Interview by Tom Jackson, HELISKI.com
Photography provided courtesy of Valdez Heli-Ski Guides
Alaska Heliskiing is widely varied. Geography, snow, travel, pricing models, accommodations, weather and more.
HeliskiingReview.com represents them all, and we are often asked to compare and contrast Haines and Valdez. So we asked each of the Alaska heliskiing operators to summarize how their areas compare to the others. This post focuses on comparing and contrasting the locations for heli-skiing Alaska.
On the map:
A: Alyeska Resort, (Chugach Powder Guides)
B. Valdez, H2O Guides, Valdez Heli Experience (formerly ‘Camps’)
C. Juneau / Haines, (Alaska Heliskiing, Alaska Powder Decents Heliskiing and South East Alaska Backcountry Adventures – SEABA)
D. Cordova (Points North Heli-Skiing)
E. Thompson Pass (Valdez Heli-Ski Guides and Alaska Rendezvous)
So Heliskiing Review asked the operators to compare and contrast the heliskiing and heliboarding in the Chugach vs. Haines. Below are the highlights:
Sean Dog, owner Alaska Heliskiing (Haines):
“Last year was a prime example of the difference between Haines and Valdez, they were mostly wind hammered while we had powder snow for most of that same time period. The mountains here are stacked closer together so we have better protection from the wind and more terrain per square mile. The terrain in both areas are certainly similar because it’s all AK and super sweet. I just believe Haines can be more reliable and consistent due to its location and tighter valleys offer better wind protection and hold better snow, less wind can hit the surface and more shade from tighter valleys keep the snow cold and in good shape.”
From Aaron Karitis, H2O Heli Guides (Valdez)
“Valdez is the best option for public/private heli skiing in the state of Alaska. With film segments over the past 7 years, Haines has been well represented and marketed. However, Haines is a toned down version of Valdez. With a priority on film crews, there have been rumblings from higher paying public and private clients and their priority when in the field. Valdez and the surrounding Chugach offer the biggest ridgelines, glaciers and runs in all of Alaska. This allows for more options and give guides the ability to find better snow quality, snow stability and terrain. That combined with the longest runs in the state, Valdez offers the best public and private heli skiing option in the state of Alaska.”
From Sunny, owner, Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) (Haines)
“Valdez vs Haines? This is a tough question that gets asked often.
At any given point the snow can be better, worse or the same. So, I think it comes down to terrain and the ability to access the terrain, especially considering weather patterns.
Haines averages 68-70% fly-able to Alpine terrain, and it averages 80% fly-able to tree terrain, Valdez does not have any trees, unless you include brush.Our tree terrain has top Landing Zone’s of 3200 feet and bottom Pickup Zone’s at 1,000 feet.
We get a lot of skiing done here in Haines because of these percentages, and our tree options. The only operation in Valdez that can really compare is Rendezvous Guides because of their location on the interior side of Thompson Pass, giving them high fly rates as well, but with very little vegetation.
Also our terrain in Haines is really stacked together, meaning we can get many combinations of runs in a short window of flight time.This includes different terrain and aspect because of the proximity of runs to each other. The Tahkinsha and Chilkat Ranges have an east/west strike so that much of our terrain is protected from direct sun, especially in mid April.
We have huge vertical, 5,000 foot descents, on average we can ski 4 groups of 4 around ten runs each a day. Our record with four groups in the field per heli is 16 runs in one day by one of the groups with 3 of those runs being first descents, for a total of 53,000 vert. This is possible because of SEABA’s knowledge of the terrain in Haines, as well as sticking to our policy of not overloading our public ship.
Haines Rocks, so does Valdez, but we do have a little better weather because we are inland and if the weather is in, then we have tree terrain to work until it clears. This limits the amount of sit time for people, which they like.
All said I would choose Haines based on just that.
“Ski you here!”
Cedar Dumont, co-owner Alaska Powder Descents (Junea/Haines)
As far as Southeast AK ( Haines & Juneau) vs Valdez, I first have to say that we at APD have a lot of respect for all of the heli-ski operators in Alaska. When we started APD Heliskiing, we wanted to change a few things in the industry and one of them is to not get into our op. is better than your op. What we believe is that all of the ops have a lot to offer it just really comes down to personal preferences and finding what suits you best.
What we have to offer is:
We are the closest heli-ski operation to the lower 48. With direct flights from Seattle you don’t have to worry missing a connecting flight or ferry. We have the sole use of a 1 million acre US Forest Service permit for the Southern Chilkats and the Juneau icefield, no crowds or competition for lines here!
We have a rich ski community that goes back to the 1930′s that included a commercial snowcat to transport skiers. In the mid 70′s the community got together and started Eaglecrest ski area that is owned by the city of Juneau. Eaglecrest is an amazing backcountry oriented, open boundary area we utilize on weather days.
We are Juneau locals, we have built incredible relationships in our hometown and we know how to give guests the experience of a lifetime and we don’t take it lightly. Most of our guides are local as well and are proud to show off their home!
We operate out of a pristine 10 acre private waterfront lodge with heli’s out the door. No shuttles or van transfers to skiing. When the weather does not cooperate with heli-skiing we do alternative activities with our guests. Besides skiing at Eaglecrest, we sea-kayak, whale watch, ice-climb, indoor & outdoor rock climbing, museum tours, movie theatres, bowling ect. There is always something to do and friends to do it with! We get a little bit less sunny days, Valdez gets more windy days.
We offer the longest season of all AK heli ops. Our helicopters and pilots/mechanics are based in Juneau and fly these mountains year around. We do not have to charter a helicopter to come to our location, they are based here. We offer custom trips starting in late December up until our main operating season of February 15th- April 15th. We offer a FULL refund on any heli time not used. You only pay for what you use! We operate 4 groups to one helicopter. No lengthy wait times. That is what comes to me let me know if you have any questions, hope it helps.
Talk to you soon, Cedar
Melanee Stiassny of Chugach Powder Guides (Alyeska):
“A lot of people go heli skiing for a variety of reasons. Some totally want to go somewhere remote and are willing to sit out the storm in the Lodge and wait. Others just want to ski until their legs are too tired and pray that the majority of the time spent in AK is in the helicopter… but definitely want good backup options for storms – they look for resort skiing and snowcat backup options. We have both options available (TML LODGE, WINTER LAKE LODGE, SEWARD are remote locations, Girdwood has resort and snowcat backup options for storm days)
There are a few ways that other operators (those in Haines included) that sell heli skiing by the run or flight time. Chugach Powder Guides sells skiing by the vertical feet skied. This is an advantage to the customer since it guarantees their skis on the snow vs. airtime looking around for skiing, or short ski runs.
Another advantage here is our location in Girdwood. For our package guests we provide transportation from the Anchorage International Airport to our location. We base our operation at the Hotel Alyeska / Alyeska Resort. So on storm days there are options to ski at the resort or ski with us in the Snowcat for the day (snowcat leaves right from the Hotel). It is very easy to stay skiing no matter what the weather is doing outside. Other places may not provide transportation. They also may be more costly to get to with airplane… so although the package price they sell looks nice the cost of getting there may be higher. We are located 33 miles south of the Anchorage International Airport where all major airlines arrive.
Our mountains are world-famous and they are dramatic and large. We are the ONLY operator in our permit area…. NO OTHER HELI OPERATORS are out there skiing the same terrain nor at the same time. There are usually competing operators in the same terrain permit area with other heli operations. Our way makes it simple for progressing through zones efficiently and making fresh ski powder runs available to each guest.
Hope this information helps you out! Please let me know if you have more questions regarding the operational differences.
See you in the Chugach”
From Kevin Quinn, co-owner, Points North Heli-Skiing (Cordova)
Alaska helicopter skiing has a lot of options. If the customer does there diligence prior to booking a trip they will find the operator that suit there needs best. The heli ski market in Alaska continues to grow each year with new operators showing up each spring. Currently there are now 14 different options to choose from. South East Alaska has several while most are in the South Central region.
Back in the late 80′s early 90′s Alaska helicopter skiing started in the Juneau. It ended up in Valdez do to the endless opportunities that the Chugach held. Coombs and others put the place on the map and now I can say confidently, there is no place on the planet like the Chugach. Whether you’re in Girdwood, Valdez or Cordova, it’s the Chugach. The holy grail of helicopter skiing!
Snow is the very similar in all of the locations. Just about all of the operators have a maritime snowpack. As you work your way in from the coast, you start to see more of a Continental type pack but still influenced heavily by the maritime conditions.
Bottom-line, if folks do their research properly, read forums, etc., they will find the operation that fits there needs best. Hopefully people can see through the other stuff and make and educated choice on their operator they wish choose. Personally, Cordova has been a gem for us given we are away from the 5 heli operations and 2 snowmobile operators in Valdez. We have the entire east end of the Chugach all to ourselves.
Thankfully we have a very loyal following with an 85% return rate. Cordova is pretty special to us, not to mention we have a chair lift. It’s actually the oldest chairlift in North America. Additionally, PNH is a member of the United States Heli Ski Association. The US Heli Ski Association’s mission is to continue establishing (the highest) operations, guide and safety guidelines for Helicopter Skiing in the United States. Currently there are only 4 members from Alaska. PNH, CPG, VHSG and APD.
We hope to see you join us in Cordova this spring!
Aaron Ollivier, (New) Owner
Valdez Heli Experience (formerly Valdez Heli Camps)
I’ll focus on two main aspects of the two, terrain and accessibility/ease.
In general, Haines is not as steep as the terrain you can find around Valdez. To be able to get to the more extreme terrain, you have to “punch in” a little further, if you really want to scare yourself and test your ability. In Valdez, to get on terrain that you really want to test your “pucker factor” there is more variety and it is located all over. You can go from skiing on a nice wide open 30 degree pow run on one side, and be picked up and pop over one ridge and you’re on 55 degree ramp that will make you do the pee pee dance before you drop in. I personally like the variety that Valdez has to offer a bit more, just because it’s nice to be able to have a wide spectrum of stuff to ski depending on a number of factors.
Valdez was a small fishing town before the pipeline was built. Once construction began on that, it became a boom town and experienced a lot of growth. With that came better access and generally better options to get to Valdez. After the oil spill, things have fallen off for Valdez in terms of tourism. In a recent Nov. 2011 Skiing Magazine issue, there is an article about ‘skiing could save Valdez.’ Basically, they examine the possibility of turning it into a ski town from an oil town and establish itself in that industry for the future of Valdez. Valdez’s growth has been stumped since the oil spill, and even with the town building a multi-million dollar dock to handle large cruise ships finished two years ago, only one ship has made the stop. Regardless of all that, because of the industrial activity that grew Valdez, there is better access, more heli operators, more options, more competitors and thus better deals for the skiers. In terms of skiing, Valdez has had heli-skiing longer than Haines, which means more knowledge on skiing locations/snow quality, better landing zones, etc.
Haines hasn’t been established as long and hasn’t had the infrastructure built like Valdez has. Thus, getting there is harder, having your pick of 5 different operators (like Valdez has) isn’t available, and the overall experience is typically limited to picking one heli ski company and you hope you picked the right one. Also, because the variety is more limited in Haines, you might have to fly further to find something that works for your group, which means more flying, less skiing and more money, typically. The good part about having only a couple of operators in Haines is that you have less heli’s flying around, more of a “pristine” and solitude trip. Also, you will probably find more options for first ascents because of it…pretty cool to name a run when you’re the first person to ski it!
President/Owner Alaska Rendezvous Lodge and Heli Guides
Comparing Valdez to Haines
Valdez side of the Chugach and the Central terrain is the largest mountain chain of the coastal mountains of Alaska. There are taller coastal mountains, Mt Fairweather, however the Chugach Range is 150 miles wide and 450 miles long. It is heavily glaciated and outside Greenland and Antarctica has the longest Tidewater glaciers, and the most glaciated coastal mountains in the world. Why? Well more snow falls in winter than can melt in the summer – the accumulation zones are enormous.
The Central Chugach are dissected by the mighty Cooper River. This gigantic river drains the St Elias, The Wrangles and the Chugach Mountains. The Cooper River canyon dissects the Chugach, but this river trench also allows the arctic air from the interior of Alaska to exit to the sea, to the gulf of Alaska. This unique geography allows arctic temperature to seep down the deep cut valleys and to interact with the maritime storms that smash into the mountains from the gulf of Alaska. As my Guides tell me the Glue!! Yes, that is the secret to steep snow stability. This effect also slows the spring warming and gives us the deepest snow pack of any coastal range in the world.
My late friend Jesse Tol used to sing a jingle, he learned skiing as a child with his Dad John, on Thompson pass. He never rode a chair and was great skier, he would sing:
“Go away in world, ski and see the rest but when your done come back home , to the best, come back, come back to the best the original big mountains Valdez is the best”
Haines / Skagway, The Lynn channel
This area is the Chilakats and Chilacoots Mountains – the fantastic rampart of the South East Alaska Coastal Ranges. This area is also blessed with great snow falls and steep runs with surrealistic spines and features. True coastal snow pack with no arctic interface but unbelievable easy access to dreamy lines. There are also trees, but you do not ski them. That is because it gets steeper and steeper with close-outs that drop straight into the water. Use Google Earth and you will see the verticals are not as great as the Valdez. Chugach and you are in the rain forest belt of Alaska, so you will experience longer periods of no fly days due to the intense storms and coastal fog. But you will be rewarded for your patience with the do or die runs of a life time – shorter than Valdez (and that is relative), but intense. The helicopter that most companies use originates in Juneau. It’s a very short flight to Haines, so the cost of transport is considerably less than Valdez. This saving is passed on to the guest – which is a good deal! It costs more to get aircraft to Valdez, which is another reason for so many film crews staging out of Haines. It is cheaper to fly to Haines. Valdez is hard to film because of the gigantic enormous scale of the faces and flutes. Athletes tend to look like a fly on a wall, lost in the scale. In Haines the film runs are short, dramatic and easier to get film crews closer to the action. Also when the first thaws come, it is over quick on the coast because of steeps and shed avalanches, and no arctic air interface. So go early, be patient, and you will get it done. But when you’re done come back, come back to the original, the best, Valdez – the original, the king of locations .
Warm Regards- Theo
That’s It, Chute!
Thanks to all of the owners and operators for their candor and enthusiasm for Alaska heliskiing! Let us know if we can help you put together a trip.
CPO (Chief Powder Officer)