The Ski Channel sat down for an exclusive interview with Adrian Ballinger, a heli-ski guide of Squaw Valley’s Alpenglow Expeditions. Adrian is currently in Valdez, Alaska taking skiers in a helicopter 10, 000 feet up to ski down huge, uncharted mountains. Adrian guides clients to some of the most out-of-reach mountains in Alaska for unbelievable, untouched skiing terrain. Keep reading and get to know one of the most extreme heli-ski experts, Adrian Ballinger.
Adrian, how did you get started with heli-skiing?
I began skiing when I was a kid on the east coast. I developed a passion for the sport and skiing in Alaska is a dream every skier works toward. In 2007, I started doing a lot of big mountain technical skiing in the Swiss and Italian Alps and I began heli-skiing and ultimately guiding there through 2010. In 2012, I had the opportunity to start working with a heli-ski operation out of Alaska. Alaska was everything I dreamt it would be so I began pursuing heli-skiing up there. In 2014, Alpenglow Expeditions partnered with Black Ops Valdez, which is one of the younger companies offering heli- skiing in the Chugach Mountains. Black Ops has a really talented group of guides, a beautiful lodge, and the ski groups are small enough that the guides really get to know their clients.
Describe what your daily routine is on the job.
I wake up at 6am, collect weather data about last night’s weather and what forecasters expect to happen that day – and I drink lots of coffee! At 7am, we have a guides meeting where all the heli-ski guides discuss current conditions, regions we’d like to ski in, and safety conditions. During the meeting, we also find out who is going to guide the snowcats, heli, or be the ground guide for safety, or do dispatch – which are all different roles for safety. By 8am, clients arrive for their briefings on safety, including avalanche and helicopter safety. Also by 8am, pilots are “unwrapping and warming the bird” with our goal to launch by 9am. The length of day varies because of the extended daylight hours in Alaska. If you have a good group of strong skiers, you can be out for 10 days, often until 7pm – skiing down big runs from 2,000 – 5,000 feet in length with the helicopter taking you back up to the top. There is some downtime during the day as well and when we get back we eat and sleep to do it again the next day.
Photo by Emily Harrington
Describe your experience working with expert heli-ski guide Brian Warren.
Brian and I have been working, skiing, and playing together since 2006. In addition to being a super talented skier, Brian has dedicated a huge amount of the past few years to understanding snow science (avalanches). It was exhilarating to be out in a place where there is so much risk and big terrain – great with lots of learning and applying our snow knowledge. Brian has fully completed his AMGA Ski and Alpine Certification. In addition to working for Alpenglow Expeditions, he is the lead winter guide for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides based out of Wyoming and the Teton Mountains are one of the most extreme winter playgrounds in the US.
We know Heli-skiing isn’t always glamorous, what is the biggest challenge with being a heli-ski guide?
Down days. When the sky is blue heli-skiing is the best skiing in the world, but 40-50% of days in Alaska are stormy or gray so you need to be content with down day activities – like snowmobiling, cat skiing, or shooting guns – anything to fill the time and not get frustrated that you’re not skiing. This year, the downtime was super minimal and we flew and skied 19 days in a row at one point and only had 5 – 6 down days out of a total of 35 days guiding.
Can you describe the feeling of skiing untouched powder?
Where are your favorite places to take clients? Where’s your favorite place to go ski with your buddies?
For Heli-skiing – Alaska (Chugach)
For rock climbing – Eastern Sierra and Tahoe
Can you describe a scary moment while guiding?
This year a snowboarder from another group found themselves stuck on ice above a 150 cliff unable to go up or down. He had misjudged a line and gotten too close to a cliff and the snow (ice) was too firm for him to move safely upward. He was also petrified, leaning back on his edge, unable to move. Another guide called upon me to rescue him and I built an anchor with my skis, roped myself in, got his gear, and roped the snowboarder upward twice in boots to get him out of danger.
Photo by Emily Harrington
What is the greatest reward with being a heli-ski guide?
Sharing some of the “best days of my life days” with great people – clients and other guides.
Photo by Emily Harrington
What are your goals for the next couple years?
To continue to heli-ski guide in Alaska and to expand our heli-ski offerings to other places. Last year I had the opportunity to heli-ski guide in Kashmir, India. It was amazing to heli-ski in a zone that had never been skied before and to combine exploring an interesting culture with my passion for skiing.
What is a positive takeaway from the oil spill that put Valdez on the map?
Valdez is a unique place. It combines the heavy industry of Alaska’s oil pipeline; with a very important fishing industry; with skiers and tourists who come to see the incredibly beautiful mountains. At night that community comes together at dinner or in bars and gets along. In many small towns that have a lot of tourists, the locals might not welcome us. But in Valdez, tourists are welcomed. The oil spill created a very conscious awareness amongst the tourist community about their respective impact and footprint on the environment around them. It makes me as a heli-skier, think about the positives and negatives of our sport and the positives are that the mountains remain untouched – as an operation we are careful to leave no traces of our heli-ski operation. The common goal is to maintain a leave-no-trace ethic and keep the mountains clean and beautiful.
All photos by Adrian Ballinger, unless otherwise stated.