LAIRD HAMILTON was telling a dick joke. It's one he's very fond of and that he would repeat several times over the ensuing days, but this first telling happened in the cabin of a Twin Otter plane as it bounced over the Alaska Range one day last March. Hamilton delivered the punch line, then laughed, loudly, and for longer than was warranted. But Hamilton is eager and manic and large in every way. As you might know from his surfing, there's nothing subtle about him.
Sharing the cabin with us were Dave Kalama, Hamilton's tow-in-surfing partner; Don King, a cinematographer for many of their movies; and Jeremy Jones, widely considered the best big-mountain snowboarder alive. There were also some more normal, if very wealthy, men: two Texans, two Swiss, an Austrian, a Frenchman, a guy from Boston, and an Anchorage local.
Shortly after Hamilton told his joke, the pilot landed the Otter with a thud on a frozen lake next to the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, the most remote heli-ski lodge in North America.
"That was way too smooth!" Hamilton yelled. "Can we do it again?"
Then, of course, he laughed.
So what was I, a middle-class resident of Brooklyn, doing in deepest Alaska with three professional athletes and a pile of rich guys? Reporting on a sort of dry run for EpicQuest, a new travel company based on the notion that some people will pay almost anything to experience the planet's greatest adventure playgrounds under the guidance of elite athletes. The idea was born at Tordrillo, the most exclusive outpost of the famed Chugach Powder Guides, which runs heli-skiing trips here from mid-February to April. One day in 2007, a D.C. lobbyist and regular CPG client named Craig Pattee asked Mike Overcast, one of the owners, why he wasn't catering to deep-pocketed thrill seekers year-round. As Pattee saw it, CPG could easily lure these customers into other top-shelf experiences.
Overcast thought this was a grand idea and founded EpicQuest along with fellow owners Chris Owens and Dave Hamre, as well as Mark Baumgardner, the owner of Sun Valley Heli Ski Guides, and Pattee, who signed on as CEO. They added kayaking in Bhutan, heli-fishing on the slopes of Mount Kenya, and Indonesia surf trips on the famous yacht Indies Trader IV.
EpicQuest adventures, which began late last winter, will only rarely offer up superstar attendees like Hamilton, a frequent CPG client who's been an unofficial consultant for EpicQuest. But ski guests are likely to encounter Olympic gold-medalist Tommy Moe and extreme-ski pro Jeremy Nobis (the duo co-own the Tordrillo Lodge), as well as star guides like Zach Crist, Chris Davenport, or Greg Harms, who was at the lodge for our week and who will run his own Epic-branded heli-trips in Chile during the Southern Hemisphere winters.
As you might have guessed, EpicQuest's launch was in motion before the economy skied off a cliff. But both Owens and Pattee maintain a brave face. "Those people in the highest sectors of the wealth demographic are still spending. And they are very brand loyal," Pattee told me on the phone before I left. "We have people who will only come on vacation with us."
That left me with just one question: Is vacationing with elite athletes really such a good idea?
My fellow amateurs in Alaska certainly seemed excited at the prospect, if a touch nervous. Since ours wasn't an official EpicQuest trip, the clients, who each paid $9,000 for the week, had no idea they'd be carving turns with the likes of Hamilton and Jones. Richard, a fifty-something Texan who'd come with his pal Phil, summed up his reaction this way: "My wife asked, Should I be worried [about the risks]?' And I said, 'Nah.' Then we wake up this morning and the first person I see is Laird Hamilton."
DURING THE AFTERNOON'S SAFETY BRIEFING, Overcast filled us in on the risks of crevasses, rotor blades, and, of course, avalanches. Hamilton chimed in that he'd set one off last yearand was actually carried over a ridge on a runaway wave of snow.
Kurt, an Austrian who was there as a personal guide to the Frenchmana pudgy, grumpy garlic mogul on the Atkins dietlooked at Hamilton. "So why does the surfer from Hawaii ride snowboard?" he said.
"I surf the snow!" Hamilton answered.
We witnessed that firsthand the next morning when the lodge's helicopter dropped us off on a patch of flat ground about the size of a studio apartment and Hamilton cheerfully followed Jones out onto a knife ridge until they'd found the most precarious launch point possible. The rest of us watched from the chopper's landing zone, which was atop what would easily be the longest run at any resort in the lower 48 and surrounded on all sides by mountains so thoroughly white that they appeared to have been turned upside down and dipped in paint. When I expressed surprise at the tiny precipice, Harms chuckled. At some landing sites, he said, there is room for only one helicopter skid. "You'll get to experience those, too."
"You don't need a masseuse at the end of the day," Kalama cracked. "You need a therapist."
That evening, one of the guests played an action film starring Jones, who isn't affiliated with Epic but had come to scout dangerous lines for a film he planned to begin in April. Jones is small, meticulous, and ninja-like, and he used the screening period to power out sets of crunches. Then someone popped in the surf film Water Man, which featured HD footage that King had shot of Hamilton and Kalama as they rocketed through barn-size barrels in Indonesia. It was a seriously meta moment, and the others in the room responded accordingly.
"Oh, my God! Aaah!" one of the Swiss guys hollered at the screen. "He is related to a shark!" said the other. Philip the Texan summed up the mood succinctly: "I've never watched a video with the guy in the video."
There are any number of things you're likely to do differently while traveling with superior life forms. This is especially true if one of them is the half man/half grizzly Laird Hamilton and high winds have grounded you at the lodge. Hamilton, unable to be still, took a chainsaw and cut a hole through six feet of ice over the lake. The air was so cold that if you left the pool unattended for five minutes, a crust began to form. Hamilton prescribed that we sit in the Tordrillo sauna until we were so hot that our eyes began to sear and then run barefoot across 100 yards of snow and plunge into the hole. The combined effects, he said, would strip toxins. We should do this over and over. So we did. I'm still not sure why.
Hamilton took to calling our predicament "man camp" and seemed to be the one person who didn't mind being marooned at the lodge. "I want to do things I can't do in Hawaii," he said. After he got bored with extreme spa treatments, he took a snowmobile out, happily rolling it on himself numerous times; then he picked up snowkiting; then he had Kalama tow him behind a sled on his snowboard; then he headed into the woods to cut down spruce trees. This was a twofold mission: Foremost, he wanted to find specimens to hand-shape into stand-up paddleboards, but he also wanted lumber for a sort of grand finale to the week, a gigantic bonfire that would be ignited with Jet A fuel and a dynamite pipe bomb. This is known around Tordrillo as the Bombfire, and I now know why. The towering pile of logs and brush went from zero to inferno in the second it took the bomb to detonate in a mushroom cloud the size of a small hotel. Hamilton, naturally, was the igniter.
"For Laird," King told me, "there's no such thing as a down day."
ON DAY SIX, the weather finally broke, and we enjoyed world-class conditions. CPG's clients are the only humans who have access to these mountainssome 1.4 million acres of terrainand powder remains for weeks after storms. The helicopter hopped us over the Capps Glacier, the second-largest in Alaska, and dropped us on an icefield that led to a steep, snowy neck feeding into a gigantic bowl. Harms skied down and then radioed back. "I want you to really space it out," he said. "One at a time, on my signal. Because this is huge, and if it goes"meaning if an avalanche should start"I only want one person in there to deal with."
"He could have left that last part out and I'd have been just fine," Kalama said.
The riding was so good that I immediately forgot the cold plunges and long afternoons of awkward bonding with extreme athletes. At the end of the day, what makes a trip like this worth it, no matter the cost or the credentials of the dude snowboarding alongside you, is the wild, empty places.
What's that run called? I asked Harms at the bottom.
He laughed. Like thousands of runs out here, it was virgin.
"What do you want it to be called?" he said.