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The Mauitian Chronicles - Hella-skiing

Apr. 27th, 2008

10:16 pm - Hella-skiing

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I spent the last week heli-skiing in the Chugach mountains of Alaska, near Valdez. My friend Mark had called me up a month previously and asked if I wanted to go, offering to pay my way in exchange for talking physics with him. I think I thought it over for about a tenth of a second before saying yes. This was definitely among the more crazy things I've done in my life.

I knew I was in over my head on the first flight. We hopped in the helicopter and were quickly looking out at fifty-degree plus faces and couloirs.



I didn't think we were actually going to ride these... but, sure enough, the helicopter half-landed, half-hovered into the ridge top, and we crawled out of the ship onto a patch of snow the size of a queen-sized bed, with sheer drops on both sides. I damn near dropped a brick in my ski pants looking down that first run. But I managed to persuade myself over the edge and down the face, and the snow quality was good. This is me kicking up some slough on that first run, with our very experienced guide looking on unconcerned:



The week pretty much continued like this. Every once in a while we'd be riding the kind of steep faces or chutes, near rocky cliffs, where if you fell at the wrong moment and started sliding... you were going to die. Then it would flatten out a bit, and we'd have big, fun, swoopy turns in corn snow for a few thousand feet. A few minutes after you reach the glacier floor, the helicopter comes and lands near your head, to take you to the next peak.



It was also very, very beautiful. Nothing but mountains for hundreds of miles.



There were a few moments of true fear--the kind I haven't encountered in quite a long time. The first was on that first run. The second was when a less experienced guide put us down on the wrong peak, surrounded by cliffs. We rode a few hundred feet down through some of the best snow of the trip before realizing we were fux0r3d, stuck on a hillside with cornices and rocks on all sides. The guide called in the heli to evacuate us, and we had to build an LZ by digging the snow out from higher up and piling it lower to make a landing pad. When the helicopter nosed in to the mountain next to us, the blades where whizzing by inside the hole we had dug for them, beneath the natural slope of the mountain side. The five of us clambered in, but the ship struggled and couldn't take off. I think it was a combination of the dicy aerodynamics of having that blade basically inside a hole, and having the skids stuck in the piled snow. We emptied out the heli one by one, until it was able to take off with just me in the last passenger seat. Sitting there by myself, with the ship wobbling back and forth, struggling, on the side of a hill, with the blades whizzing by in a blur only inches from the snow... I thought there was a good chance things were about to go very, very badly. But it got up, dropped me off with the gear on the next peak over, and went back to pick up the others. I snapped this photo of the pickup:



On the second day I buried the nose of my old powder board, took a short tumble, and buckled the board in half. The helicopter flew me back to the road, and I spent the rest of the afternoon hitchhiking the sixty miles back to Valdez. Guess nobody wanted to pick up a big, burly looking snowboarder dude... but the scenery was beautiful, and I enjoyed walking for a couple hours before I finally caught a lift. Fortunately, Mark had a spare board I was able to ride the rest of the trip.

Overall, it was a hell of a lot of fun. A lot like a surf trip to a spot with heavier waves than you're used to. I don't know if I'd ever pay my own way, because it's absurdly expensive. But, if someone asked me to go again, I'd have to think about it... for about a tenth of a second.

Comments:

[User Picture]
From:quarkysoul
Date:April 28th, 2008 05:36 am (UTC)
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How awesome.

I don't suppose your friend is equally interested in having someone talk plasmas to him? ;)
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From:mauitian
Date:April 28th, 2008 08:43 pm (UTC)
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Hmm, I suspect plasma physics might not be hot enough for him... unless you kids get some ignition and confinement going.

For the next trip, he was talking about the Maldives... :)
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From:odditory
Date:April 29th, 2008 08:19 pm (UTC)
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Maldives?

Perhaps your friend wants a neuroscientist along? I'm conversant, well-traveled, and potty-trained.
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From:odditory
Date:April 28th, 2008 05:45 am (UTC)
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Looks gorgeous up there.

BTW, you still need to get up to Whistler with Rion and I.
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From:mauitian
Date:April 28th, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC)
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Still high on my list of things to do. But the problem is... I can't afford a short ski trip, because lift prices are silly. I can afford to stay for a whole season and buy a pass, because that brings the price down to $10-$20/day, which is more reasonable. But I'll bite the bullet and make it out to Whistler with you kids if I possibly can.
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From:odditory
Date:April 29th, 2008 08:23 pm (UTC)
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Keep me updated on your plans for next winter. I might be able to do a whole season in a spot if I can find a place to rent with enough room to set up an office, or even just a nearby and laptop-friendly coffee shop or bar.

A season-long geek commune? It's worth a think.
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From:mauitian
Date:April 29th, 2008 08:42 pm (UTC)
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That's a recurrent daydream of mine. It's called a Science Hostel.
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From:odditory
Date:April 30th, 2008 07:45 pm (UTC)
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Count me in.
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From:gustavolacerda
Date:August 8th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)
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I'd really be into the Science Hostel too.

Garrett, give me a holler if you're near Vancouver.

Every year, the NIPS conference is held in Vancouver / Whistler. For 2008:
<< The Post-Conference Workshop Program takes place in Whistler, B.C. at the Westin Resort and Spa and the Hilton Whistler Resort and Spa Friday, December 12 and Saturday, December 13, 2008. There will be between 15 and 20 workshops covering a wide range of topics from Neuroscience to Machine Learning. The workshop program schedule allows time for informal discussions, skiing and other winter sports. >>
[User Picture]
From:crasch
Date:April 28th, 2008 05:55 am (UTC)
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Hardcore, dude. Beautiful and frightening.
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From:mauitian
Date:April 28th, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC)
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Yup.
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From:quirkyfemme
Date:April 28th, 2008 06:18 am (UTC)
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Wow, that is absolutely ridiculous. My sister's fiance would definitely be up there in less than a tenth of a second.

L and Z are my initials.
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From:mauitian
Date:April 28th, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC)
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My initials are AGL, which is more fun for hang gliding than heli-skiing.

There was no question on going. But I really didn't know what I was getting into. Definitely a whole different level of skiing.
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From:ankh_f_n_khonsu
Date:April 28th, 2008 07:33 am (UTC)
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Looks like a marvelous experience. :D
From:smandal
Date:April 28th, 2008 08:31 am (UTC)
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Wicked -- I wish I could ski well enough to partake.
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From:mauitian
Date:April 28th, 2008 08:51 pm (UTC)
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It was definitely a trial by fire. Or, I guess, ice. By the end of the week my skill level had increased just enough to handle the beginning of the week.
From:smandal
Date:April 29th, 2008 05:43 am (UTC)
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I imagine, though, that you are able to handle all the trails at a ski resort -- I am not :)
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From:nibot
Date:April 28th, 2008 08:39 am (UTC)
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wow!
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From:mauitian
Date:April 28th, 2008 08:51 pm (UTC)
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And then I said it backwards. Wow!
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From:hidden_is
Date:April 28th, 2008 12:59 pm (UTC)
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wonderful photos!
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From:chaource
Date:April 28th, 2008 03:47 pm (UTC)
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Awesome man! Way to go!
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From:mauitian
Date:April 28th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC)
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It was even scarier than almost flipping a snowmobile on a glacier...
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From:browascension
Date:April 28th, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC)
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Holy crap! (As the saying goes.)
I'm glad you had a helmet.
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From:mauitian
Date:May 7th, 2008 03:58 pm (UTC)
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I did wear a helmet, but I'm not sure it mattered much. The snow was soft, so there wasn't much head injury risk during usual falls. The main risk was secondary exposure--the cases where you might fall, start sliding, and go off a large cliff into some rocks. I don't think a helmet would matter much in that case. But I wore one anyway, as did most of the others.
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From:browascension
Date:May 7th, 2008 04:12 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I meant it with some irony. I am glad you had a helmet, as I can imagine some cases in which a helmet would help. But the scenario was scary mostly because a helmet would not protect you from the bigger dangers.

I find it very cool that you can hijack your fear-processing in order feel the exhilaration of endangerment. It's just that you usually fool your brain into feeling endangered, whereas this time there was a higher level of actual danger.
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From:mauitian
Date:May 7th, 2008 04:35 pm (UTC)
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"Oh, irony! Oh no, we don't get that here. See, people ski topless here while smoking dope, so irony's not really a high priority. We haven't had any irony here since about '83, when I was the only practitioner of it. And I stopped because I was tired of being stared at."

I don't know how I ended up being wired this way, but I do maintain rationality and can act in a controlled fashion through fear-inducing situations, without hesitation. The only negative effect I suffer in these circumstances is a certain amount of "tunnel vision," where I can only focus on the main task at hand, and don't notice other issues in the environment. For example, I've been in near miss car accident situations where I would have completely failed to notice the gorilla standing on the sidewalk.
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From:snarkyshark2
Date:April 29th, 2008 12:57 am (UTC)
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Neato! Sounds like good fun! Also, I got a chance to read the article about you in Outside magazine. I thought it was really well done :)
From:lovelyslr
Date:April 29th, 2008 01:57 am (UTC)

i think that makes me

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heli-jealous
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From:pozorvlak
Date:April 29th, 2008 12:47 pm (UTC)
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Damn, that looks stunning.
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From:mauitian
Date:May 7th, 2008 04:00 pm (UTC)
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I was stunned.

That first run, I would have been perfectly happy to remain their, stunned, for quite a while. But others would have been annoyed.
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From:memetician
Date:May 5th, 2008 04:45 am (UTC)

Living vicariously through your awesome adventure

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What a great post, thanks! Damn that helicopter ride when you were alone with the pilot, that sounds a little white knuckley. Were you kind of freaked out? Heli-boarding is on my List of Stuff to do Before I Die. That, drive on the Autobahn in a really expensive German car, and ride the Alps before they melt.
[User Picture]
From:memetician
Date:May 7th, 2008 12:42 pm (UTC)

Hard booter?!

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Hi, me again. Hey I just read the Outside article (congrats), and I was like "Holy Crap!" when I saw that eighteen foot board of yours in the pic. I didn't know you were a hard booter! Did you use that thing on these mountains? Yikes, scary!
[User Picture]
From:mauitian
Date:May 7th, 2008 04:03 pm (UTC)

Re: Hard booter?!

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Aw, that board's only a 210. ;)

I did ride plates all week, but on a powder board--not a carving deck. Long narrow alpine boards are terrible in powder--no float. The hard boots were great for getting the normal-ish snowboard over on edge and carving though. They were just the usual pain in the ass for walking, but no more so than ski boots.
From:cormacor
Date:May 26th, 2008 09:19 pm (UTC)

Re: Hard booter?!

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Bloody hell. Cool photos.
Wouldn't fancy it on skis, mind you - not a good place for a tumble!
Like the sound of the science hostel, hope it takes off.

Surfing, windsurfing snowboarding or skiing, doesn't matter. As long as there's somewhere quiet to work in the late afternoon, I'll be there before you can say positive cosmological constant....Cormac
From:caraka
Date:July 22nd, 2008 05:16 pm (UTC)

Valdez heli-skiing?

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Just curious - did you ride with Valdez Heli-Guides? Is that guide Eric Henderson in the photo? Looks like you got lucky with the weather - wasn't a pretty season in April in Valdez.
[User Picture]
From:mauitian
Date:July 22nd, 2008 06:22 pm (UTC)

Re: Valdez heli-skiing?

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Yes, yes, and yes.
From:caraka
Date:July 22nd, 2008 07:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Valdez heli-skiing?

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Nice - Hendi's a good friend. Funny world - was just reading about the physics you're working on, googled and wiki'd a bit on that to learn more and now I find out you're riding with my buddies in Alaska. Probably had Workman on board as well? I had a ticket to fly up april 10 but bailed because of weather. Drop me an email at timnickles@hotmail.com if you've got time, I'm curious to hear more/talk about the science hostel idea.