Since he first tasted Alaskan heli pow in 1999, First Ascent ski guide Zach Crist has kept his priorities straight in an effort to migrate north each spring to ski stacked spines and slay big vertical lines. His career track has taken him down countless lifetime lines in Haines, Cordova and Valdez as well as deep into the mystical zone of the Tordrillos. But Alaska still exerts a powerful draw—even 14 years in—serving as a powerful reminder to all of us of how a few deep runs in paradise might change your life forever. This is Zach’s mid-season reflection on 14 seasons of immersion in AK. -EB Editor
Words and Images by Zach Crist
My first heli-ski trip to Alaska was in 1999. I had plans to go in ’98, but that trip was foiled by a blown knee that further convinced me that powder was a much more favorable surface to ride than the water injected snow (= ice) that had been torturing my body for years on the World Cup circuit. I’d been hearing about the fruits of Valdez for several years having watched TGR films that featured my old teammate, Jeremy Nobis, who transformed what anyone thought possible in the big mountains. I knew, as a skier, it was an experience I absolutely had to have. What I didn’t know was that Alaska would change my life.
Headed for Valdez, I stopped first in Girdwood to see my sister, Danielle, who was guiding heli-skiing for Chugach Powder Guides. I got my first quality sample of AK here before a mind-blowing week in Valdez and that was it. I knew I had to somehow reinvent my career as a skier in a way that would allow me to ski mountains like that with a coastal snowpack that made almost anything possible on the right day. From this point forward ski racing became a means to support a heli-ski habit—a pretty half-baked plan really, but enough incentive over the next decade to win a few X Games medals and bank a nice heli budget.
I recently returned from a week with Chugach Powder Guides where my Alaskan experience all began. My timing was perfect with the weather and we logged over 100K vertical feet with blower pow all the way down to sea-level pickups. After 14 years of chasing powder around the globe, I continue to find myself back in Alaska because it never disappoints. I’ve been lucky enough to sample the goods from Haines and Cordova to the Tordrillos and Valdez, but CPG in Girdwood delivers the most comprehensive Alaskan heli-ski experience. Only here can you expect to find big terrain, stable snowpack, highly experienced guides, a professionally run outfit with first-class food and lodging at the base of Alyeska Resort, which services some of the best terrain in America.
And to top it off, the small town of Girdwood offers a fine cross-section of Alaskan culture. It’s a melting pot of opposites—transient hippies looking for a more ‘organic’ lifestyle on the edge of the Alaskan bush country along with the most manly of men who pride themselves on the size of their American-made truck overflowing with wilderness assault toys and the diversity of wild game stocked in their freezers. My sister used to say, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” I say Alaska is unlike any place on earth and if you haven’t been, it’s time to go. It might just change your life.
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