In March 2015, North America specialist Andy Knights flew to Alaska for the snowboarding trip of a lifetime. Accompanying journalist Jane Mulkerrins to experience Alaska's steep & deep terrain in Alyeska Resort, Andy also spent a day heli-skiing with Chugach Powder Guides. He explains why Alaska is a must-visit destination for every intermediate to advanced skier and boarder and how, just when everything seems to be going wrong, things can always get better in an instant.
I have wanted to visit Alaska for as long as I can remember. I've read books, pored over maps and marvelled at the exploits of Jeremy Jones and co. in big mountain snowboard movies. Talk of Alaska, or AK as my friends and I dubbed it, dominated our lives but for years I kept saying, "Not yet, we're not ready". We were determined to make the most of Alaska's challenging terrain.
In many respects Alaska marked the culmination of an eight year journey for my friends and I. Countless weeks spent exploring the backcountry and honing our skills, getting better at riding and skiing powder in over 30 resorts. Readying our legs for the heli-ski showdown, for what would be the greatest day of our lives. And we nearly missed it...
Alyeska Resort, Alaska
Alaska, which launched in 2014, is on the Ski Safari map not just for offering some of the world's best heli-skiing but also for being one of the world's snowiest resorts, with an incredible annual average snowfall of 16.5 metres (650 inches). Throw into the mix 1,600 acres of steep terrain and a world class ski-in ski-out hotel and you have Alyeska, Alaska's premier ski and snowboard resort.
Getting there is easier than you might think. A nine hour flight to Seattle, a quick change (with just enough time for a beer!) and a three hour flight to Anchorage.
The transfer from Anchorage along the spectacular Seward highway takes just 45 minutes. Before you know it you've arrived at Alyeska resort. If it's clear, don't be surprised to see the Northern Lights - a familiar sight in Alaska. You'll see more of its impressive scenery on the return journey so be sure to stop and take photos. It's one of Alaska's most scenic drives.
There is no hiding the fact that Alyeska resort is best suited to intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders. There is an abundance of incredibly steep inbounds terrain. In fact, it's the steepest terrain I have ever seen.
Experts love the North Face - North America's longest continuous, double black diamond run. If the weather closes in then the tree runs at mid-mountain are really, really fun. On a powder day, head to Christmas, New Year's or Moneys 1 & 2 and experience incredible heli-like terrain within the ski area boundary.
Intermediates will love the rolling blue pitches that cascade down from the top lift all the way back to the day lodge or Hotel Alyeska base.
Where to Stay
In Alyeska, things are simple - the resort has one hotel. The 4* Hotel Alyeska has 304 modern rooms, is truly ski-in ski-out and features world class facilities. It has fantastic restaurants, a good bar and one of the best hotel pools I've used - perfect for soaking tired legs. Chugach Powder Guides also operate a desk here so checking in for heli-skiing couldn't be easier.
Après & Dining
It's a small town and we ate in most of the restaurants in Girdwood, each offering high quality seafood and meat dishes. For the carnivorous the Double Musky Inn is a must, offering a New Orleans style menu. The French pepper steak is enormous. Jack Sprat is a more contemporary place to eat, they have a really creative menu with locally sourced ingredients.
In the Hotel Alyeska, the best restaurant is Sakura Asian Bistro. It has the best sushi I've had in the USA and the Sake cocktails are, in my opinion, compulsory.
The best fine dining is found at the AAA Four Diamond award winning Seven Glaciers restaurant at the top of the mountain. The views are the best ever and the food every bit as spectacular.
For après it has to be the Sitzmark Bar & Grill at the main base area, a two minute shuttle journey from the hotel. The "Sitz" has an awesome atmosphere, good beer and honest bar food - towers of nachos, deep fried sweet potato fries and giant burgers. It stays open until 2am most nights and with the lifts not running until 10am you can let your hair down and never miss a powder morning.
After a few powder-filled days and some heli-skiing you might want a break to see more of what Alaska has to offer. We were lucky enough to do two tours on our trip.
First up was Rust's Flying Service who had arranged a special tour of the Chugach and Alaska ranges from the comfort of our own float plane. A 10 minute drive from Anchorage takes you to Lake Hood, the world's largest and busiest float plane base. With the lake being several feet thick with ice they simply fit the plane with super large powder skis and off you go. Soon we were flying above the Knik Glacier which is 25 miles long and five miles wide. Unbelievable scenery and a moment I'll never forget.
We also went sea kayaking which, if you have time, is an amazing experience. The best is found in Seward, a two hour drive south along the Kenai Peninsula. Shortly after gearing up we were paddling out to sea, seeing some incredible scenery and wildlife along the way.
Chugach Powder Guides Heli-Skiing
One of the main reasons we came to Alaska was to go heli-skiing. Before I tell you how incredible it was, let me first dispel two myths.
- You do not jump out of a helicopter
- Heli-skiing is not just for advanced skiers and boarders. If you are a good intermediate then you are good enough to enjoy this once in a lifetime experience.
There are many emotions triggered by heli-skiing. Fear and trepidation, as you'd expect, but also excitement and the euphoria of a pure adrenaline hit. We experienced them all.
On the morning of our scheduled day with Chugach Powder Guides, we were told to meet at 7am for check in and safety brief at 8am. Shortly afterwards we were back downstairs and fitting our ABS Avalanche packs when we noticed the weather starting to close in. We looked up at the TV for an announcement:
Weather hold until 10am.
We drank more coffee, stretched out and waited. Midday came and went and the fear began to creep in. A fear of missing out. A fear of not having our day. The thought of all the years of talk and preparation coming to nothing broke our hearts in an instant.
As the clock struck 2pm and our final weather window approached, the chance of making it up was looking less and less likely. Sadly there is little you can do if a freak storm closes in, CPG will never compromise safety, but it was still frustrating. 5,000 miles travelled - and years of preparation - now hung by a very fine thread. The promised land, our powder nirvana, was disappearing before our eyes...
Our hearts sank as we realised the trip was off and we only had one more full day in Alaska. Sipping a beer we knew this chapter was to remain unfinished...
But never underestimate the weather.
In the blink of an eye we were back on for the next day. Be ready for 8am, we fly at 9. The forecast called for bluebird skies and freshest of powder, Alaska here we come.
By 11am the next morning each of us had put down the greatest powder turns of our lives. Each run was better and better with pockets of the deepest snow any of us had experienced. Five runs in and it was time for lunch.
Here I was, deep in the Chugach mountain range with my best friends, eating a tasty wrap and listening to Bob Marley - Is This Love... My one thought was 'Yes Bob, this is definitely love'.
By Andy Knights
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Contact our North America specialists today on 01273 224060 or request a quotation online. Combine Alyeska with another USA or Canada resort and a city stay in Seattle or Los Angeles as part of a Last Frontier Ski Safari for a truly unique ski holiday. A 14 night Ski Safari starts from £1885pp.