Interview by Tom Jackson, HELISKI.com
Theo Meiners is an Alaska heliskiing pioneer. We met through a mutual friend with whom we had both run the Grand Canyon in kayaks. Theo runs Alaska Rendezous Heli-Guides (ARG), on the Thompson Pass east of Valdez, Alaska. It’s the first place I had the pleasure of heliskiing Alaska. I caught up with Theo recently to talk about heliskiing Alaska.
1. Theo, how long have you been guiding heliskiing in Alaska?
I have worked on Thompson Pass as a Heli Guide for 17 seasons, and have had an incredible run.
2. Wow, did you grow up skiing in Alaska?
I learned to ski in 1967 in the Chugach Mountains at Arctic Valley and Aleyeska, outside of Anchorage. At a very young age my brother and I were ducking the ropes and skiing 5 miles down Ship Creek to the main valley, and on a few occasions to the Eagle River drainages. We also would ski from Picnic Point at Alyeska down what now is the North Face. Don’t ask me how we survived, but we did.
3. So you have a ‘feel’ for skiing in the Chugach?
I feel that those early Childhood experiences and memories give me an inherent advantage. My feet know the texture of the snow of the Chugach Mountains – The Mountains of the Real People, as the Inuit and Chugach native peoples call their land.
4. How did you find yourself guiding in the Valdez area?
I was first taken to the Valdez area by The WESC team. The late John McCune and Pete Murphy hired me to do snow pack evaluations, avalanche hazard reduction, and finally as a Judge of the 1996 World Extreme Ski Contest. It was quite the homecoming.
5. What was your first heliskiing guide gig?
I had known Doug Coombs (legendary extreme skier and founder of Valdez Heli-Ski Guides) since he was a freshman at Montana State University in Bozeman. He had started his guide service after his success in the WESC contest. So once the ‘96 contest was concluded, Emily (Coombs) hired me first as a guide. Later I became operations and logistic manager, as well as one of the 4 lead guides.
6. What was it like in the early days of Valdez Heli-Skiing?
Those were the pioneering years. We found so much great skiing! Everyday was as thrilling as the first decent fell to our discovery team. After 5 seasons with Doug, I started my own service as Doug and Emily sold his business and went on to La Grave (still home to Doug Coombs Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide).
7. Tell us about starting your own Alaska heliskiing operation.
I started my business, the Alaska Rendezvous Lodge and Heli Ski Guides in 2000. I purchased 26.5 acres on Thompson Pass. I believe the Alaska Rendezvous Guide holds the high ground. We are 50 miles from the ocean, and that position on the pass give us more fly days than any of the other companies in the Valdez area.
8. There wasn’t anything out there on Thompson pass, eh?
I built the motel and bar restaurant in 2003. We continue to be amazed by the support the Valdez community has given to ARL/ARG. I’m very grateful to all the operators in Alaska, because everyone is doing their best to bring people to Alaska and to get them some true Big Mountain Experience.
[Not one of your typical ski chalets...but more than adequate, especially for Valdez!]
9. Where do you go in the off-season?
I live for most of the year at the Lodge at 45 mile. I feel that being a local is a great advantage regarding the terrain, weather and culture of ‘the last frontier.’ [Very cool]
10. Now Alaska Rendezvous Guides is a family affair?
Both my son Aidan and my daughter Ali work with me in Alaska, so we are a unique family business.
11. So you like the team?
I have the greatest staff that return year after year, which is also a strength. Every year their amplified experience propels them on to good terrain decisions and snow selection.
12. Having your own lodge makes you unusual in the Valdez area. I think it beats the no-tell motel and a bus ride. How many guests can you accommodate?
The Motel that we built-in 2003 can accommodate 20 guests but we also have the ability to put 10 full size RV’s in our 3 parking areas; where they can plug into our electrical system and use the facilities as if they too were in the motel rooms. So, we have as many as 40 guests on the property at any given time.
13. Your pricing is also different, charging separately for food. Explain how that works.
Yes, you are correct. We have packages designed for the groups that ride from Saturday to Saturday – the fully reserved (VIPS). But we also have an ala carte package, so we can reach every guest’s expectations and meet every person’s dream and budget. In the finical times we live in, every person should be able to reach their dream without being hurt with their commitments. My Guides, my children, want everyone who visits the Rendezvous to be able to afford their experience and trip to the Rendezvous. And I’m obligated to listen to the young people. It is not a new level, it is the new world, their world.
The Alaska Rendezvous has over a 70 percent return rate amongst our guests. This is the final piece of the formula for success – smart, capable, experienced, big mountain guests with the time, resources and skills to hang with the ARG staff [present company excluded….Seriously, they ski some steep stuff. I remember one LZ where there was not enough room for us all to put on our skis at the same time. I looked in every direction, and had no idea which way we were going down. This is not your mother's heliskiing...].
15. Theo, is there anything else you would like to add?
What can I say? I have been blessed by the Mountains and the universe, and get to ride the best snow and terrain in the world.
Thanks, Theo! Hope to get up there to ski with you again soon