Or how a heli-ski run at five years old changed a life. By Nina Hance
My parents’ fridge is plastered with many pictures of family adventures. There is one snapshot in the clutter of images that always catches my attention and makes me smile. I’m standing on the top of a ridgeline holding my skis, looking content, my head tilted to the side, leaning against my poles. The leg straps on my full-body harness stick out below my puffy, red down jacket. My goggles cover most of my face, but my expression is still visible. I’m grinning from ear to ear and my five-year-old figure is tiny against the backdrop of the spectacular, snow-covered Chugach Mountain Range of Alaska, stretching into the distance.
My mom took this picture on top of a mountain called Cracked Ice. We had just been dropped off by the helicopter on what was to be my first heli-ski run ever. There had been a split second opportunity that day. It was my mom’s day off and the two of us were hanging out at the Alaska Backcountry Adventures heli base on Thompson Pass in Valdez, Alaska. I had just finished my schoolwork for the morning and was making my daily round of the parking lot, wandering from door to door of the parked RVs selling my hand-woven potholders to the heli-skiing clients and film athletes, when my mom came to tell me that my dad had two seats available for us in his group. Next thing I knew, my mom was helping me into my ski gear, and we were loading into the heli with my dad and his guests. At a mere 60 pounds, I was light enough to sit in the front seat between my dad and the pilot.
At 5,000 vertical feet long, the length of Cracked Ice would be the longest run I had ever skied in my five years of existence. The flight from the base to the top of Cracked Ice happened so fast that I could barely comprehend what I was seeing out of the window. From high above, I looked down onto glaciers and crevasses, things I had never seen before. We were flying into a world of snow and ice, a world of ski terrain that was daunting yet exciting.
Looking back on that day, I can still clearly remember skiing the run. The powder was knee-high on the adults, and waist-high on me. The run felt never-ending and my thighs burned so intensely that I had to take several breaks. The tracks that I made on my skinny, little skis looked itty-bitty compared to the adults’ big swooping turns. By the time we reached the bottom, my legs were so fried that I just plopped down into the snow, exhausted, but very excited. From that point on, the years passed by as I traveled to Alaska every spring with my parents on their yearly commute to Valdez to work as heli-ski guides.
While my parents were out in the field guiding, I entertained my days at the heli base doing schoolwork, playing in the parking lot, or weaving potholders. My potholder craft turned into a thriving little business. People began seeking me out, hoping to buy my potholders. Word about the nifty, colorful potholders spread, and soon most everyone on Thompson Pass, locals and international guests alike, were buying potholders as fast as I could make them. I had to start making potholders in the early winter, a few months before we went to Alaska, so that I wouldn’t sell out before the season was over. Phatz Ski Rental, the shop at the heli base, began carrying and selling my potholders. Doug and Emily Coombs, friends of my parent’s and fellow guides, were my biggest customers, ordering large quantities from me every year.
Fifteen years have passed since my first heli-ski run. I am continuing my annual commute to Valdez, just like my parents. My income no longer comes from selling potholders, but from working as an apprentice guide for Black Ops Valdez, a heli and cat-skiing operation based in Valdez.
During my first two years of college at Montana State University, I missed the heli-ski seasons in Alaska. Given my certainty about wanting to be a ski guide, and my indecisiveness about choosing a major, I decided to take the spring semester off and go back to Valdez. After applying at several heli-ski operations, I landed a job with Black Ops.
On March 6, I flew from Bozeman northbound to Anchorage. The sun, illuminating the peaks in a deep, red glow, was beginning to set when I drove over Thompson Pass and into Valdez on the Richardson Highway. I remember when I was young, thinking of how massive the peaks looked. Everything seemed bigger when I was little. These peaks are an exception, though. They still look just as gigantic and magnificent. Their size, magnified by the flat waters of the ocean meeting the bases of the mountains, never ceases to impress, even now as I look at them as an adult.
Driving into town, the moist, salty sea air triggers nostalgia of childhood days spent playing on the rocky beach. Large snow mounds piled high by the plows stand taller than most if the buildings. The port, snow covered and full of boats, reminds me of the walks we used to take along the docks in search of otters. Bald eagles, perched high in the trees next to the grocery store, prune their feathers and gaze down at the town’s activities. Pulling into the driveway of the guides’ house, my home for the next two months, I gawk at the six feet of snow covering the front yard.
Black Ops Valdez, owned by Josh and Tabatha Swierk, was established in 2008. The Swierks began offering snowcat and snowmobile skiing a few years back, building up their cliental and experience before adding the heli this last season.
I was thrilled to join the BOV crew, knowing that I would be learning from a team of some of the most experienced guides in Valdez. I mainly worked as the dispatcher, also attending guide meetings and cat-ski guiding on stormy days. Alongside that I worked in the office, gave safety briefings, and occasionally tail-guided for the heli-skiing. At the beginning and end of each day, I sat in on the guide meetings listening to the guides plan and discuss their day. I felt overwhelmed once I realized how much learning lay ahead of me.
During the meetings, I observed how the guides planned out a day based on the weather, group dynamics, snow conditions, and any other factors that could affect daily operations. Barry “The Blade”, our cheery and talkative pilot, gave me mini lessons on weather forecasting and flying mechanics of the helicopter.
When I wasn’t cat-ski guiding or working in the office, I got to tail-guide for the heli-skiing. Even though I grew up in this terrain, I continue to marvel at its beauty and expanse. Everything is bigger here; the runs are longer, the snow is deeper, the slopes are steeper. In every direction, big peaks with aesthetic lines stretch endlessly into the distance. Glacier valleys, separating one mountain range from another, look like vast, white rivers, frozen mid rapid. Occasionally they shift position, sending spooky growls and grumbles echoing across the valley. The skiing is so incredible that is almost feels surreal; dense enough to carve, yet light enough to smear a turn and get face shots. The thought of taking a three-minute heli lift to a peak that would otherwise take an entire day to climb becomes a profound reality.
I have always been slightly intimidated by the sum of skills and responsibilities that an aspiring guide needs to learn. There are many little, yet important details that need to be taken into account, from picking a line to ski to timing your rotation in the field with the heli’s fuel run. Each time I tail-guided, I was given one specific skill to work on, whether it was loading and unloading the ski basket, shoveling out a landing zone, or communicating with the other guides over the radio. For the instances when I didn’t have enough time to dig a full snow pit, I learned to make quick assessments based on hasty pits, ski cuts, and terrain observation. The details extend even further within each task. Whenever I landed the heli I had to find an area that was flat, size up the proper spacing to land the heli next to the group, and chose the best direction to land based on wind speed and direction. As the season went on, I began to feel less intimidated by the extent of responsibilities as I fell into a routine and logged more hours of practice.
On my last night in Valdez a family friend and Valdez local invited me over to her house for a salmon dinner. Walking into the kitchen of her cluttered, yet cozy cabin tucked back into a thick forest, I inhaled the scents of spices and freshly chopped wood. Looking out of the window past the pines, I admired the pink tinge of the evening alpenglow on the Chugach. While pouring glasses of wine, I noticed two potholders hanging on a hook above the stove. They were well used, burned and faded, but I immediately recognized them as a set that I had made many years ago when I was a little girl. Seeing them hanging in her kitchen made me smile and think of the first time I came to Valdez as a five-year-old. Who would have guessed that I would end up back in Valdez fifteen years later working as a ski guide. I didn’t simply spend this season working for a ski-guiding company in Alaska—I continued a lifestyle that started as a little girl and is now becoming the same profession as my parents’. I love guiding for many reasons. Developing a partnership with these intrinsically beautiful, yet potentially unforgiving mountains is challenging and inspiring. The reward of giving people one of the best ski days of their lives is fulfilling. Reflecting on the past fifteen years, I realize that I am most passionate about guiding because of the connection it has to my childhood and the lifestyle that evolved from it—thanks to my hand-woven potholders.