At Winterlake Lodge, a log cabin deep in Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains, every tomato has to be flown in. The lodge, located 110 miles from the nearest road and accessed only via bush plane, is the site of Alaska’s newest heli-skiing operation, called Tordrillo North, which opens for business in March 2015. It’s the latest in a string of new heli-ski outfits that are trying to shake up the industry by bringing guests to remote, isolated areas with untouched powder and steep terrain.
Historically, the heli-ski industry has centered around Valdez and the surrounding Chugach range. But competition for untracked terrain became fierce as more outfitters moved to the area. The fickle snow conditions and weak economy of the past few years compounded the situation, and many companies found they couldn’t attract enough clients to stay in business. The once well-frequented Valdez Heli-Camps closed its doors in 2012 after 16 years in business due to cancellations and “severe financial impacts,” according to a letter posted online by owner Matt White.
To get away from the congestion of Valdez, Owens co-founded Tordrillo North, which is located in the relatively undeveloped Tordrillo range that promise vast, empty slopes—which means more powder for you and better business for them. It's a decision many other heli-ski operators have been making.
“Right now, there are a lot of players in Valdez and unfortunately, that creates a market where a bunch of players are taking a small bite, which may be enough to keep them running but not enough to keep them all healthy,” says Chris Owens, co-owner of Tordrillo North and former co-owner of Chugach Powder Guides.
The heli-ski industry has also suffered from a string of well-publicized accidents over the past few years, which haven't helped business either. Last winter, Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (known as SEABA) in Haines ended its season prematurely after the death of one its guides and after federal authorities discovered the outfitter was operating without required permits. In response, the state of Alaska will conduct random safety checks starting in 2015, and many operators are now making avalanche airbag backpacks mandatory for guests and guides.
Owens owns and operates Tordrillo North with Jim Conway, one of the original guides at Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, Alaska’s first heli-ski operation that opened in 1993 under late ski pioneer Doug Coombs. Owens and Conway guided film crews and athletes from Teton Gravity Research around the Tordrillos for years, and when the opportunity came to open their own boutique heli-ski outfitter with access to a million acres of untouched terrain, they jumped at the chance.
“This is hard to find in Alaska,” Owens says. “You’re truly in the middle of nowhere, with an incredible removal from everything, and yet you want for nothing. Everything you could possibly need is right here at the lodge.”
Tordrillo isn't the only outfit getting away from the crowds. Majestic Heli Ski opened in 2012 in Valdez (it was originally called Kenai Heli Ski), but a year later, it moved to a location about 100 miles from Anchorage—the nearest competition is now 75 miles away. So far, business is good. In their third year, bookings tripled what they were in year one, according to owner Njord Rota.
Rota says the new safety protocols and increased regulation are good news for the industry. “I think a lot of the ‘cowboy’ operations are going to either have to change the way they operate or go out of business,” says Rota. “I think some of the safety related items, such as mandatory airbags, full-time safety personnel, and guide and safety training are going to become the norm, like they already are with more reputable operations.”