I charged after my guide into an untracked bowl that resembled all the other treeless slopes stretching out to the horizon. After a few turns, this giddiness morphed into a creeping sense of disappointment, my mood changing like a record that suddenly skips.
“I’m not liking this,” my guide said.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the powder hound’s imagination, Alaska skiing occupies an almost mythic space – the realm of ski movies: stunning panoramic landscapes, steep couloirs etched into jagged peaks, 1,500m descents. Alaska’s maritime coastal ranges receive over 15.24m of average annual snowfall – heavier stuff than elsewhere – that sticks improbably to rugged rock spines. In March and April, ski days can stretch well into the dinner hour. Everything here feels larger, more expansive; Alaskans often refer to contiguous America, below Canada, as simply “The States”, as though they occupy a different country. Up here is a wilder, boundless canvas for adventure.
I’m at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, one of the world’s most remote heli operations, with virtually exclusive access to 1.2 million acres of terrain in the Tordrillo Mountains – more than four times the size of Les Trois Vallées. Co-owned by 1994 Olympic downhill gold medallist Tommy Moe, its luxe lakefront property is located in the foothills of the range, 40 minutes west of Anchorage by prop plane. TML sets the gold standard for heli-skiing; its guides consist of seasoned veterans whose alpine skills, not to mention lifelong stoke, have earned them the kind of job that most ski bums only dream about. They include a Warren Miller ski film star, Jackson Hole’s top avalanche forecaster and a record-holding Everest climber. With his scraggly beard and easy baritone, my guide, Jeff Hoke, also fits the mould. Alaska-raised and fond of punk rock, he represented, to me, the state’s particular breed of recreationist frontiersman. When he isn’t guiding year-round heli-ski trips in Alaska and Chile, he works for the Anchorage Fire Department’s heavy-rescue unit, pulling people out of trenches and car wrecks, or goes jet-skiing at his backcountry cabin.
Hoke explained how, two weeks earlier, an abnormal storm borne on 150km per hour winds had pummelled Alaska, scouring its mountains of powder. Around us remained the fallout: crusty, wave-like ridges across the surface, called sastrugi.
“Nothing survived,” said Hoke, his lower lip bulging slightly with chewing tobacco. “We’re going to have to look for ‘grandma’s skin’” – the name he gave the sugary, dimpled texture where the surface wind crust was broken down. “Or I’m going to have to pull a rabbit out of my ass.”
“Well, it is Easter,” someone quipped.
Earlier that day, we’d flown in Vietnam War-era bush planes northwest from Anchorage across the broad Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a vast alluvial delta rimmed with mountains and glaciers, with 6,190m-high Mount Denali presiding over all. Our group of eight guests included Pete Wagner, whose company Wagner Custom Skis had designed tailormade powder skis for TML. The city limits quickly turned into a frozen plain of cottonwood and spruce forest, penetrated only by the tracks of snow machines and animals.
After an hour, the planes landed on a finger-shaped lake in front of a group of log cabins. To access terrain in the northern reaches of the Tordrillo Mountains, up to the boundary of Denali National Park, TML has this year leased Winterlake, a wilderness lodge that provides the comforts of Tordrillo. When we arrived, one of the world’s best-known snowboarders, Travis Rice, was leaving. There to capture the classic Alaska descents, Rice and his film crew had instead resorted to shovelling kickers for a week due to the lousy snow. “But you guys will have a great time,” he cheerfully assured us.
The following day, with snow in the forecast, we elected to hunker down at the lodge rather than burn our allotted helicopter hours going after variable conditions that would scarcely merit a day out in a resort. (A seven-day package at TML includes five hours of flight time; additional hours can be purchased à la carte.) Heli-skiing often amounts to a lot of waiting around for favourable conditions – a 2005 ski movie partly filmed in Alaska was fittingly called Waiting Game.
“You’re chasing that perfect moment, and it’s not always easily attainable,” says Hoke. It’s a $14,000 wager, essentially. But when it hits, he adds, Alaska skiing has few equals. “It’s that good, people take the gamble.”
Winterlake’s many diversions, meanwhile, offered a consolation. The lodge sits at Mile 198 along the epic 975-mile-long Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and each morning on the short walk to the cosy main house from my cabin I could hear the pet huskies barking from an outdoor kennel. While others rode fat bikes around groomed forest trails, I tried my hand at dog mushing with Carl Dixon, Winterlake’s owner. Imagine a professional dog walker trying to control eight jacked-up dogs storming down a crowded icy pavement: dog sledding, it turns out, is a thrilling rollercoaster ride. Calling out to my charges – “gee” to go right, “haw” for left – and dragging my foot to brake, I stood on the sled’s wooden skis and leaned into giant slalom turns through a quiet wonderland of spruce trees and powdery meadows dotted with tiny animal tracks.
A light snow fell. Dixon’s Cordon Bleu-trained daughter Mandy plied us with one remarkable calorie-dense dish after the next: chaga mushroom pasta, king crab salad, halibut dumplings. With our skiing on hiatus, we risked contracting “heli belly” – a rarefied affliction if there ever was one: Hoke described it, over berry cobbler, as the paunch one develops after a week’s worth of gourmet heli-skiing meals. If we didn’t fly soon, we might be too stuffed to fly at all.
Then the sky cleared, and we were back in our ski gear: avalanche beacon, harness for crevasse rescue, backpack stuffed with a probe, shovel and airbag. From a clearing beyond the cabins, the helicopter ferried us in two groups, each with a guide, into the northern valleys of the range. The weather front had deposited a respectable 30.5cm –“good, but not so much that it’s an avalanche hazard,” Hoke remarked, approvingly. He surveyed the trackless slopes from the passenger seat before directing the pilot to a narrow col between two steep-walled peaks. It was a forbidding spot; we spilled out of the helicopter and crouched beside the skids, pinning down our equipment. Turbulent rotor wash gave way to a cold silence; and then there we were, alone above a wide-open bowl that Hoke reckoned had never been skied before.
It’s perhaps a misconception that Alaska heli-skiing is all “no guts, no glory” descents. There is indeed plenty of that, but like the mellow slope below us, much would pass as black diamond at a typical North American resort. Hoke made a few tentative turns to suss out the snow’s stability and pointed out our boundaries. Then we were off. The powder was soft, effortless – I reflexively whooped with each syncopated turn. When finally we collected at the bottom, everyone was grinning.
“Can we name the run?” I asked Hoke, figuring a first descent afforded us rights.
“Sure,” he replied indulgently.
I held up my left pole, which had snapped on the way down. “‘Broken Pole Bowl?’”
Over the following days, we worked south, scouting north-facing gullies and bowls, dropping into whatever looked enticing from the air. One run petered out on the valley floor in a thicket of alder bushes near a herd of moose; later we flew over a bear den. Lunch one afternoon found us on a wide saddle encircled by the massive Trimble Glacier, Mount Denali looming in plain sight. The waiting game paid off: perhaps Travis Rice’s parting words had been a blessing.
On our final afternoon, Hoke’s radio picked up chatter from another group that had ventured up north from TML’s main base lodge. “Give it all the speed you’ve got,” we overheard the guide coaching his clients, two retired pro snowboarders, as they negotiated a hairy couloir across the glacier. “The landing is very friendly.” Their deliberations continued. Eventually, the guide offered a final encouragement.
“No story, no legend,” he said.