“Are all your beacons turned on?” the guide asked us as we jumped into the whirling helicopter. We hadn’t spent more than 10 minutes practicing our search and rescue techniques in the parking lot prior to boarding the helicopter, so I thought, “turned on?” Is that the only thing you’re going to ask a group of strangers who have only known each other these last 60 minutes and who were now going to be skiing together in some of the wildest and most dangerous Chugach Mountains that Valdez, Alaska has to offer?
It’s called helicopter skiing. And I was in. But skiing the glaciers of Alaska was quickly becoming a dangerous prospect as our helicopter scouted out potential summits upon which to land.
“There, over there,” someone shouted from behind me to the guide and pointing his finger to some pimple of a peak.
The helicopter circled the summit twice; the percussion of the whirling blades set off no noticeable avalanches, so it was deemed good to go.
The mountain’s summit was no more than 20 square-feet, so the helicopter only had room enough to slam its skids into the side of the mountain, with its tail end hanging 4,000 feet above the ground. The 6-person skiing party jumped out of its cramped, but strangely comfortable, interior. After the packs, skies, and skiers were all safely huddled on the white-capped pimple, I took a moment to look around.
Steep, rocky cliff banks marked most of the faces to this mountain. “Instant death . . . ” I thought as a blast of cold Chugach air blew in from Port Valdez, ". . . should I chance to fall down the wrong side." At that moment, I looked down the face that we’d be skiing. I remember thinking to myself how I was never more afraid in my life--and probably--never more alive. We dove in, one-by-one, triggering no avalanches, over snow-filled couloirs, among green-glass glaciers and soaring bald eagles, through three-feet of undisturbed Alaskan powder, to rejoin the group again, now, more as proven skiing buddies than 60-minute-old strangers.