March 15, 2015
Mar 16, 2015 | guide stories |
Murphy’s Law states “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” After a brief internet search of the origins of Murphy’s Law I found no conclusive evidence that Mr. Murphy even existed, nor any evidence that he ever visited Alaska. But I have a funny feeling that the man who originally coined this phrase would love the heli skiing industry.
I’m reminded of Murphy’s Law on this St. Patrick’s Day thanks to the nasty chest cold I am suffering through. I have officially been grounded i.e; not even allowed to attend the morning guide meeting, for fear of contaminating the rest of the staff. I could have used Murphy’s Law to guess something would prevent me from guiding a great group of repeat clients this week. I really enjoy these guys and would love to be out riding with them, but Mr. Murphy had other plans for me.
It seems like every season we get a nasty cold that goes through the staff. We invite people from all over the world to come into our little bubble here at the Tsaina Lodge and sometimes they bring along some extra baggage. We do our best to prevent the spread but no amount of hand washing can overcome the close quarters we live and work in. When I was just starting out as a guide up here I was fortunate enough to be tail guiding the late great Doug Coombs one day. Our clients that day were members of a rock band I had listened to and enjoyed for many years. What a thrill to be out with these famous musicians and Doug but I couldn’t enjoy it through the massive head cold I had. After six runs my head felt like a cement block and I was hoping to go back to base but they were game for more runs and so was Doug of course. What should have been one of the all time days of guiding is a memory of misery for me. Thank you Mr. Murphy!
I have referred to the helicopter as a petri dish with rotors. All the guides share a headset with a microphone to talk to the pilot. As many as four guides per day can be sharing this mic, it is voice activated and needs to be very close to your mouth to get it to work. I have often found it wet and on one occasion discovered another guides beard hair in my mouth.
Being sick is only one of many things that could go wrong and maybe the only factor we can fool ourselves into thinking we can control. The other factors are mostly weather related and although every client that comes heli skiing believes the guides can control the weather, I’ll let you in on a little secret, we can’t!
Let’s say we have a stretch of unflyable weather, many weather elements can shut down a helicopter, flat light, snow, wind, extreme cold, and even volcanoes (ash in the air isn’t so good for the air intake). Down days are more difficult than flyable days because we all want to be out heli skiing and whatever we come up with for the guests to do, whether it’s ski touring, ice climbing, snowcat skiing, or shooting shotguns, it is not the reason they came to Alaska. But as guides we power through these days with a smile on our face just waiting for the sun to clear and the heli rotors to begin turning. Here’s where Murphy’ Law takes control, first bluebird day guess who has the day off? Or maybe it has been snowing for days and when you do get out in the mountains the avalanche hazard is very high and you can only ski slopes that are 15-20 degrees. Or it clears and then the wind blows 70 mph. Or you find great snow, great stability but your clients are wasted after one run. Or maybe the helicopter has a mechanical issue. You or a client has a ski or snowboard equipment issue. The list goes on and on.
The sport of helicopter skiing or snowboarding is contingent on so many factors that go way beyond the control of a guide. I have found ways to use Murphy’s Law in my favor. All the stars lined up right and in my favor, according to Murphy’s Law something will go wrong right? You can take minor steps like when a guest asks if I will be guiding them the next day, you never say a definitive YES, a well seasoned guide will respond I hope so, or we will see. Minor steps can be intentional but a major step to ensure you are heli skiing the next day is to “Drink it Blue”. This phrase comes from years of experimentation and many selfless acts of taking one for the team. If the weather hasn’t cleared in days the whiskey starts to flow and somebody goes overboard and that person is either sleeping or way too hungover to get in the heli when the sun comes out the next morning. I personally don’t drink during the heli season but a major step I can take to ensure I go out in the morning is to forget to charge my radio, break a part on my boot or binding, my favorite one was when I left my boots in a van overnight and found them frozen solid the next morning, guess who was first out that day.
You might ask yourself with so many things that can go wrong why do we heli ski in Alaska? I’ll tell you why. There is that one day, when much to Mr. Murphy’s chagrin, everything goes right. Perfect weather, perfect snow, perfect stability, perfect terrain, perfect group.
stefan and sam 4-7-12 007
These days are as elusive as the unicorn but they do exist. These days are so good they are life changing, you will do everything you can to chase these days down, endure a week of shitty weather with the hope of maybe one good day, or work harder to take time off to come back to Alaska, or quit your job and move to Alaska, or devote your life to becoming a guide so you can not only have these magic days for yourself but share them with some great people. Every season for the past 15 years I have had that one day. The day I remember while I’m guiding a fishing trip in August, rowing my boat down the Snake River daydreaming about that one day. That one day is why I always come back to Alaska. Will that day be tomorrow? We will see.
Jamie Weeks Turns in Alaska