Mid April marked my second time traveling to Alaska on a whim to escape sad snowboarding condition in the Northwest. Two season’s in a row and my tastebud for Alaskan terrain has definitely matured, now to the point of hunger. Alaska is a far off land though and I was on the fence about making it back this spring. It took an invite from Ben [Ipsen] to motivate me. He offered a free day of heli-skiing, which would be my first time flying for turns.
Two week before the trip, I started searching for a ride to Valdez to avoid a pricey additional plane ticket. I tracked down Ryan Elliot on Facebook. Ryan is a previous Big Flakes rider found in edits from the Mt.Hood terrain park back in 2011/2012. He currently lives in Anchorage with his wife and kids. Ryan ended up dragging me and his two 2013 Skidoos to Thompson Pass, early on a Saturday morning after a I endured a red-eye flight.
For a trip plagued by down days and heavy snow, Ryan and I scored that first afternoon. We unloaded sleds at 3pm and rode three lines by 8pm. Lap’s two and three were up the Loveland glacier in a feature packed zone. We kicked the snowboarding adventure off with a solid 15 plus foot cliff hit mid-line and many smaller hits below. Ryan was riding strong like the Juno graduate he is, spinning off any natural lip in his sight. Finishing at a ridge top, basking in evening sunlight at 8pm, my red-eye flight had paid off. Springtime in Alaska can be a beautiful thing.
Traveling is not always filled with unicorns and rainbows. Weather turns fast, especially in Alaska. I saw only two days of sun while in Valdez for seven days of riding. We managed to get out and wait for fair weather pockets so not all days were a total loss of boarding. The trip quickly changed with the twist in the weather. My adventure became special in a new way. I got to see Valdez and Thompson Pass in the eyes of a seasonal-local. Ben has spent the past six springs in Valdez working for heli operators. Following Ben around for a week, visiting his friends in town, drinking beers with the locals or pass campers, walking around the harbor in the evenings, it all felt like I was getting a glimpse into what living a snowboarder’s lifestyle in Valdez is like. I have Ben and his low budget, in-town lodging to thank for this unique view that few tourist would ever see.
We partied almost as hard as the weather partied. One night seemed especially vacation like and sums up “life on the Pass”, so let me describe.
It started with beers in town at the ASG [Alaska Snowboard Guides] hotel room where the guides come off the Pass to freshen up. We were trying to line up a day of deep sea fishing but the weather wouldn’t allow it. Our alternative plan was to head up the Pass to make party in the falling snow. Ben and I jumped in an RV heading out of town with little to no supplies. We arrived at the ASG basecamp to the sound of a new semi-auto 22 with extra clip being fired off, 20 rounds at a time.
The ASG vans were loading up to take the full crew (guests and staff) 15miles up the road to a heli operation with a restaurant and a bar. Little did I know that our crew was filled with members of the “Thompson Pass Pirates”. We sailed into the parking lot with firecrackers blasting. As you can imagine, we drank and shit talked, played pool and ate fish tacos, partying like there was no skiing or fishing tomorrow. ASG captain Dave, laid into it thick with two attempted fights after he kicked a beloved plastic penguin beer funnel. He exited in the same fashion he entered, lighting off a shell from inside the van and chucking it under the front porch of the Rendezvou as we rolled out, back to the tailgate parking lot to crash in RVs.
The highlight of my trip is without a doubt, the day heli-boarding with H20 Heli. Ben hooked it up in a serious way. It took me the full day of riding to realize what an amazing luxury heli-skiing is and how lucky I was to partake for free. On the Monday of my trip, it went blue; Valdez, no clouds, perfect snow blue. There was three feet of fresh snow since the last groups had been out to H20’s private terrain that they hold under a special forest service permit. They shuttled our group of five riders and one guide, one of four public groups sharing a ship, out to their terrain near the Woodward glacier. Sunny, our guide, did a great job of laying in boundaries along ridge lines in fresh snow, for our group to tear up. We rode four different slopes during our six laps. You can pay for more laps in a day but be ready to open your wallet to do so. Ben and I kept it at six great runs, most of which dropped at least 2k vertical feet each. The Scale of the mountains in AK is hard to understand until you’re halfway down your run and out of breath. My GoPro footage does the day no justice. Amazing snow, awesome terrain, all accessed by the most scenic helicopter ride you could ask for.
I left Alaska with less boarding time than I would have liked but that’s not a bad thing. I met so many nice people with the added down time. You see other skiers waiting out storms, a little restless, tinkering with their setup or sled. These people are happy. They are excited to put down their normal jobs and lives so they can congregate on the Pass. From all over the world, they come to wait out storms so they can scare themselves on big lines that hold deep, stable powder. That’s a decision and level of motivation I respect. It rekindles the fire to meet so many people amped on snow-sports and big mountains. Thompson Pass is a place I hope and return to over and over again.