Three Australians, a Slovak and a Canadian walk out of a bar… then cram into an RV and make the trek from Whistler to Haines, ready to pop their Alaskan cherries.
This article first appeared in Whitelines Issue 114.
It’s every snowboarder’s dream to ride in Alaska; we’ve all watched the movies and been blown away by heavy AK segments. If you’re an avid snowboarder, you can’t help thinking, “I would have rode that differently", or “when I have the money, I’ll be so ready to tee off on a line like that". The reality is, you’ve got no idea what the hell you’re talking about. No matter how gnarly a mountain-man or freerider you consider yourself to be, Alaska will quickly put you in your place.
Photographer Jussi Grznar called me and said that his buddy Matt Gilsenan was planning something for the spring. The idea was to do an RV ‘surf and snowboard’ trip, with an Alaskan heli mission as the highlight. It would be Gilso, his best friend (and pro surfer) Blake Thornten, Jussi and myself. They were inviting me because they wanted a pro snowboarder to tag along who could hold their own in the surf. I was driving to Vancouver for a doctor’s appointment when I got the call, and I didn’t need much convincing . “Fuck yah! Count me in". I had just torn my meniscus at the start of February and was waiting to get an MRI, but was pretty confident my knee would be ready to go by then.
Weeks passed after that initial chat, and with my injury I had been out of the snowboard world for a while. I’d almost forgotten about the whole idea but after healing up I needed footage badly, so I stuck around Whistler in the hope of getting some snowmobile days in. It wasn’t until literally the day before departure that Jussi called me again. “Bro, what you doing man?" he said in his loveable Slovak accent. “We have the RV, we good to go, and we are leaving tomorrow. Would be so good if you could come with us." Again, all I could say was, “Jussi, I’m coming!" So the next day the boys rolled up my driveway with this big, badass beast of a vehicle – I’m talking luxurious, spacious, nicer-than-most-parts-of-my-house RV – I slung in my snowboard and surf gear, and we set off.
The road to AK is something special. As you get closer to the Yukon, you might not see another car on the highway for two hours. It really made us feel small, and also a little unsure of what would happen if our house on wheels shit the bed. While we stayed on the road as much as possible, we couldn’t help stopping every hour to take some photos and soak up the scenery and vastness of the Yukon. A day into the trip, Gilso spoke with our contact Vanessa at Alaskan Heli Skiing, who told us that there was a sunny stretch coming up for a few days – most likely the last one they’d get before shutting down operations for the season. We soon realised that if we wanted to make it in time, we had better start hammering through some miles, and fast. We made a promise to each other that we wouldn’t drive after dark to avoid hitting animals or trip-ending potholes. Instead we camped and ate at the side of the road before rolling out of bed at 5am, straight into the RV to begin a routine of four-hour driving and co-pilot stints. We even had to develop a form of “extreme cooking" for our breakfasts, lunches and coffees so that we wouldn’t have to stop. This involved wedging your ass against the fridge and your feet underneath the stove in order to prep veggies, heat soup or whatever. You couldn’t take your hands off the pan, pot or knife for a second, or else hot edible hazards would fly all over the RV whilst the psycho in the driving seat ripped down the bumpy Alaskan highway.
On day three we stopped at a small airport en route to pick up DC pro Ryan Tiene, a fellow Aussie who’d also missed most of the season through injury and was looking to add a few clips to his video part. As we approached Haines a few hours later we could see some helicopters buzzing around the peaks. With the costs of the RV, gas, and food, we figured we didn’t have a whole lot of cheddar left for heli time – maybe two hours’ worth, which would hopefully be enough. When we got to the base, some of the Absinthe film crew were just finishing up. They explained to us how stupidly lucky we hit it, considering they had been there for a few weeks waiting for good weather, whereas we just rolled up for the last three sunny days of the season. Photographer Scott Serfas poked some fun at us for being AK rookies, and we chatted about the weather and snow conditions. We signed the inevitable waivers, got a safety briefing, met our guide and did a little beacon test before getting back on the road and driving the last half-hour down the road to the town itself. Haines is a really cool little fishing town with a simple, friendly vibe. Surrounded by mountains and sitting right on the ocean, the place is its own little paradise. After cruising around the streets a bit, we ended up plugging into an RV park by the harbour, run by a real treat of a woman named Joy. She and her husband moved there years ago to whale-watch and opened up the business to keep them going and fund their retirement. This was to be our home for the next few days.
The next morning we woke up nice and early, cooked breakfast and hit the road back to the heli launch, all of us bursting at the seams with excitement. Once we found out that we all had to put on harnesses over our snowboard pants – you know, in case the heli needed to pull our carcasses out of a crevasse – the excitement morphed a little into fear. We were beginning to realize that we were well outside our usual comfort zone – we were going snowboarding, but we were about to do it in a real big-boy playground, where the tiniest mistake can make things go very wrong.
Within five minutes of being in the air, we were already enjoying the most dramatic and heart stopping vertigo of our lives. The heli would zip past a peak with only a few metres clearance, exposing the sheer drop on the other side. The boys and I were so astonished by everything around us that we soon lost track of time. We didn’t give our guide or pilot any instructions on where to set down, or where we wanted to snowboard, so we were essentially just floating around, spitting hundred-dollar bills into the chopper blades by the minute. Once the penny dropped we told the pilot to set us down right below, so we could come up with a game plan and decide our next move. By this point there was tension in the air; we had wasted nearly a quarter of our total heli time for the trip, and had not rode a thing. In short, our rookie excitement had kicked us in the ass. What’s more, in all the subsequent debate we were too preoccupied to notice Blake – our surfing friend – sitting there quietly shitting his pants. He’d never been on a large mountain, and had only actually snowboarded a handful of times. We were perched on a peak with death drops on either side, and Blake was beginning to wonder what he’d got himself into. Professional snowboarders, he later told us, must have some screws loose. Personally, I think the same of big wave surfers, so to each his own.
We made the call to ride our first line on this one large face we could see in the distance. It was a fair way off, so we flew to the base of it to have a look. Like every other mountain in this place, it proved to be a lot bigger than it appeared. However, we were all eager to just get on top of something, the snow pack was safe, and the light was dipping fast; so Ryan, Gilso and myself hopped back in the heli and got bumped to the top.
The weather wasn’t ideal but our skilled pilot managed to set us down gently in a little flat spot on the top of this 2000-foot face. One by one, we went through the routine: removing the headset, getting out, making sure the seatbelts aren’t tangled, staying low, and grabbing all of the boards and bags out of the cargo box. When that door closes, you signal to the pilot and he takes off. At that moment, you suddenly feel very alone and oddly powerful at the same time. All of our pipe dreams about riding the biggest mountains in the world were about to become reality. Nothing else mattered. I went first, cruising turns down the spine of this face and trying to keep an eye on the accelerating sluff. I ended up getting funnelled into a gulley and was lucky not to get thrown off my feet, but made it to the bottom of the line, thrilled and full of adrenaline. Right then and there, I told myself I would return to Alaska every spring for the rest of my snowboarding days. Gilso dropped next, making his way down a similar line, slashing the whole way and then straight-lining the bottom section. Then it was Tienes’ turn; he dropped in where I did and threw a few turns on the same spine before jumping over to the opposite side, where there was far more exposure and room for error. With the exception of a little tumble at the bottom, he slayed the thing. It was ambitious considering it was his first line, but we were stoked for him.
The rest of the day consisted of a bit more time-wasting and indecisiveness as we bounced between zones – remember, we were straight-up AK rookies. We managed to end our day in this perfect little bowl where there were plenty of mini lines, a few bigger ones with drops on them, and a convenient step-down into a line. This zone was perfect for us because the lines had true AK steepness but were a lot shorter with lower consequence. Nevertheless, Tiene had a little scare while walking around at the top – he took a step back and the snow gave out, sending him falling fifteen feet into a hole. He was okay, and we managed to help him out, but it was definitely another humbling reminder not to take the mountains up here lightly. The last feature I hit in this area was a “shark fin" style diving board. I patted it down because it was a long, uphill take-off only three feet wide, and probably one of the most frightening set-ups I had ever hit. You did not want to fall off the side of this thing. The run-in started with a drop off a cornice, then a mini boardercross course into the diving board. It was a test of our relationship with Tim, the guide responsible for our safety. I half expected him to shut me down, but all the staff up here are so smart and experienced – they basically give you the freedom to do what you want judging on your ability level and how confident you are. Tim was awesome. Before I went for this feature, he said that as long as I was comfortable with it, he was okay with it. He then stayed above me, ready to go in case anything happened.
Flying home after day one was bittersweet. It had been amazing, but we had used about three quarters of our heli time already and didn’t have many shots to show for it. When we got back to the RV park, we found the Absinthe crew waiting. A little fire had been built and as everyone went off to gather wood from the beach, Ryan, Rusty Ockenden and myself had a little sit down with David Vladika – a legend in the snowboard film world. He showed us some footage and photos on his computer, and gave us priceless advice on how to make the most out of your time in Alaska.
On Vlady’s advice, we called our guide and told him we would be starting late the next day, because we planned on using the last of our heli time in the ‘golden hour’. The bird flew us out around noon, the plan being to ride some lines in the same area before finishing the day on the step-down that Tiene had found. Arriving at the summit of our first chosen face, the wind was so wild that the pilot couldn’t set us down, so we had to jump out of the heli and then grab our gear while the basket was hovering in front of us. At one point a gust of wind came, and the heli swooped back about 50 feet with the basket still open and two boards left inside. We did our best to stay calm and managed to get everything out. Even Tim, a lead guide here for over ten years, seemed rattled. “Phew! That was an intense one..." We successfully rode our lines, which were insanely satisfying, and it was now ‘go time’ for the step-down. The only problem was that the light had gone. The golden hour we had hoped for had seemingly been robbed from us by a bit of cloud coverage. The best we could do was wait, but with waiting we ran the risk of not getting to hit the jump at all. However, the milky sky soon cleared and our patience was rewarded – we must have had horseshoes up our asses.
Tiene and I felt more in our element with this feature. He hit it first, stomping the shit out of a cab 5 before straight-lining the face below back to the heli. I followed with a switch back 5, also landing it first try. We had enough fly-time left for another hit each. Tiene decided to rebate his trick so he could get the grab better, and succeeded. I went for a backside rodeo 7, but was a little too excited and popped too hard. I over-rotated and landed on my back, luckily bouncing to my feet and avoiding the long tumble. Before our last hits, the guide and pilot made it very clear that we would have to rush to get back to the base because there is a curfew for all the birds – if they are not back by a certain time, the guides and pilots can get in a lot of trouble. It’s a safety thing. As bad as I wanted to get up there and go rebate my trick, we would therefore have to bail.
Nevertheless, there was still time for all of us to look back up the hill and watch Blake ride his first AK line – which we had given him no choice on. He had been set up in the gap of the jump, shooting with Jussi’s fisheye, and after we finished he had to ride through the landing and down the steep line which followed. He crept down the first part, started to pick up speed, then got bucked on a bump and started ragdolling. After a few rolls he was back to his feet, laughing his ass off and with pants full of shit I’m sure. It was a great sight to see.
Alaska had, overall, been a success. We managed to learn a lot, scare the shit out of ourselves, and get some worthy shots in the bank. It was an easy decision to spend an additional night in Haines, celebrating alongside the other riders with beers, campfires and good times. We had a lot to talk about, and some surfing on the road trip home to look forward to. Waking up with a relatively brutal hangover, we set off for Prince Rupert back in BC, about a day and a half’s drive away. Once there we would need to take the 20-hour ferry ride along the inside passage to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.
The ferry proved to be an adventure in itself. It cruises past a large assortment of old abandoned mining villages and native settlements, and you’re guaranteed to come across some characters on a crossing that long. We met an interesting young man who was wasted out of his mind and claimed to be a star of Deadliest Catch. Turns out he wasn’t…
Finally then, we were back on land and heading to the beautiful beach town of Tofino to cap off our trip. We snagged a great spot for our RV right in front of the ocean, where we managed to score some decent waves and amazing weather. We even got to link up for a session with Whistler legend Kevin Sansalone and his wife Mel. Local surfer Peter Devries joined us at one point too. It was humbling to see him and Blake in their zone, just ripping and paddling circles around the rest of us. Within a few days, Blake had gone from this quivering wreck on top of a mountain to a waterman completely in his element. At one point, I remember us all sitting in the line-up with ear-to-ear grins, glowing with satisfaction, when Gilso summed it up:
“Boys! In less than two weeks we drove from Whistler to AK, got two of the last days of sunny heli-riding for the season, then headed to Vancouver Island where we are now sitting in the ocean waiting for our waves. How far out is that?"
Pretty far out indeed.