Heliskiing in Alaska
Mike Harrelson hits the slopes: Alaska for Greenhorns
The geophysical details of Alaska are to powder hounds what the specs on the V-12, 525-horsepower, $250,000 Lamborghini Diablo are to your average car aficionado: numbers to die for. With 49 mountain ranges, 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the United States, annual snow levels in excess of 33 feet, and a season that can run eight months (from October to June), Alaska offers several lifetimes' worth of terrain. And, unlike the Diablo, it's all within reach. But there is one catch: The entire state has fewer lifts than you'd find in any major Lower 48 ski area, which means that getting to the good stuff often requires a major trek.
Not that this has stopped the locals. Even though the tempting double blacks of Alyeska Resort lie just 40 miles south of downtown Anchorage, most folks skip paying for lift tickets. Armed with basic avalanche knowledge, a beacon, a snow shovel, and a probe pole, they hike, ski, drive, fly, or hop a train to a network of nearby spots that guarantee fresh tracks every time.
At the top of Turnagain Pass off Seward Highway at mile marker 66, Tincan is a local favorite. Just 40 minutes south of Girdwood, pull left off the road onto an unmarked dirt lot (easily recognizable by the dozen or so rusting pickups vacated by their ski-fiend owners). Strap on your skins, and spend the next two hours climbing to a 4,000-foot false summit just below the 4,660-foot peak. Your reward: almost 3,000 feet of bowl after bowl filled with hero snow. Despite its accessibility to the city, a crowded day might see only 30 peoplebut at least someone else is there to break trail to the top.
Break up the six-hour drive on the Richardson Highway from Anchorage to Valdez by pulling off about 20 miles east of Valdez at the top of Thompson Pass. Then climb the guardrail, gear up, and shove off, turning through a network of empty bowls and several intermediate dropsall of which funnel back onto the main highway outside of town. Then it's off with the gear and out with the thumb for a quick ten-minute ride back up to your parking spot.
February is the "month of dumps" in the Chugach Mountains. The Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage celebrates this bounty every March with its traditional Ski Train from Anchorage south to Grandview Pass. This one-day round-trip requires a $60 ticket and $20 annual ski-club membership, but you'll get a seat on a chartered Alaska Railroad locomotive outfitted with everything from well-stocked dining and bar cars to a strolling polka band. Once the train stops at the top of the pass, just click in and ski down. But be forewarned: The run back to town in the bar car can be far more lethal than anything the backcountry can toss at you (reservations: 907-276-7609; www.alaska.net).
While the town of Talkeetna is ground zero for climbers headed up to 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, it's also a popular ski spot for those willing to commit to the three-hour drive from Anchorage. Hire a plane or helicopter from one of Talkeetna's many guide services, which will fly you to the lower half of North America's tallest mountain. Little Switzerland and the Ruth Amphitheater offer countless runs and some of the most mind-boggling mountain scenery on the continent. (Talkeetna Air Taxi offers round-trip flights from $250; 800-533-2219; ).