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H2O Guides 2015 Alaskan Helicopter Ski Season

From our friend Dean Cummings at H2O Guides:

H2O Guides just completed the 2015 Alaska helicopter skiing season, our 21st consecutive season of providing skiers and snowboarders with mechanized access to the extreme, remote backcountry wilderness of the Chugach Mountains surrounding Valdez and Prince William Sound in Alaska. 

It was an odd winter in Alaska, with below-average snowfall in many regions.  Yet Valdez proved itself once again as one of the snowiest places on the planet.  The snow pack in the surrounding Chugach was average to above average in the regions we access.  After guiding here for the last 25 years I'm still blown away by how much snow we get every season no matter what's happening in the rest of Alaska or the world.  Skiing on a 30-meter base makes you feel super human.  Chugach snow has a cushioning effect that absorbs the energy of your turns making it feel almost effortless to ski and snowboard on incredibly steep terrain.  

We hosted skiers, snowboarders, and mountaineers visiting from North America, South America, Europe, Canada, Asia, and Australia.  It's always a pleasure to meet the passionate people that travel so far to ski and snowboard in Alaska and to share this experience with them.  Every day of guiding here is rewarding, and the guides and I can't imagine doing anything else.

People ask me all the time to describe heli skiing in Valdez, and years ago I came to the realization that what we do isn't just heli skiing.  It's actually remote guided aircraft operations.

We're providing mechanized access to more than 4,000 square miles of incredibly steep and glaciated terrain that is buried by up to 30 meters of annual snowfall.  It's hard to imagine that much snow and people can't believe it until they actually fly out into the Chugach with us. 

The reason so much snow accumulates in the regions surrounding Valdez is because the glaciated micro-climates supercharge the snowfall.  Warm, moist air from the Gulf of Alaska cools as it passes over the cold Prince William Sound and then slams into the massively glaciated Chugach Mountains.  The cold glacial basins combined with orographic lift and other local effects results in legendary Chugach snowfall each season.  During a storm cycle, one basin may get 30 cm out of a storm while the adjacent basin gets 230 cm of blower powder.  It's mind blowing. 

Remote guided aircraft operations is about being flexible to select a daily region of operations based on weather, snow stability, group ability, and not on doing a circuit and trying to get people to finish their vertical footage by early afternoon.

Since 1995 we have pioneered 28 regions and established more than 3,000 Landing Zones.  We have amassed unparalleled knowledge of these mountains giving us the ability to provide a safer and thrilling experience utilizing helicopters to access remote terrain.  One day of operations is like having the whole Teton Range reserved for you and several other skiers and snowboarders.  Having all of these regions available gives us the ability to find the best snow on any given flyable day and not be restricted to the major wind corridors in the range.

We also give ourselves safety nets with nearly a dozen staging areas available that get our fuel trucks, high power radio, communications, and rescue gear closer to our daily region of operations.  Our guides strive to maintain regular communications with the helicopter, flight following, and our operations base in Valdez so that we know where groups are operating and their intentions.

Remote guided aircraft operations is also about implementing backcountry terrain management protocols from the top down, maintaining visual/verbal communications with everyone in the group, assessing snow stability and terrain on the go, and selecting routes accordingly for the ability of the group and with safe zones. 

These mountains are so dynamic and massive that it's not enough to just dig a pit at the start zone and take it top to bottom.  On-the-go assessment from the top down is paramount, and as I always say, never pass up a high point to scope your line.  Skiing the apex increases safety and lets us see our lines better, and this helps take our skiing and riding to a whole new level. 

The skiing and snowboarding in Valdez is world class.  I call it the "North Shore" of big mountain skiing, and that's why I've stayed in Valdez for 25 years building my company and raising my family.  But accessing these truly remote mountains by helicopter is just as rewarding.  It's like flying through a chandelier of crystals and diamonds.  Having the ability to fly so remote and get a bird's eye view of the range every day lets us see the Chugach in a different way and provide our guests with electrifying Alaska experiences.  Remote guided aircraft operations is what H2O Guides does, and it's the highest level of accessing big mountains in Alaska.

Dean Cummings



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