“Where should I go in Alaska?” I hear the question every season, and for good reason: Alaska is where the proverbial stars of terrain, weather, and snowpack align.
The last frontier delivers access to stable, steep terrain more consistently than virtually any other place in the world. World-class athletes and film crews return there year after year and have helped perpetuate a belief that all that stands between you and the runs of your dreams are skill and a big, fat bankroll. And while partially true–being a good rider and having coin will definitely get you somewhere in AK–the truth that is the equation is a bit more complicated than that.
The real question you should be asking yourself is, “Should I go to Alaska?” And, unfortunately, there’s no litmus test for this question. It all comes down to the individual, and his or her expectations for the trip. For some people, simply the experience of being in Alaska’s massive mountains and riding in a helicopter is enough. For others, it’s the next step in their skiing or snowboarding careers. Whatever you’re trying to get out of the trip, it’s worth considering these other questions before you answer the big one.
My first trip to AK I dropped between five and six thousand dollars on roughly half a dozen runs. I was devastated. Flying home, head between my hands, I couldn’t believe I’d spent so much and gotten so little. While I may have had particularly bad luck in terms of weather, trips like those aren’t unheard of by any means. My biggest mistake was that I’d only asked myself, “How much am I willing to spend to get it?” rather than, “How much am I willing to spend and NOT get it?” Keep in the back of your mind the possibility of getting entirely skunked and, while it’s not likely, come to terms with the idea of spending the money and possibly going home empty-handed.
All kinds of riders go to Alaska, not just the pros. Seriously. People that describe their skill level in terms of “blues” and “blacks” make the trip every year. I’m not saying that every intermediate skier should be booking an AK trip, but don’t be intimidated by the film and photos that come out of the 49th state each year. Realistically, there’s terrain for a wide range of skill levels. More important than individual skills is the collective level of the group you go with.
The weather in Alaska is fickle, and it’s entirely possible that you have three down days in a row, followed by four hard-charging days. Be ready for it. If skiing every day isn’t an option, put the time in to get into shape for long, leg-burning runs. Don’t be forced to take a sunny day off because your legs can’t keep up. If you’re not in serious shape, you should not consider it. Unless, of course, money is no object.
You’re ready to take the leap, and now it’s time for some nitty-gritty decisions. Here’s a little beta to help you narrow your search for just the right trip.
The Alaska heli season generally runs from early March to late April. While there’s no ideal time to go to Alaska, some periods offer better odds depending on what you’re looking for. The general rule of thumb is that the earlier you go the better the snow, while the later you go the better the weather. Of course, there are always exceptions. As far as when to book your trip, many operators offer discounts for early-season reservations, you could save some serious cash by committing in the fall. Most operators include travel insurance in their fee or require you to buy it, so if something comes up (like a torn ACL in February) you’re not SOL.
Alaska’s mountains are expansive, to say the least. While there’s a mix of terrain in every location, some areas are more prone to certain types of terrain then others. For long, classic Alaska ramps, look into areas like Valdez, Cordova, and the Alyeska Area. For more technical terrain and spines, places in southeast Alaska like Haines and Juneau are the call. But again, each location has a bit of everything, so the types of terrain aren’t exclusive to these areas.
Also, it may be worth considering the size of the town if you’re looking for more to do than just chill at the lodge on your down days. Outside of Juneau and Alyeska (about a half hour from Anchorage) the towns that many heli ops are based out of aren’t exactly bustling metropolises.
There are a lot of operators in Alaska, and I’d venture to say they all claim to be the best. Don’t leave your decision to forum boards and social media, reach out to someone that’s been before and ask about their experience. Beyond an operator’s safety record, look at its guides. Have the guides been there for years, or is there a lot of turnover? Beyond the obvious benefits of having an experienced guide, a high guide turnover can be a sign of internal problems within the operation. The more cohesive an operation, the better the client experience.
Ideally, round up a crew of like-minded (and like-skilled) friends. This will put you in a far better position than going up solo. While it’s completely possible to get placed in a group of skiers with similar skill levels when you arrive, it’s better to not leave it to chance. The only thing worse than not getting better terrain is feeling cheated out of it because of your group’s ability.
Your guide is the gatekeeper and, all other things being equal, it’s largely up to him or her what sort of terrain you get on. If you think the key to unlocking that gate is showing off how rad a rider you are, you have another thing coming. While, yes, riding ability plays a role in what terrain you get onto, your ability to listen to directions largely trumps how big a cliff you can stomp. Safety is paramount in every operation and if you can’t demonstrate an ability to follow protocol on the most straightforward runs, there’s no way your guide will lead you to more consequential lines. This goes for the entire group as well. All it takes is one loose canon to lock your entire crew into low-angle powder.
Outside of your standard backcountry gear (beacon, probe, shovel), most operators will require that you wear a harness due to the glaciated nature of Alaskan terrain. Although crevasse falls are extremely uncommon, a harness is imperative for extraction should one occur. Also, if you don’t own an airbag pack, many operators will have them available to rent; however, they’re not required.
As you start researching and planning, I leave you with last, but extremely important, piece of advice: be ready to roll with the punches. There are a lot of moving parts that have to come together to turn a dream Alaska trip into a reality, and most of these parts are beyond your control. Manage the variables that you can, and take the ones you can’t in stride. You’ll pull your hair out if you lock yourself into a plan and expectations in Alaska. The curve balls that are thrown at you should add to the adventure, not define it.
There are a lot of heli ops in Alaska; here’s a jumping-off point depending on where you’re thinking of going.
Anchorage: Chugach Powder Guides
Valdez: Black Ops Valdez
Cordova: Points North
Juneau: Alaska Powder Descents