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Heli-skiing: The ride of your life

JASON BLEVINS
the denver post
Guide Chris Engelhardt tests the stability and snowpack of a never-before-skied slope while on belay. (Jason Blevins, The Denver Post)
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CHICKALOON, ALASKA – As pilot Dave King powers up his Astar 350B2, lead heli-skiing guide Aaron Brill turns to a pair of wide-eyed first-timers strapped in the back seat.

“You guys don’t need a warm-up run, right?” he hollers, the whine of the screaming machine drowning out any response.

The Lithuanian banker from London riding next to me flashes a toothy, nervous grin. I know Brill too well to grin.

I’m in Alaska for the first time since first grade. I’m going heli-skiing for the first time in my life. I’m about to ski the biggest, steepest peaks I’ve even seen, much less stood atop. In the ski basket is a pair of ridiculously fat skis I’ve never ridden. Every line we ski, Brill promises, will be a first descent.

A few minutes earlier, just before we boarded the aircraft, veteran Alaska guide Mike Hamilton had sternly briefed us. For this unskied, unexplored and avalanche-rife region in the Northern Chugach Range, where snowfall averages 800 inches a year, there will be no stopping midslope. All riders must stay ahead of the barreling slough behind them. Always give quick glimpses upslope, over your shoulder, to make sure an avalanche hasn’t released.

How bad do I want a warm-up run. But I’ve skied at Brill’s Silverton Mountain, the steep hill in southern Colorado where the mantra is “No Babysteps.” He’s brought that scare-yourself-silly ethos to Alaska’s Chugachs, where self-induced terror already thrives.

King lifts his bird into the air and banks hard toward a snow-choked chasm that connects the Knik Glacier and the Matanuska Valley.

“Too late now,” says the banker, Neo Damanskas, stealing the words from my mouth.

A couple of breathtaking minutes later, we are perched atop a 200-yard-wide bowling ball. I see the bottom of the run, some 3,000 feet below. I cannot see the run. It’s 55 degrees and fully convex. Everything in me is rebelling. I had already asked Brill and Hamilton if anyone in their heli-guiding experience had ever refused to disembark on a sketchy peak. They just laughed.

In Colorado, this is the kind of slope you only look at from afar. For a Colorado skier, it is a death zone with a near certainty of avalanche. Back home I avoid avalanche-inducing rollovers and convexities on the tamest slopes. But on this near-vertical unnamed Alaskan peak, it’s time to trust the maritime snowpack and the guides.

Ignoring the safety sergeant galvanizing a mutiny in my head, I follow Brill’s track, which disappears into a void of white. As I push into the abyss, I remember his advice for this run.

“Go fast. Really fast.” (Yeah, he’s a chatterbox, that Brill.)

It’s firm but turning creamy as I hear the train of slough behind me. As I pick up speed to escape the deluge of moving snow chasing me, my turns get tighter. I’m descending 20 feet at every turn. Thiry feet. I’m nearing a sort of freefall. The 140-millimeter-wide skis beneath my feet are like wings, and the feeling of weightlessness consumes me. I’m going as fast as I’ve ever been on skis.

After 100 or so turns, I’m at the bottom, racing my slough over a snowy apron to the waiting helicopter.

We do seven more runs, each a steep, demanding experience that pushes me to my limits. The next morning I announce to Neo, my partner in personal-envelope expansion, that it is simply impossible to improve perfect. “There is no way today will be better than yesterday,” I say. I end up saying that every morning for a week.


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