Words: Jon "JK" Klaczkiewicz
Henry Munter looks at the radar one last time as he exits his 7 a.m. guide meeting and turns to David Marchi. "We need to go for a weather drive, but let your group know it could go either way," says Munter. He has about three hours to make a final decision.
It is opening day of heli skiing at Chugach Powder Guides in Girdwood, Alaska, and the early morning twilight hides the subtle color difference between cloud and sky. Henry takes a few of his veteran guides for a drive south down Turnagain Arm, but the sky doesn't look too promising. The forecast is for midday clearing, but the visibility is trending the other direction.
Meanwhile, at the base of the Alyeska tram, CPG base headquarters, David finishes up his safety briefing with his group for the day and Henry comes over the radio. "Poor visibility south, launch the snowcats. But if it clears, we'll fly the heli into base meadow for a pickup." One of David's crew, Jason Wadler, from Fleischmanns, New York, looks up at the sky and leans over to me with a healthy amount of skepticism and says, "That's just guide talk."
Jason and his friends Ken Davenport, Joe Montano, and Nick Billotti starting skiing together at Hunter Mountain, New York, and now make the pilgrimage to Girdwood every year for their annual ski trip. This is Ken and Jason's eighth year in a row, and they understand the potential weather shutdown in Alaska. "It doesn't matter if we can't fly, we'll have just as much fun shredding the cat area," says Joe."That's what's so nice about CPG. You'd be staring at a wall anywhere else." Nick, a ski patroller from Hunter who got the shoulder tap the last two years, plugs in his iPod to serve up some stoke as the cat heads up the hill.
"I hope it isn't set up underneath," Jason says as he stares out the window. It has been snowing for three days, but last night's flakes look unusually cold and light on top of what had been pretty dense snow. If it froze before the new snow that morning then it might just be a little duff on top of a frozen windpack. Time will tell. The guides decide on a run called Zig Zag to assess the concerns as a light snow falls from the sky.
"Use my track as your left boundary and the cat road as your right...100-yard spacing," instructs David as he pushes off. With zero effort and a billowing contrail, everyone observes the rare and unexpected: trenching low-density blower. It's like Alta snow in the Chugach. After three cat laps, a frothing crew from Hunter Mountain forgot that a helicopter even existed.
As the crew threw high fives at base meadow getting ready for another cat lap, David's radio crackled to life. "It's breaking up," Henry said about the sky. "Get your crew bundled. We'll be at the LZ in 10 minutes for a pickup."