a sign that he is happy with the run.  Dylan grabbed the guides radio and guided Lars and Garret in.  Big lines.  Greased.  Everyone was pumped.  The snow was welded to the slope.  There was no need to rush.  There were no judges watching fluidity.  Everyone was able to ski their line and if they got turned around, they stopped and we'd point out their line via radio.  The guide was happy.  Being a heli guide sounds epic (it is), but there are downsides.  Shitty skiers, bruised egos, kissing ass.  There were none of those issues today.  
"Where to now?"  "Higher."  "We want the big vert."  The clouds were starting to come in.  The big objective was obscured.   They flew us around.  Sussing.  We came through a notch hot in a bank turn.  50 degree flutes on one side, 50 degree flutes on the other.  Sick.  The weather forced us back to the Carrot Ramp but the pilot was able to nose in further down the ridge.  More of the same: a 45 degree chute for me, gnar for them.  The guide let me go first.  I leaned into the slope and made a big airplane turn off a small wind lip into a fresh Valdez couloir.   A good run.  The others sent theirs.  Big agressive lines were skied like the Boyz.  Lars came down with a huge grin on his face, literally giggling. That's a good indicator.  We met the copter at the LZ (landing zone, duh).  The pilot gave us a show.  Zero G banks.  Up down.  Buzz the round.  Through the cut, over the power lines, back down to the road, zero G, and land.  
Heli skiing will make you thirsty.  Gentleman Jack mosied into the parking lot and down my throat.  So did the Alaskan Summer Ale.  Dylan shot the shart with the Powderwhores, we squared up with the guide and the outfit.  I was anxious to get to Matt's place at 46 mile so I could put the Jeep in park and get my drink on for real.  Soon enough we were setting up sleeping gear in his yoga studio.  The wood stove was stubborn, but Dylan brought it to life.  We slugged beers and relived the day.  Our thoughts turned to food.  Garrett had brought some Dall Sheep and Moose steaks.  Matt had some local potatoes and root veggies from his garden/green house.  The Alaskan Amber completed a truly Alaskan meal.  We walked the 15 minutes to the bar, but kids were kicked.  It was time for sleep.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ciochetti's Ribbon

So what have we learned? Well when an old Wasatch legend like John Barstow says " The thing about Ciochetti was he wasn't the best skier; he just had huge balls and loved exposure." With that being said, what can you expect from Ciochetti's Ribbon? Well, there's a traverse, a 50 degree slope, snow drifts, sugar on shitty limestone , and rock pillar cruxes above an 800' cliff. Tackling this objective on a Monday morning is more than enough to make somebody drastically late for work. This is a line that you only trascend once unlike Hoopa's Backside Snow Abortion, which has trains of people going out it daily. On Ciochetti's you don't feel good until your finished even though you might be four hours late for work. Your glad to have survived. Some beta if I were going to do it again which I'm not. Give yourself plenty of time; its slow going. Bring a 60 meter rope not a 30 meter 8 mill rando line, lots of rock gear nuts, cams, long draws. And wear a helmet, we found plenty of loose rock. As Stefan led the crux, he pulled out bowling ball sized limestone chunks, hucked them over the edge, and said, "It smells like Diamond Fork hot springs." We alternated leads for the whole traverse. Following was just as dangerous as leading and we placed protection where we could find it. Sometimes we moved together with pro in between us, inching along at snail's pace. Despite the cautious pace, we had to take our skies off for the crux rock pillar to climb around it. Didn't have to aid any sections but I would've in a heart beat. For better beta you might want to talk to follow skier boy Tim Rogers who did it a week before us. --- Bret

Ciochetti's Ribbon is technically in bounds at Alta Ski Resort and technically open anytime Devil's Castle is open. It is the traverse that bisects the impressive face of the Castle. Approach from the saddle between Sugarloaf and the Castle proper. Start poking around and you will see the entrance. The line finishes in a steep shot into the Apron. If you decide to ski this while Alta is open, give the patrol a heads up and plan on a full day.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Free Riding Valdez Part II

What exactly do we consider free-riding?  Our definition definitely strays from Warren Miller's interpretation.  We consider free-riding to be skiing for free or as cheaply as possible.  This involves putting your faith in humanity and hoping your fellow man will hook it up.  Is this taking advantage of the good nature of good folk?  This is debatable.  But what goes around comes around, so when we have the opportunity to help someone else free-ride, we hook it up.

Everywhere there is good skiing there are free-riders.  Look for them and it is apparent.  They have real nice gear but it is well used and there is usually some tape on the outerwear.  The vehicle is overflowing with gear.  Much of it, you don't think is necessary for skiing: chain saws, stoves, tool boxes, down (lots of down), and a lot you can't ID.  There will be sleeping bags, pads, and tents.  Usually there is a trailer hitch and about 1.5 sets of skis per person.  There will be more booze than you think necessary, but this is the currency of the free-rider.  

When we left off last time, we were at ABA drinking it blue.  Baja Fogs, MGDs, Alaskans, other potables.  Cheese and crackers, meat sticks, other intoxicants kept flowing from the RV.  Thanks to team Altabird.  We wanted to chill, but it was time to work on lodging.  Matt was the name of the cook at Rendezvous.  Let's go find him.  We cruised the to the lodge at 45 mile.  We hit the bar in search of our contact and quickly found him.  He seemed nice enough but confused by our presence.  Garrett said this was the hook-up but Garret still hadn't showed up.  We decided to buy a round and get to know our new friend, but he was nowhere to be found.  No big deal, pump some quarters into the pool table and throw back some Black Butte Porters.  I can think of worse ways to pass time.  And time passed and no Matt.  Awkward.  

Dylan and Lars had napped heavily during the drive.  They were going strong but I was fading.  I went for a quick cat nap in the Jeep in front of the lodge and hoped they'd sort things out.  I slept lightly and was interrupted by dogs, fireworks, and the occasional beer run by Dylan.  Warm, cosy, and cramping.  Shit.  

Dylan and Lars came back around midnight.  No Matt, no Garret.  This free-riding business was starting to get stressful.  The had sussed out a dirt road  at 46 mile and had poached some plywood.  I had been suspect of the "plan" from the get go, so I had thrown in a 4-season tent, stove, and white gas back in Anchorage.  This cheap insurance was paying off.  Lars drove the short distance to the "campground" and parked the Jeep.  Lars and Dylan busied themselves by building a flat area in the snow with their Voile shovels.  Plywood on the flat spot, tent on the plywood, crawl, sleep.  Not ideal, but workable.  Sleep beckoned.  By so did approaching headlights, then approaching footsteps, then a flashlight, then nothing, then sleep.

10 AM came quickly again.  "Are there any Mad River boys in there?"  Garrett.  Finally some luck.  Garret had come in last night around 1 AM and had walked past the tent as we drifted off.  He had met with Matt and sorted things out.  Funny story.  Garret was a buddy of Matt and Garrett knew Matt cooked at the Rendezvous Lodge.  Garrett called the lodge and asked to talk to Matt.  Matt said, "No problem."  The problem was that this was a different Matt.  The Matt Garrett knew had quit the lodge the previous fall but still lived close by.  The Matt at the lodge was probably too fucked up to realize he didn't know Garret.  At any rate way, Garrett showed us to his buddy Matt's house which was only about 150' from where we camped.  

Accommodations were secure.  Relief.  Matt owns a few acres right along the Alaskan Pipeline right-of way.  46 miles out of Valdez there is no zoning, no property taxes, no worries.  Matt has quite a spread: green houses, root cellar, big log home, yoga studio. All of it is about half finished.  He has big plans and is a talented gardener and carpenter.  When he is done the place will be epic.  Cloudveil took notice of one of his creations in their winter catalogue.  There are no stairs from the kitchen to the 2nd floor bedroom, just a climbing wall set into two walls that make up a corner.  The "easy" route was well worn and the big jugs of the preferred route were significantly darker than the smaller pieces.

Breakfast was good.  Peanut butter toast or jelly toast.  Bars.  Avocado. Citrus.  Whatever was left from the Scandinavian adventure.  The sky was partly cloudy with patches of blue, but the highest peaks were still obscured.   We loaded up and went to see what the deal was at Rendezvous.  They wanted $250 for two runs on whatever we could see from their porch.  We talked it over and decided to go ahead with their "check-out" though we did not fully commit.  We went to talk to the GM, but he had left for a 20 minute lunch.  So we left too to assess the scene at Valdez Heli Guides at 35 mile.  As we drove, the skies got clearer and there would be no returning to Rendezvous.  At 35 mile it was perfect weather: bluebird, warm, windless, perfect. We had gotten "checked out" the previous day with VHG so now it was time to find out what they could offer us. 

We were in luck.  There was a group of 4 that was leaving at 3 PM so they had space.  Negotiations ensued and we arrived at $300 for 3 runs.  It goes against the free-riding mantra, but it is a good deal.  So we sucked it up and agreed.  In the interim we did beacon drills, talked to other clients, and made PB&Js.  I was chilling in the office when an urgent message came in from one of the guides.  "Get the Advil ready.  We are coming in for an early lunch."  10 minutes later the bird landed and out came a guide in obvious pain.  "It went from the best run of my life to the worst." "Everyone out!"  VHG has a portable garage type structure with DVD, heat, gear hooks, water, benches, etc.  We went in there.  The injured guide's clients came in.  Rich douche-bags from NY claiming to be from Park City.  The proceeded to use every phrase they had ever heard a bro-bra use in a ski movie.  "Chugach'd" "Slough" "Whipped by the dragon's tail" Their mood was joyous.  The seemed happy.  Douche #1: "Have you ever broken a guide before" Douche #2: "No this is the 1st guide I broke."  Classy.  I needed out and the sun was needed after cloudy winter.  The guide's screams could be heard from the bench I was chillaxing at.  No one knew how this latest development would affect our day.  I offered to drive the injured guide to the Valdez hospital, but his injuries were serious and my offer was graciously declined.

The guide loaded into the bird and was whisked away to the hospital.  After he got evaluated in Valdez, they flew him to Anchorage for emergency surgery.  He had broken his neck and needed to have 2 vertebrae fused.  There were potential shoulder and knee injuries but those evaluations would wait until the big injury was stabilized.

The office manager said it was unlikely that we would fly today, but said to hang around.  "Hurry Up and Wait" should replace "North to the Future" as Alaska's state motto.  I took in the sun and thought about that guide. 

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

Another teaser:

Sunday, April 19, 2009