interior shot of a helicopter headed toward a mountain valley in the chugach range in alaska
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane

Heli-skiing Will Give You the Ultimate Alaskan Adrenaline Rush

Who needs a ski lift when you have a helicopter?

Just seconds after buckling my seatbelt and putting on my intercom headset, the AStar helicopter was airborne. I took a moment to exhale deeply and could see my breath in the humid mountain air. My three compatriots and I were packed shoulder-to-shoulder like brightly colored Gore-Tex sardines, all of us silently trying to figure out what we had gotten ourselves into. As for myself, I’d spent four months preparing for the trip by skiing a couple times each week, not to mention thousands of dollars for the week-long trip in Alaska.

Our pilot, a Frenchman named Jean-Louis, was surrounded by an array of knobs and gauges. I peeked at the airspeed indicator and saw that we were cruising at a casual 140 mph, on our way from one mountain valley in the Chugach range to the adjacent one. I used a jacket cuff to clear a viewport out of the foggy window to see jagged peaks whizz by, which only added to the nervous anticipation of my upcoming run. But, at this point, I was what poker players like to call pot committed.

“Let’s go window shopping,” our guide, Matt, barked over the radio. For most of us, “window shopping” is common slang for browsing expensive merchandise as a pastime. But I figured—given the unusual circumstances—that he had something else in mind. And it was true: Rather than pointing out a sweater or a pair of boots, the life-long ski guide had set his sights on a north-facing slope that ran all the way to the valley floor. “What do you think of that line?” he asked.

Jean-Louis nodded, navigating the helicopter in a downward arc so Matt could get a closer view of the snow surface. That was the end of the conversation. For a couple of industry vets like them, this was akin to dropping the kids off at school. Matt, happy with what he saw, gave Jean-Louis a thumbs up, and in a few seconds we were landing on a razor-thin ridge. With the tail of the ‘copter hanging precariously over a 2,000-foot cliff and the cockpit not far from a large cornice, Matt motioned for me to get out. “This looks like a good landing,” he said, though I wasn’t quite so sure.

Apparently, when it comes to heli-skiing in Alaska, the word "landing" is used loosely.

a helicopter nosediving into an alaskan mountain valley
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane

The first commercial helicopters were used to access remote Alaskan ranges in 1948. At the time, they were primarily flown during summer months and used for mapping surveys, research projects, and exploration. Larger helicopters arrived at the tail end of the 1950s, helping shuttle crews and equipment to remote towns across the state, as the oil and natural gas boom started to take off.

The idea of heli-skiing—that is, using helicopters to access remote slopes of untouched powder—was born a few years later, when geologist Art Patterson took a trip with Hans Gmoser, an Austrian mountain guide, in British Columbia. The two founded the first heli-ski business in 1963, charging just $20 for a day out. Using a small Bell 47G-2 helicopter, the business struggled to get off the ground, both literally and figuratively. Fickle weather and frequent storms kept the underpowered heli from flying very much.

Patterson left the venture and Gmoser forged on, starting his own company in 1965. Bringing together lodging, food, transport, and guides into a single experience, he created Canadian Mountain Holidays, the first modern heli-ski lodge. With this full-service package, he was able to turn a profit and gradually expand the business.

The industry grew in the 1970s and ‘80s, thanks to publicity by Warren Miller, a well-known American filmmaker. It got even bigger in the ‘90s and ‘00s, as Teton Gravity Research and Matchstick Productions featured it in their popular annual ski films. Today, it’s firmly embedded in the cultural lexicon of the ski industry, although it’s banned or heavily restricted in some European countries, such as France. (A few clever operators there have come up with workarounds.)

Meanwhile, in Alaska, quite a few heli-ski outfits have popped up in the last decade, though two of the old guard still stand above the rest. With high-end accommodations, top-tier guides, and world-class skiing, Valdez Heli-Ski Guides and Tordrillo Mountain Lodge have established themselves as the premier heli-ski lodges in Alaska, and perhaps even the world. Combined, they have more than 50 years of experience.

Both operate from February to late May or early June, depending on the snowpack. In the first half of the season you’ll have less daylight and fickle weather, but deeper powder, generally speaking. Later in the season you’ll have more predictable conditions, but lower odds of deep days. I decided to aim for the best of both worlds and booked a trip through Valdez Heli-Ski Guides for March. After flying to Anchorage, driving four hours to the lodge, and participating in a short safety briefing, I was packed into the helicopter.

two heli-skiiers preparing to go down a mountain as the helicopter departs
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane

Without the will to argue, I opened the door, ducked my head, stepped on the skid, and hopped into the void, praying the ground was solid. The backwash of the rotors kicked around so much snow I was forced to cover my nose and mouth with a glove.

I landed without issue. Matt then unloaded our skis from a metal basket and placed them in front of us. He gave Jean-Louis a thumbs up, signaling it was safe to take off. After watching the heli fly away, I took a moment to check out my surroundings. Everything was still and quiet, including the errant thoughts in my brain. Outside of the four others next to me surveying this new world, all I could see was layer upon layer of mountain ranges. Just an endless sea of snow and ice, with no other signs of human life. The smallness I felt standing on that peak was palpable—and rare these days.

After getting my bearings, I got to work. Helicopters are new to me, but skis most definitely are not. I’ve skied since I was in middle school, and these days I spend a hundred days each season on the slopes. Nearly every lodge, including Valdez, gives you the option to rent skis, but I decided to bring my own gear out of comfort and familiarity. I’d packed my fattest skis—the Black Crows Anima—because they float well in powder, and can handle variable conditions—and paired them with K2 Mindbender BOA Boots, which keep my feet snug and my turns precise. After clicking into my bindings, I grinned. I knew what we were about to do.

skiier headed down the powdery slopes in the chugach mountain range in alaska
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane

Matt was waiting when we finished getting ready. “Sneak through the cornice, traverse right, and drop the fall line,” he instructed, reminding us to spread out by a 30-second count. Not one for long-winded speeches, what Matt lacked in banter he made up for in smooth, effortless style. Watching the snow billow into smoke behind him, we let out a few hoots and hollers, knowing that his aerial assessment was right—he had found the good snow.

Still, my first few turns were short and controlled, as I struggled to get the jitters out of my legs. Without a safe place to stop mid-run that was out of an avalanche path, our instructions were to ski top to bottom, if our legs could handle it. While most runs have natural rises to take breaks, this one did not. We could also rest if needed, with the knowledge that we shouldn’t stay for long. I soon started to open up my turns, feeling the dopamine and serotonin levels rise with the speed of my skis.

The next few minutes were a blur. An empty stadium of snow and the freedom to carve turns wherever I wanted. With 5,000 feet of descending, this one run was longer than any resort in the country. But this was exactly what I’d been looking for. Riding the line between in control and not, delicately balancing fear and thrill, I found myself in flow state, consumed with what was right in front of me. Everything else faded away into a nearly perfect moment—the ultimate Alaskan adventure.

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Andy Cochrane is a contributor for Thrillist. After earning a Design Strategy MBA and working in tech, a late-20s-life-crisis drove some questionable decisions, including five years and 200,000 miles living out of his Toyota Tacoma. He now resides in Bend, Oregon, with his partner and their dogs, Dusty Bottoms and Bea, working as a freelance writer, photographer, and producer. You can follow him on Instagram @andrewfitts.