Interview by Tom Jackson
H2O Guides Alaska heliskiing operation, founded by Dean Cummings, enjoys a great reputation amongHeliskiingReview.com and HELISKI.com clients. HELISKI.com caught up with H2O this summer in the first of a series of interviews with Alaska heli-skiing and heli-boarding operators: HELISKI.com 15 Questions. We talked to Aaaron Karitis (on the cover shot above) of H2O Guides from his summer home in Lake Tahoe. ManyHeliskiingReview.com and HELISKI.com clients want to know how Alaska differs from British Columbian heliskiing and heliboarding. Comments welcome.
HELISKI.com Operator Interview with H2O Guides Alaska Heli-Skiing
1. Dean Cummings is a living legend. What is H20 Guide’s claim to fame?
We specialized in small group, remote helicopter skiing. And as one of the pioneers, Dean got his pick of prime terrain. We now proudly have more skiable terrain than any other operations on the planet! More terrain equals more options and better safer snow!
2. AK is almost all above tree line, right?
- Pick a Peak!
3. You do fewer runs in a day, but they are steeper and way longer than BC. Can you describe a ‘typical’ run with H2O Guides?
A typical run starts with an endless view of Chugach peaks and glaciers. 90% of the time we are skiing high alpine terrain. Our typical run is 3,000 to 6,000 feet long and ranges from 30 minutes to 2 hours long.
In Alaska, we don’t ski down a run, we take a journey through a massive mountain range. Runs range from long moderates to steep Alaska spines and ramps. Generally, our pick-ups end on the glacier. A day contains 6 runs and an average of over 20,000 vertical feet per day.
4. We find AK weather is more problematic, both for travel and for skiing (I was once down for 6 days in a row in Valdez). And to get there, we had to drive from Anchorage (5 hrs.). Are the flights in and out of Valdez cancelled often?
Travel to AK is not problematic, that is a false statement. Just 5% of the flights into Valdez get canceled, which is similar to most flights throughout the world. Canceled flights don’t result in missed ski days, because if an airplane can’t fly neither can a helicopter.
Over our 17 year history, we fly 68% of the time; this is a surprisingly high rate to most people who hear that rate. [That's good. HELISKI.com advises to plan on 4 out of 7 days (57%) in Valdez] Both of our public packages, include 2 weather days, which means your seat in our helicopter is reserved for two days on your trip that you are in fact not paying for. No other operation in the world will hold your seat unless there is money on account. We realize weather can impact a trip in Alaska, our 2 weather days are designed to protect our guests.
5. AK is serious steep. They can get as extreme as you can handle. I’m an accomplished powder skier and former ski bum. There are places in Alaska that scare the hell out of me.
Alaska is seriously steep…no question. It also has a variety of terrain unlike any other region in the world! The variety and the amount of variety is perhaps the most amazing thing about skiing in Alaska. While Alaska is known for its steeps, it has runs for my 65 year old mother, to runs Seth Morrison wants nothing to do with. The majority of our skiing is 35 – 45 degree 4,000 foot powder runs. We can go steeper or more mellow and ski longer runs or shorter.
6. AK is beautiful and wild. Not really a question, I know.
Anyone who has been to Alaska, will say it is one of if not the most beautiful, raw, vast and wild places they have ever been. From a guiding stand point, the thing that stands out is the raw scale and vastness of the place. You look at a run and what seems like 10 turns ends up being 50 turns, the glacier that looks like you could walk from edge to edge, is a 5 minute heli flight.
It’s everything that everyone who
say it is plus more. It’s truly something any real skier or
boarder needs to experience to full complete their resume.
[Great description! I found the mountains to be foreshortened, too.]
7. We tell clients that AK is a later season, because of the temps and the daylight. March is the early season. April is prime time.
Realistically, we could ski 12 months out of the year in Valdez. However, short days, cold temps and winds make skiing in traditional early winter months not as favorable as the spring. Consequently, our season is March and April. The gives us the best chance to send our guest home while skiing the most days as possible on their trip. There is no bad time to come during March and April; however we classify prime time as March 10 – April 20.
8. Most Alaska accommodations are not luxurious but better than most think, agreed?
Accommodations in Alaska are not luxurious or glamorous…the skiing more than takes care of that. We stay at a Best Western, which is the nicest hotel in town. It is located right on the Prince William Sound and is just a few steps from downtown Valdez. The accommodations are clean, comfortable, and warm and include the best restaurant and bar in town. In addition, the hotel has wireless Internet, a work out room and suite options.
9. What if guests want a few days of skiing to warm up?
Alyeska is located 40 minutes from Anchorage. It’s a full scale resort and is a great place to warm up for a few days. We also have terrain that is more than capable of warming skiers of all abilities up.
10. How many in guests per lift / group?
Our public helicopter holds 5 and our private holds up to 8.
11. How many lifts per helicopter?
Public heli’s consist of 4 groups of 5 per heli and our private is sold as 8 people, but can be expanded if necessary.
12. What packages does H2O offer?
We have 3, 5 and 7 days packages with the ability to do custom packages as well.
13. How much farther is Valdez, Alaska than BC locations?
Alaska is a much shorter travel than most think. You can arrive into Valdez on the 6pm flight from anywhere in North America.
14. How do you prices compare to BC heliski operators?
Our public and private options significantly less expensive than Canada. [True, and typically a different experience, eh?]
15. Anything else you want to add?
Our terrain is simply the best! We have amazing variety, run selection, steeps and high alpine. On top of that H2O has been in Alaska the longest and has the best safety record.
Thanks, Aaron. Hope to ski with you soon!
CPO (Chief Powder Officer)
This is correct, most of Alaska’s terrain is considered high alpine. H2O has a couple regions that have trees and reference which allow for flying on days that are overcast and snowy. High alpine skiing is one of the factors that separate Alaska from Canada. This type of mountain environment allows for an unlimited amount of skiing terrain and variation. Translation: our guests don’t have to be concerned about farming terrain or skiing the same run or region over and over.