Tailgate Alaska day 4 - It's better to be annoyed than dead

I woke up on Tuesday morning to what looked like overcast skies. Even though I didn't think the helicopters would be flying, I decided to get geared up anyway. I put on all my snowboarding stuff, my climbing harness, avalanche transceiver, and loaded some Clif Bars and water into my pack and made it over to the village area. This was a good decision as it happens, because what looked like clouds was actually valley fog which was quickly burned off by the sun. By 9AM, the skies were starting to look bluebird and the helis were getting ready to fly.

Debris field of a large avalanche.
Standing on our island of safety, we're looking at the aftermath of a naturally triggered slide next to the run we were just on.

I rode with the same group as the day before which was nice since Jerry, our guide, was getting to know us, and we were getting to know each other. This meant that Jerry felt comfortable taking us to gnarlier lines straight away. We started off on Girls where we saw the evidence of yet another big avalanche. This time it was triggered naturally, not by one of us. However, naturally triggered avalanches are generaly a red flag when it comes to snow stability, so we made our way down the rest of the face sticking close to islands of safety (i.e. high rocky ridges).

Our second run was from the Kiwi Jr. drop off point where we had to negotiate around a pretty massive cornice before dropping into the bowl. This is where being familiar with your group members is key. Communication and teamwork are an essential part of being safe in the backcountry, and we really felt that we were gelling as a group. Communication was constant between the party members, and we had developed a sense for each other's style and what to expect, although at times it almost seemed as though there was too much communication when spacing instructions would be repeated numerous times to the same person. However, I'm pretty sure everyone would have been content with hearing the spacing instructions ad-nauseum throughout our time in the backcountry. After all, it's better to be annoyed than dead. This became the motto for our second heli day together.

Shawn kicking up monster rooster tails on a really hairy line.
Shawn kicking up monster rooster tails on a really hairy line.

Jerry apparently felt that we worked well together also because he started getting our input on what lines we wanted to drop as we were flying over them. Plus he was taking us to progressively gnarlier and gnarlier places. Runs where the consequences for falling were pretty high, maybe even fatal. At one point I found myself in a really hairball line where I wasn't sure if I had followed the right one. Because I didn't have a radio, my instructions were to stay to the right of the tracks. However, lower down the face, the tracks got sluffed out so I lost my way and I wound up in a chute no more than five or six feet wide on an aspect that must have been pushing 50 degrees (I was too busy trying not to crash my fleshy body onto the jagged rocks to stop and measure). In the end, I made it down without incident, I even managed to snap a few good pictures of Shawn slaying the run after me. It actually turned out to be one of the best runs of the day. It's funny how wanting to crap your pants can do that sometimes.

We did a total of seven heli runs on Tuesday and everyone was really stoked on it. Even Jerry, a Thompson Pass veteran of twenty years, seemed pretty excited. He commented about how proud he was about how we conducted ourselves around the helicopter; everyone was doing their jobs and clearly had paid attention to the safety briefing. It's good to know that I could at ride Alaska for the first time in my life and not make a total ass of myself, or worse.

My second heli day in Valdez turned out to be even better than the first. It definitely made up for having to cut the day short on Monday. Now I'm really looking forward to day three. Hopefully the weather on Wednesday is just as cooperative, however, Thompson Pass has its own micro-climate and you can never count on the forecast. There's a saying around these parts that weather forecasting is the only job where you can get paid for being wrong eighty percent of the time. With a forecast for rain and snow on Wednesday, I'm hoping those odds are stacked in my favour. Only time will tell.

Winter Matters Bubble

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