WORDS: Jesse Malman
In the weeks leading up to our trip to Alaska, the common question asked in my direction was, "Who are you flying with?" Of course, typical responses include CPG, Valdez Heli Guides, Points North, or numerous other well-known heli skiing operations. However this was not that type of Alaska ski trip, and my answer to their question was Sheldon Air Service.
Our group of six planned to tour on the Ruth Glacier in the Alaska Range for a week in early April. We stayed at the Mountain House, located in the Don Sheldon Amphitheatre of the Ruth Gorge, which was built by legendary Alaska bush pilot Don Sheldon in 1966. The hexagonal hut is located on top of a rocky fin above the glacier on a small piece of private property within Denali National Park that is still owned and operated by the Sheldon family.
The Mountain House is only 14 feet in diameter and to maintain space inside for eating and drying out gear, we chose to sleep in tents. After landing on the glacier and shuttling our gear up the short hill to the hut, we found ourselves alone among giant mountains and glaciers in a setting that seemed too perfect to be real.
The day we arrived a foot of fresh blower powder covered the hardpack conditions formed by a previous three-week high-pressure system. Stability was good; we saw no signs of recent natural avalanche activity and the seracs and cornices that lurked above seemed locked tight.
For most of the trip, we stuck to low-angle powder on the flanks of Mount Dickey and Mount Barrille. We were happy to keep things fairly mellow and enjoyed the long approaches across the glaciers. On the day we went after a bigger objective, the Japanese Couloir on 7,650-foot Mount Barrille, we found it guarded at the base by a labyrinth of cracks and crevasses that were unsafe to navigate and we were forced to retreat. The last two days of the trip, a classic Alaska Range snow storm kept us hunkered down the in the relative luxury of the Mountain House.
This was certainly not the Alaska ski trip that is glamorized in today's ski culture, and we didn't ski any spines or classic Alaskan faces. However, we left with a bliss and euphoria that could match any heli skiing trip. Except, this time, it was at a fraction of the cost.