Story and photos by Wyatt Caldwell
Haines, Alaska, is a magical place. I have been fortunate enough to return to Alaska for the last three years in search of that perfect spine run that will be implanted in my brain forever.
Three years is miniscule compared to the experience of the First Ascent guides at SEABA. SEABA’s guide roster includes guides such as Kent McBride in his 16th season, Reggie Crist in his 13th season, and Tom Wayes, who has brought more people back from the heli drooling from face shots than the Snowbird tram.
Without these veteran guides, who have pioneered the Chilkat Mountains for the last decade and a half, our trip would not be the same. The extensive experience of the FA guides at SEABA is crucial for a good day of production.
They know everything from the locations of the best runs, the knowledge of the maritime snowpack, and the efficiency in which slopes to ride at exact times of the day with good light. All these factors have been perfected to a science by our guides, with some help from the best photog in the game, Will Wissman. Combined with the best heli pilot around for shooting big lines, the stars were lining up for an all-time experience riding the best runs of my life!
There was a rumor that Alaska was having a horrible season, and it would not be worth going up this year. Fifteen feet of snow followed by 150mph winds was not making for a favorable heli season in southeast Alaska. Fortunately, the snowpack started shaping up just as we rolled in from Valdez, and the conditions were looking good for an amazing session of powder slaying.
Chris Coulter and I were lucky enough to be first in line to go out with Tom Wayes when the weather cleared and find out if the new snow was truly “blower powder.” It was all that and stable!
Tom knew exactly where to start testing the snowpack for stability and testing Wissman’s ability to shoot photos on slope before trying to muscle through some sluff with his shoulder. It was a great effort by Wissman, but as the pictures showed, he got spanked a good 25 yards down the slope, losing everything to be buried except his camera. We had a great first day out with Tom and could not have been more stoked for our next few weeks in Haines.
Then, as it usually does in southeast Alaska, the weather moved in, and it stormed for a week straight. Each morning we would awake early and peek out the window of our Airstream trailer hoping to see blue sky but were let down to see clouds and rain.
Down days are just part of the waiting game that is heli boarding in AK. You need to have patience beyond belief to stay sane through the storms that can last many days before you see blue skies again.
Chris and I have spent countless days keeping occupied on a down day in Haines. We have many activities to keep our minds off of when the weather will break blue. We enjoyed an eventful game of frisbee golf, in which I scored a hole-in-one on the first hole! We went hiking in the forest on ocean-view trails, photographed the abundant wildlife along the Chilkat River, and went crabbing out in the harbor.
After a week and a half of down days, we were starting to get a bit worried that we may not get another chance to film on a blue day before we left back for Idaho. Fortunately for us, the weather cooperated, and we got three blue days in a row before we had to start the four-day drive back home.
Reggie Crist had a few objectives in mind to visit that he had not yet skied in his 13 years in Haines. I was lucky enough to get to accompany him on his missions. The level of production is top notch with Reggie and Wissman. They have it down to a calculated science how to ride the lines safely and get the highest quality production shots imaginable.
I am impressed and humbled by their ability to have a vision of how they want the shot to look and then create it with an aerial heli shot. The aerial shots are risky business. Anyone can blow the shot: the rider, the filmer hanging out of the heli pulling more G’s than their stomach can handle, or the pilot not knowing where the rider’s line is.
When I am finished pointing it out of the chute with the heli spiraling downwards at me like it just got shot out of the sky, I wonder how in the world they were able to keep me in the cameras frame! It is the best feeling in the world to ride up to the chopper to see Will Wissman and Gerry Moffatt grinning from ear to ear saying we nailed it!
Chris and I had a great trip to Alaska this year thanks to SEABA heli op and the dedication of the First Ascent guides delivering us the goods! I am honored to spend each day out in the mountains with Kent, Tom, and Reggie and soak up all the knowledge and experience they have to offer.
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