A look back at heli skiing in the last frontier teton gravity research power company near me


Thompson Pass is 30 miles east of Valdez, a bumpy, blown-out ride up the Richardson Highway, a gateway straight into the heart of the Chugach. Daunting peaks slice through the Alaskan sky, the glaciers are a never-ending sea of white that stretches as far back as the eye can see. The maritime snowpack causes snow to cling to near vertical spines and ridges, unfathomably steep terrain that would make even the most experienced skiers knees go weak. “Stuff so steep, you can’t even comprehend how snow sticks to it,” describes Kevin Quinn, owner of Points North Heli.

Simmons was a pistol-packing Vietnam vet who wore a thick mustache and championed a fearless and daring attitude—after getting shot down in Vietnam 13 times, not much could intimidate him. He had no problem confronting risk and was known to make impossibly precise landings on cramped mountain tops. If anyone held their skis straight up while he was trying to fly away he’d pull out his pistol and shoot at their feet as a reminder to get out of his way.

Skiers were lucky to nab a $25 seat in Simmons’ chopper, and once they unloaded they were entirely on their own. “There were really no rules,” Simmons laughed in a 2001 interview with Tailgate Alaska. “I’d drop ya off and hopefully you can take care of yourself, I don’t really care though. Maybe I’ll remember to pick you up somewhere when you’re done.”

The reason that Valdez is practically a household name among skiers traces back to Coloradan Mike Cozad, who originally moved up to Valdez to work as a commercial fisherman in the 80s. m gastrocnemius After a flight in Chuck McMahon’s Super Cub bush plane in the spring of 1987, Cozad and McMahon agreed that the Chugach was ripe for the picking. “I figured we oughta get something going with skiers out here,” McMahon remembers in TGR’s 2012 film The Dream Factory.

In 1988 Cozad purchased the Tsaina Lodge on Thompson Pass, an old roadhouse for oil truckers built in 1949, and hatched the idea of an extreme skiing competition to kickstart business. gas tax deduction With the support of the town of Valdez, the first annual World Extreme Skiing Championships (WESC) was set to take place in the spring of 1991. Jim Conway, Seth Morrison, Jeff Zell, and Doug Coombs were a few of the invitees who would ultimately play a huge part in the birth of heli skiing in the Chugach.

Doug Coombs pioneered the commercial heli ski industry in Alaska when he opened Valdez Heli Ski Guides in 1993. At the time, bringing clients up and flying them around was novel, practically unheard of. “I thought it was a ridiculous idea at the time,” admitted Scott Raynor, who later bought VHSG from Doug in 2000. “Just totally unrealistic. And dangerous.”

TGR co-founders Todd and Steve Jones were among the bright-eyed young skiers who joined Coombs’ repertoire of VHSG guides in the early 90s. The Jones brothers were living in Jackson Hole and had moved up to Valdez in the summers to commercially fish. They started guiding for Doug in the spring to make ends meet, scraped together enough cash to buy a 16-millimeter film camera, and began to document the unfathomable first descents that Coombs was pointing his skis down. The Continuum, TGR’s first film, released in 1996, gave the public another taste of the massive terrain waiting for them in the Chugach.

During the years of WESC, the scene in Valdez was not for the faint of heart. gas or electricity more expensive There were no frills, no guides to hold your hand. It was every man for himself and living in shameless squalor was part of the fun. The intimidating Chugach terrain pushed the sport to a new level as some of the world’s best skiers fed off each other’s frenzied excitement. “We used to say if it it doesn’t stick out on the horizon, it wasn’t worth skiing,” Quinn laughs.

Down days were hard on the liver, and the never-ending party at the Tsaina was akin to that of a frat house, ski bums passed out under the pool table or firing rounds off the back porch. “For the first five to 10 years it was all your local hot shots at Jackson and Squaw, flocking to Alaska because that was the next big thing,” remembers Quinn.

Gradually a new clientele emerged in Valdez. Wealthier folks started to roll in and operations fell into a high-end stride. Catered meals, deluxe lodges, and wood-fired saunas started to edge out the unfiltered chaos that Doug Coombs had championed on Thompson Pass. The wild, untouched peaks of Alaska’s Chugach range were slowly opening their doors to recreational skiers.

Business was booming on Thompson Pass in the late 90s but as skiers poured in from around the world, guide outfits inevitably started to bump into each other in the field. “There was a lot of bad blood between the operators in the early days,” remembers Raynor. “You’ve got all these guys, alpha male types, running operations and we got pretty competitive.”

In the early days it wouldn’t be uncommon to get to a run and find that another heli had landed there first—guides wanted to get their clients on the best runs without flying too far out. “You make the most money flying close to home because of fuel,” says Don Sharaf, a VHSG guide since 2001. electricity projects for high school students The terrain behind the Tsaina Lodge on Thompson Pass is state land, meaning no permits are required to fly clients there. Sharaf says that generally operators stay away from zones that are within a two to three minute flight from someone else’s base, but there aren’t any guarantees. “It’s generally respected to give each other that space but there aren’t any written rules. As you get further out it just gets more and more competitive.”

Raynor says “when the weather was good it was a little easier for companies to stay out of each other’s way, but with challenging conditions, everyone is trying to ski the same terrain and it’s scarce.” Still, he says tensions have smoothed out quite a bit in recent years. “We’ve all grown up, we’re older, more patient. gas mileage comparison We work together a lot more.”

Safety regulations have played a big part in alleviating tension between guiding operations in Valdez. Sharaf worked as the avalanche forecaster for VHSG for almost two decades and noticed that “while the owners rarely got along well, there was usually a solid line of communication between the forecasters.” Sharaf says they share snow conditions, observations, and avalanche reports. Raynor adds that now a lot of companies share the same radio frequencies so they can stay out of each other’s way.

The Heli Ski US Association now sets the standards for many heli ski operators in the United States. Members of HSUS all comply with the same practices, guide standards, and performance reviews as well as going through routine audits. HSUS trains aspiring heli guides, works with members on emergency protocol and avalanche training, and serves as a resource to educate members of the industry. Raynor says it has brought a lot of companies together—safety is something everyone can agree on.

The tech advancement of helicopters has made it much easier for outfits to stay out of each other’s way as well, opening up new runs to give the guides more options. “We used to fly A-Star B2s, now we fly B3Es which are much more powerful and precise,” Raynor explains. “Tighter landings let you get to a lot of peaks that were off-limits before. gas jobs crna Now we’re skiing lines you never would have thought of skiing back then. We have way more to choose from.”

Most operations have adopted smaller group sizes which allow them to fly deeper into the Chugach. Less weight in the helicopter maximizes fuel efficiency, allowing groups to go out all day without having to go back to the lodge to refuel. Raynor says that back in the 90s the standard was two groups of four skiers, whereas now they’ll fly one group of three skiers. “It lets us get way way out there now,” says Raynor. “You can go really really deep and you won’t see anyone.”

Although relations have improved between guide outfits, the recent influx of snow machines and ski tourers is now stepping on the toes of heli operations on Thompson Pass. “We don’t run into ski tourers as much because they just can’t get as far,” Sharaf explains. “It’s the sled-powered skiers who are becoming the problem for us—they go in, set up basecamp in areas that are as far as a 10 to 15 minute flight.”

The low-hanging fruit behind the Tsaina is enticing for foot-powered skiers due to the short approach. “It’s the best place if you’re on foot because you’ve got these 1,500 to 2,000-foot couloirs, easy to get up in a day,” Raynor says. “But other than that, the Chugach isn’t really a great place to be a ski tourer. It’s not like the Wasatch where you get massive relief right off the bat. You might walk three, four hours just to get to the base of a line out here. It’s just really, really big—that’s why we fly.”

The scene on Thompson Pass may seem a far cry from the rugged elite that jockeyed for a ride in Chet Simmons’ Bell 206 almost 30 years ago, but the same thirst for exploration and adventure that inspired Mike Cozad and Doug Coombs hasn’t wavered. “The Chugach is the Super Bowl of heli skiing, Disneyland for adults,” Quinn says. “Nothing will ever change that.” From The Column: TGR Playgrounds