Avalanches in Paradise: An Alaska Heli-Skiing Story

04/29/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

Taking it to the #NextLevel in the North Shore of snowboarding

The helicopter buries its skids into a knife ridge no wider than a snowboard is long. This first attempt marks the landing zone high up in Alaska's Chilkat Range, north of Haines, Alaska, and not far from the Canadian border. The pilot makes a second attempt to establish the L-Z, but the ridge isn't cooperating. Instead, he opts for a toe-in landing, which means the bird is essentially hovering as the five of us carefully climb out onto said ridge.

It's early April. I'm here with two friends, David "Scotty" Scott and Chris "Geeb" Guibert. We've been matched up with a solo Swiss rider, Gabe, to make a foursome. We're lead by Gabe Gioffre, the lead guide for Alaska Heliskiing, one of the very first outfits to establish AK as the global Mecca of skiing and snowboarding. It doesn't get much bigger or heavier or more devout than this.

To one side of the ridge is a 50-degree face that immediately cliffs out. The run we're contemplating on the other side starts at about 45 degrees and then exits into a big bowl. Swiss Gabe is first to drop it. He straight-lines the face and hops off a small feature as he enters the bowl. At that moment, an avalanche releases upslope to his left. It's about 50 yards across and a foot or so deep. With great deft, he navigates laterally across the slide to safety on a higher slope outside the slide path. We all watch in semi-terrified amazement as the avalanche rumbles down the bowl and comes to a rest. Now it's our turn.

A photo posted by Max Gladwell (@maxgladwell) on

My last trip to Alaska was in 2004, when I profiled legendary big-mountain snowboarder Tom Burt for my book, The Way of the Snowboarder (2005). Any trip to Alaska, whether snowboarding in April or backpacking in July, will leave a profound impact. It's the most beautiful place on earth (IMHO). Everything about Alaska is superlative. It's the biggest state with the highest peak, longest coastline, shortest day, longest day, and lowest population density. The town of Haines happens to sit on the longest fjord in North America and serves up the best halibut fish and chips in the world.

Alaska heli-skiing is an experience of extremes in so many ways. The success of a trip is entirely dependent on weather. If it's cloudy or storming, there's no flying. Down days are uniquely depressing because they're so far from the otherworldly joy -- physical, spiritual, emotional -- of getting air-lifted to huge white peaks and riding steep powder runs that can drop 6,000 vertical feet. Indeed, the outcome of any given day is binary. You either win or lose.

Yet the plight of the down day has eased slightly since my last trip thanks to better food and drink options in Haines. The Mountain Market cafe, Fireweed restaurant, and Port Chilkoot Distillery would each be at home in trendier places like Boulder, Colorado, or Brooklyn, New York. Which isn't to completely discount more authentic spots like the Captain's Choice Motel (and bar) or the Lighthouse Restaurant and Harbor Bar. Haines now offers the full spectrum.

A photo posted by Max Gladwell (@maxgladwell) on

We arrived in Haines with four potential fly days and ended up getting two half days. The Alaska Heliskiing operation is located 33 miles north of town, right next to the 33 Mile Roadhouse. This is where we staged each day (with zero Internet access). We drank coffee, played iPad Scrabble, and ate multiple breakfasts, all while watching to see if the covers came off the helicopter parked next door. The clouds parted around noon on our first day, and we lifted off at 2:00pm. After a single warm-up run, Guide Gabe turned it up to 11.

With Swiss Gabe safely out of harm's way, we look to our guide for direction. Given that a helicopter rescue is not an option (too dangerous), our objective is to ski to the avalanche path. The safest place is where the snow has already slid. And given that I'm the one who got Scotty and Geeb into this, I volunteer to drop first.

In assessing the situation, it's pretty likely the slope will release. But I do a quick risk calculation. First, the lead guide and my two friends are above me; good chance they can dig me out before I suffocate. Next, the fracture isn't much deeper than a foot, so the total volume of snow won't be overwhelming. And it is likely to release at the top, which means I'll be above the bulk of the snow. Finally, I'm wearing a Dakine ABS backpack. The standard in backcountry safety, it features lateral airbags deployed by a handle at my left shoulder that enable floatation in an avalanche. Another factor minimizing the chance of getting completely buried.

As I drop in on my toe edge, the slope immediately releases. Gravity pulls the rug out from under me, and I'm tumbling end-over-end in the white room. After the third or fourth rotation, I pull the ripcord on the ABS pack, and the lateral wings inflate in less than three seconds (as promised). This stops me from tumbling, and I'm able to get my board back under me. As soon as I feel p-tex hit snow, I stand up and point it straight over the avalanche debris that is slowly coming to a rest in the bowl. I'm rattled but safe.


We spend the rest of the day riding laps on a face we'd already ridden and knew was safe. It's lower angle than we'd prefer, especially in Alaska, where the snow is famously stable on steep terrain. Yet the day is still considered epic by any standard.

This is what sets Alaska apart from every other ski destination on the planet. Even a bad day -- where you don't start until 2:00pm, where you get caught in an avalanche, where you're forced to ride "mellow" terrain -- is still 2X better than a good day anywhere else.

That's why you'll find us back here next year, from the last Saturday in March to the first Sunday in April aka the sweet spot in the Alaska heli-skiing season.