Tailgate Alaska: Day 11 - One and done

It was still snowing on the Pass on the morning of day eleven of Tailgate Alaska. The clouds had rolled in and it was impossible to see the peaks of the mountains so it seemed unlikely that the heli was going to fly. However, Happy, Badger, and Patrick were milling around at the base thinking that the clouds would break and that we would get to go up. So Justin and I put our names on the fly list for the day. I was hoping that it would be a good one to use the last half day of my heli time. I got lucky, the clouds broke and the decision was made to scramble the helicopters.

The MTN OPS Harpoon 168
The MTN OPS Harpoon was designed to ride in Valdez, but at 168cm long, it might prove to be too much board for me.

This time I was going to be riding with Justin, Ryan, Carl, and our guide Badger (the only guide on a snowboard in the whole operation). I was psyched to get to do a few turns with Justin who hadn't been up in the heli since arriving in AK. Plus the only riding we had done together since getting here was the impromptu snowskate session from the day before. Justin was stoked on charging big burly lines, which was fine with me since I wanted to get the most out of my remaining half day.

I also decided to mix things up a little bit too by trying out the MTN OPS Harpoon to get an idea of how much extra work I was doing by riding the Chugach Mountains on a 155 twin. I've had numerous people tell me since I arrived that my Never Summer Evo-R (my do everything board) was probably making me work harder for my turns than I should be. The common thinking is that when you ride the Chugach, you want to be on a board that's about 10cm longer than what you normally ride. Measuring it at a whopping 168, the Harpoon seemed like a lot of board, but Mark Sullivan was sure that I'd be able to handle it.

Our heli ride up was pretty bumpy since the winds were gusting, especially at higher elevations. The pilot set us down on Python's Shoulder and pulled the plug on any other heli drops until the weather cleared up. We had to ride all the way to the highway for a van pickup. Badger billy goated himself to the top of Python so he could cut the slope. None of us followed him because we didn't want to delay our drop in for too long and get socked in. Besides, being the light weight that I am, I did not want to be carried over the ridge by the wind.

We dropped into Python one at a time and we each got some fresh tracks. Even though there hasn't been all that much accumulation in the last few days, a little snow goes a long way in Thompson Pass, especially when there's wind to load leeward aspects. Wind loaded aspects, however, are usually unstable for the first few days. We saw cracking on the way down in a few places, a sure sign of an unstable snow pack. For this reason, we decided to stick to the ridge rather than to ride the gully down to the road.

Ryan throwing up the horns halfway down python's shoulder. Weather rolling in in the background.
Ryan is stoked on his run in spite of the weather system rolling in over the mountains behind him.

For the last stretch, we went down one at a time in one shot all the way to the road to be picked up by the ABA van. On this stretch, I was trying to test the limits of the Harpoon by doing fast, wide-open pow turns. I even managed to white room myself a few times. The big test, however, was as I came over a roll and realised I was coming up onto a crevasse and had to jump it. The extra long board was a great help; I had enough speed to clear the crevasse, otherwise my trip to Alaska might have ended right then and there.

Since the helicopters were grounded after our first run, we were officially in a holding pattern waiting for another window to open up so we could fly again. Justin and I used the opportunity to do a little beacon search practice. Before heading up for our run, Justin discovered that his Ortovox was not working correctly so ABA loaned him a Tracker DTS. Since he was unfamiliar with the Tracker for searching, he thought it would be a good idea to get some practice; and I'm always down for a little transceiver practice myself. We took turns burying a transceiver and going out to find it afterward.

We did this for about an hour or so and we finally resolved ourselves to the fact that there probably wouldn't be another window opening up for us today. So I took my bindings off the Harpoon and put them back on my Evo-R and took got out of all my safety gear ready to call it a day. Even though I only got a single run in, it was probably about 5000 vertical feet – several times the size of my local ski hill – and I did get to try out the Harpoon (which goes hella fast by the way). In the end, I was snowboarding, and that's really what I came here to do. Hopefully I'll be able to get my two remaining heli runs in before I have to leave Thompson Pass on Saturday morning.

Winter Matters Bubble

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