March 29, 2015
Opening A Run
Mar 29, 2015 | guide stories |
A few days ago, while guiding heli skiing for Valdez Heli Ski Guides, I was reminded why I love this job. Oddly enough it wasn’t on a run that I guided that reminded me of this, it was watching another guide open his first classic run.
Opening a run is an involved process. The first step is scoping it out from the helicopter, finding the route down. A lot of our runs are steep couloirs or wide open faces that are anywhere from 1000-3000’ long. The upper part is steep and committing and usually fairly straight forward, but the exit to a pick up zone can sometimes be a challenge. As a snowboarder it took me longer to figure out this part of heli guiding. I often spent so much time scoping the upper part of a run that once I was down on the glacier I would ride into a flat zone that would require my clients and me to walk to a safe spot to get a pick up from the heli. For all of you inspiring snowboard heli guides out there, scope the exit as hard as you scope the run.
Once the run is inspected from the air, the next step is finding an adequate landing zone (LZ) for the helicopter. Many factors determine whether a LZ is landable; wind, blowing new snow, flat light, is there enough rotor clearance, is there enough room to safely unload the guests and their gear?
I once heard a heli guide from another company refer to his pilot as a bus driver. That guide didn’t last very long. The pilot is an important part of the team and I try to treat them with the utmost respect. We are fortunate to work with some great pilots who make our job much easier.
Once the heli has dropped the guide and his group off on the run the hard part for the guide begins. This is where the manual labor part of the job takes over. One of the most important things a guide can do is to buff out a LZ. We usually have the clients help out digging and stomping the snow into a firm stable platform that the helicopter can then land on repeatedly. This is done to allow more groups to use this LZ but most importantly allow quick access for the helicopter in a rescue situation. So I break out my shovel and prove Mr. O’Grady, my high school guidance counselor, right. He told me I would be digging holes for a living.
Next I have to find the entrance to the run. Sometimes this can be a challenge all in itself. The LZ and the entrance can be two completely different places. One trick I have used when dealing with a corniced ridge, is to have the pilot touch down on the safest spot marking my entrance by leaving marks in the snow for me to find when I’m ready to enter.
Typically before dropping in on a big classic Chugach line I try to get on something in the same area with similar “Spangelation” (Aspect, Angle, and Elevation) to assess the snow. After doing this I will still do a pit on the slope of a big consequential run. This assessment has to be done rather quickly because you have a group of clients sitting on top waiting on the cold and windy summit. Don’t forget this job is about keeping them safe and happy.
Finally you are ready to ski the run. But it’s not like you see in the ski films. As much as I’d like to just rip down a line, a guide has to ski cut and control any hazard on the run. This is done by looking for known trigger points and riding over them to see if these small pockets will avalanche below you and hopefully not your guests. Most times all you have to deal with is some sluff, the snow you are moving when riding down, but the risk of avalanche is always present. I always try to find a stopping point that gives me a view of the run but is out of harms way if something were to go wrong while the clients are skiing.
Once you have safely ridden the run you now have to relay information to your clients via radio on how you want them to ski the run. I usually tell them where I want them to go and what they need to avoid. When I first started guiding the challenge of riding big Alaska lines made me nervous but after fifteen years the nerves I now feel are watching my clients come down these lines. The clients who make me the most nervous watching them are the “shoppers”. These are the guys who are always looking for a better line. If I tell them not to go left they automatically head left thinking that must be where the good snow is. Many of our clients are Type A personalities and this type of thinking has served them well in the business world, in the mountains this can be get them hurt. If you are a perspective heli ski client believe me when I say all guides want you to ski the best snow on the mountain but that is not my job, what is my job is to get you home uninjured everyday, and that might mean don’t go fucking left!
As you can see opening a run has its challenges, so you may ask why do it? Well many heli ski guides don’t. Valdez Heli Ski Guides is unlike most heli ski operators in that all of our guides are qualified to open runs. Other operators employ one or two lead guides who open runs and the junior guides merely follow this guide to the run he just opened. After the lead guide and his group have skied the run the junior guide and his group ski the same tracked out run. In my opinion this lessens the experience for the following groups, who wants to travel all the way to Alaska to ski moguls? As a guide there is no challenge in this. Being a guide is about making decisions if you are not the one making the decisions and all you do is load and unload the skis into and out of the basket and open and close the door, you are just a glorified baggage handler.
I was reminded of how much I love opening runs by watching my friend and co-worker Gary Kuene open his first big run last week a classic called Happy Top. Gary is a fully certified ski guide. He divides his ski guiding between New Zealand, Japan, and now Alaska. Gary started guiding for VHSG in 2014 but after only two weeks of guiding with us last year his season was cut short by a knee injury.
He came back to Valdez this season with a new knee and his ever-positive attitude. The other day when opening Happy Top he did everything I listed up above and he did it well. But the best thing he did and the thing I was most proud of was that he beat me to it.