Heli-Skiing Adventure in the Yukon and Alaska, Canada & USA, 4-2017


The cry of an unfamiliar bird awoke me. Looking out of the motor home I realized that we were not in Austria anymore. My son Stefan and I had flown half way across the world to the remote territory in the Northwest of Canada in the wilds of the Yukon. The view outside was stunning as we had parked at the edge of a seemingly endless frozen body of water called Lake Atlin with snowy mountains on the horizon as far as the eye could see. The bird turned out to be a large bald eagle with its recognizable dark brown body and a white head and it was majestic. We were lucky to catch some spectacular footage up close of this formidable bird of prey at the beginning of our third movie of our Canadian sojourn.

My son Stefan and I had decided to take a special adventure trip together to celebrate my 60th and his 25th birthday organised by Furtenbach Adventures. Our original destination was heli-skiing in Japan but it was canceled unexpectledly and instead we chose the other side of the planet. The itinerary was a very different type of trip, rather than hotels we travelled in large motor homes with two people per vehicle with the advantage being that we had the option to go where the weather and the snow were most optimal.

We flew into Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon and began our journey there. Our small caravan consisted of three motor homes with five participants and our Austrian guide Harald. After our group stocked up with supplies we drove south on the scenic Alaskan Highway into British Columbia. We had changed from our original destination, the Haines Pass and were lucky that the weather was much better in Atlin, and that the local Atlin Heli Sports was able to accommodate us. After arriving Harry gave us a thorough avalanche preparation course including how to trigger the reusable airbags. The charismatic owner André Gutenberg and his lovely wife and daughters as well as his team took great care of us. The following day we cooked out and spent the night on the lakeshore. As my son was taking photos around 11:30 pm he noticed a green sliver on the displayed picture on the camera. We hadn’t detected it with our eyes yet but it was the beginning of the Aurora Borealis and we watched the sky turn into a green spectacle for 20 minutes. It was quite a sight to see.

We awoke with anticipation to our first day of helicopter skiing and all kinds of activity at the “ranch.” André informed us that he had obtained the rights to a mountain area that had not been skied for many years and that he was going to check it out with some other guides. We were to follow behind. Of course we were really excited about that, especially that he would consider our skiing skills good enough to follow his team. Our group consisted of three others from Germany including Jo from Swabia, and Tobi and Michael from Bavaria. They were all great guys and we became good friends. The mountains were a good distance away and our guides flew with the helicopter while we were transported to the mountains with an old de Havilland Beaver. The sturdy plane was 62 years old but flew like a youngster, piloted by the always happy Chris.

Our trusty transport landed on the lake near two big oil barrels that contained gasoline for the helicopter. A few minutes later the heli arrived and took us to our first landing site near the top of a mountain. We had received strict loading entry and exit procedures that required us to huddle with one knee near the aircraft on the ground so to avoid any possible contact with the overhead blade. First the skis and airbags were loaded into a side metal box of the heli followed by our group with four in the back, the lightest in the middle, and the guide on the left side. Due to Stefan being so light were we able to fit 7 people into this helicopter. The entire landing process took less than a minute before the pilot lifted off again. Unfortunately for us on the first day the weather and visibility was not all that great. The remote location was incredible but the snow conditions were challenging, nevertheless we were elated. Our group followed the tracks of the guide group, sometimes veering off a bit to get fresh powder. Whenever we got to the bottom of a run the heli was there in no time, and we flew off to begin anew. The weather improved as we also descended further into the valley and below the tree line. Meal time proved challenging as well. Lunch was served next to the heli at the bottom of the run but getting there we had to master the increasingly difficult terrain ending in complete slush. I had borrowed a pair of skis and they were not as wide as what the others had and I definitely paid the price for it that day. After a wonderful lunch of hearty soup and sandwiches we had a few more higher runs then headed on home. We were surprised by a wonderful steak dinner that Mira, André’s wife, cooked for us.

The next morning the process was repeated but his time Stefan flew with the guides. This day I borrowed some really fat Kästle skis that were perfect for the terrain and was then able to thoroughly enjoy the entire day. We flew to two distinctly different areas and had a blast with the snow quality improving due to the lower temperatures. On the third day in Atlin we went snowmobiling with our guide who lead us to the Hinterland and prepared a wonderful barbecue with delicious Moose burgers. The only casualty that day was Stefan’s drone which he had the bad luck of flying it into a tree as he was filming. Fortunately two sets of rotors fixed the little critter that provided us with so much amazing footage.

The following day it was time to say good bye and head back north, then southwest to Carcross – originally called Caribou Crossing – from there over the White and Chilkoot Pass across the Canada – US border to Skagway. Our route was an amazingly beautiful drive that followed the famed Klondike Trail that so many hopeful prospectors traveled in the last years of the 19th century to pan for gold. The town of Skagway still pays tribute to that time and in the summer visitors can take the Yukon Route Railway up to the White Pass.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klondike_Gold_Rush

We made camp at a quiet park near the Skagway town hall and had a nice dinner in town with lots of locally brewed beer. The following day we took a one hour ferry boat to Haines across the sound. It was a beautiful sunny day and we saw the destination of our next ski adventure beckoning us from the distance. In Haines we checked in with SEABA, our next heli company that had a sprawling lodge on a hill overlooking the ocean that was not far from downtown. In the lodge we met a rowdy group of bartenders from Lake Tahoe, California who were spending ten days in Haines. Stefan immediately connected with these guys since he had grown up in Southern California.

We had to wait two more days before the weather was acceptable for flying, so we explored the town and its surroundings and ventured out to the Chilkoot State Park. The next day we drove up the Haines Pass, where another heli outfit was located. This had orginally been the place where we had planned to ski first but decided against and it turned out to be a good choice we had made. A Red Bull film crew and a professional snowboarder had been holed up there for a week due to bad weather. Despite the weather we drove further on and took a 2 hour ski tour in heavy winds and fog, at least we got to use our muscles a bit.

Friday came around and there was an excitement in the air at the lodge. The guides met at 7 am and the cook had prepared us a fantastic breakfast. We prepared and loaded up our skis, airbags into the shuttle vans and took off promptly at 8:30 to the close by airport. Each one of us was given a climbing harness and a radio, and we were weighed with and without all of our gear. We were assigned a cheerful guide named Austin and took off into the clear skies with breathtaking scenery below us. It was the most unbelievable day. The mountains were much steeper than Atlin, in fact Haines is a place were many professional extreme skiers come to film incredible descents.

Our fifth run was called the Pineapple Express and was named after a weather phenomenon. Just looking down the steep 50 degree descent sent shivers down my spine. Our guide took out his climbing rope and secured a second guide so he could test the stability of the snow. All checked out so the first group skied down one by one. Then it was our turn. Stefan dropped in and lay down fast powder lines. Two thirds down the slope there was a snow hill sticking out, which he attempted to use for a jump. Unfortunately it was an icy mound, he landed badly and ended up somersaulting several times without his bindings opening up. Both of his legs were severely shaken around in his boots, that gave him a contusion in both calves. He ended up doing one more run but then had to quit because of severe pain. Even though he was able to walk just fine when out of his ski boots unfortunately he could not ski again. We did 8 flights and runs that day and it was definitely the most epic ski day of my life. To top off the day despite Stefan’s injury we did enjoy a fine seafood feast of Alaskan king crab.
Saturday brought some great weather to begin with but we had to stop after four runs because of clouds moving in. The following day Jo and Michael attempted to go out but ended up with only two runs and a lot of waiting at the airport. To our surprise the company then gave us a gift of another four runs the following morning. Our guide was on a snowboard and we finished skiing with some wonderful powder. Our last evening our group came together for our farewell barbeque on the beach and we made a strong fire and grilled some awesome ribeye steaks with baked potatoes professionally prepared courtesy of Harry. The setting sun bid farewell to this incredible scenery with its glaciers down to the ocean and steep mountains reaching to the skies.

Our drive back into Canada via the Haines Pass to Haines Junction and then onto Whitehorse was uneventful and we returned our RVs. The next morning we left for Vancouver while the others headed back to Europe. We spent a nice evening in one of Canada’s finest cities and flew back home the following day. It was an adventure of a lifetime.

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Slumming the Swiss Alps, Medelser Hut, Graubünden, Switzerland, 4-2016

As a fitting end to our ski season my friends and I from Vienna, Bregenz, and Zurich headed to the Canton of Graubünden (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graubünden) in Switzerland, where the local language spoken is Romansh. Near Disentis we began our three hour trek to the top of a ridge where the Medelser Hut sits prominently lording over the surrounding valleys (www.medelserhuette.ch). The weather was partially sunny and we all hoped for some bright days of sunshine. On the Saturday of our arrival there were several other parties who had spent one night and the following morning climbed to a nearby peak then headed on home. We planned on staying until Wednesday and from Sunday and we were the only guests. The couple that ran the hut named Petra and Thomas were from Southern Germany and they had just taken over the hut management six weeks earlier. This was a new experience for them to run a place where supplies and waste could only be transported by helicopter in the winter. Petra was a fantastic cook who also baked fresh bread and cakes, we were unexpectedly spoiled rotten.

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We also learned from them how difficult it is to manage a hut like this. In the winter there is no running water, every drop of drinking water was from melted snow. It is one thing to read this on a website, yet another when one uses the washrooms and no faucet works. The toilets didn’t use water either, instead they had a three stage filtering system for the waste. In the mornings and the evenings two water bottles were placed at the sinks, so that the guests could brush their teeth. Any further hygiene was done outside. We take water for granted, especially in central Europe where we have non-chlorinated drinking water even in our toilets, some people view this as an amazing waste of our planet’s most valuable resource. The text below translates to: The snow of today is your tea of tomorrow.

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The day after our arrival the weather had turned bad. Fog appeared and the sun was gone. In spite of the conditions, all the parties from the hut ate a 6 o’clock breakfast and headed out for the Piz Medel. Fortunately it had been clear during the night and the snow was very hard. We skied down a few hundred feet then put on our skins and began trekking up to the glacier and beyond. Due to the snow being frozen we used a tool that can best be described as a ski crampon. It provided us with a serrated knife like blade on each side of the binding that cuts into the ice to prevent sideways sliding. One of our teammates decided to take his off, and paid for it with an almost immediate fall and a face forward slide of 120 feet on a surface that resembled rough sand paper. Unfortunately his face showed the consequences for many days. Once we reached the glacier the fog enveloped us completely and threatened us to turn around due to lack of orientation. But we were lucky and the fog lifted, allowing us to see our destination despite the wind that was blowing stronger by the minute. To reach the cross on the peak it was necessary to navigate a precarious narrow ridge, with crampons providing additional grip. The face of the mountain had some beautiful packed powder in store for us. Unfortunately further down the expected “firn” – the top inch of frozen snow melted in our much anticipated descent – never came because of the cold temperature. But we had completed our first peak and happily trekked back up to the hut for an afternoon snack and a wonderful dinner.

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The following day things turned even worse. We were situated on the continental “wind” divide, where the strong southern winds, sometimes coming from as far away as the Sahara, bring precipitation to the southern side, and the northern fronts bring rain and snow to the northern side of the Alps. As we looked down to either side of our eagle’s nest we could see the valley where we had come from had sunshine while we were skiing into the foggy abyss on the other side and into a snow storm. The snow had turned very soft, which made for a unique carving experience, more like surfing than skiing. At the bottom of the steep decline we headed towards the next peak but were forced to turn around after thirty minutes due to the lack of visibility and the increasing winds that blew fresh snow directly into our faces. We headed back up the steep ravine for more R&R and card playing at the hut. The last day was a carbon copy of the previous one. On Wednesday we said good bye to our gracious hosts and headed down into the valley. The wind was still blowing strong, only this time it was at our backs and we were headed down to the sunshine. It was amazing how much snow the wind had melted during the previous five days. We had to take off our skis many times and crossed  a river just to make it back to our cars. Another year, another ski tour!

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Solitude on the Hoher Freschen, Vorarlberg, Austria, 3-2016

The recent snowstorms prepared a winter wonderland for a pristine ski tour. My friend Kurt and I fetched our skis and skinned it up to the top of the Hoher Freschen, a picturesque mountain high above the Rhine Valley. Our route began at the bottom of the Laterns ski area and  we trekked up 2000 vertical feet to the Nobspitze just above the top of the highest ski lift.

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From the peak in the far distance we could see our destination. After removing our skins we skied down to a lower plateau where our final ascent began. The valley was completely silent and we were the only skiers on the entire mountain and I cherished the solitude of the amazing surroundings. Climbing for two more hours we finally reached the top and it felt like we were much closer to a higher power perched at the edge of the snowy cliffs. Taking in the view and a snack we bundled up and headed back down to the bustle of the ski area. On my way back home these peaceful images were still embedded in my mind.

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http://www.laterns.net/web_w/index.html

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Ski Tour in the Upper Bregenzerwald, Austria, 2-2015

It was a beautiful winter morning when we drove to Schoppernau and started our ski tour to the Toblermann (http://www.tourenspuren.at/toblermann-2010-m/). We put the skins on our touring skis and started the trek up the mountain, total elevation change was 1140m, over 3700 ft. It got warm quickly, which didn’t bode well for powder on the way down. The landscape was gorgeous as we came out of the valley and saw more and more peaks of the surrounding mountains, int the East the mountains of the Arlberg and in the West the Kanisfluh above Mellau. There were quite a few parties sharing our path, after 2 1/2 hours we reached the top and prepared ourselves for the downhill. My son Stefan and his friend Dominik decided to ski down a bowl while a took photos of them from the ridge. They then hiked back up and we had a short lunch before we started to ski down. The snow got heavy quickly, then mushy and really wet. We were glad when we finally reached the valley floor, but all in all it had been a great outdoor event!

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Ski Touring in the Silvretta, Austria, 2-2013


Bielerhöhe (2037m) is a mountain pass that connects the Austrian states of Vorarlberg and Tyrol near the Swiss border. It is located at the end of the Montafon valley, which was one of Hemingway’s favorite hangouts. It plays a big role in hydroelectric energy production, there are several dammed up lakes in the vicinity, all produce electricity. The highest peak of Vorarlberg, the Piz Buin (3312m), is very close and a favorite destination for mountain climbers. In the summer a winding road leads up to the pass but in the winter it is only reachable by cable car and shuttle bus. It is a very “James Bond like” experience to be shuttled through narrow tunnels and come out to a breathtaking mountain scenery in a picturesque Alpine setting. Two hotels at the pass provide the means for many to enjoy one of Vorarlberg’s great pastimes, ski touring.

Bielerhöhe
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Ski Touring in the Dolomiti, Italy, 4-2014

As we closed the doors of our car at the end of the narrow valley near San Vigilio di Marebbe in South Tyrol we entered a landscape seemingly out of the minds of fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings. Sahara sand had blown from North Africa and left yellow patches everywhere which gave the scenery an even more otherworldly appearance. It is rare that there is so much snow this far south at the beginning of April. This winter had been bad for ski resorts north of the Alps, but it delivered huge amounts of snow in the south. South Tyrol is a great mixture of Tyrolian “Gemütlichkeit”,  Italian food, and culture. The valley we where in was one of the few areas where they speak “Ladin” in addition to German and Italian. The so called Pederü hut was a newly built Alpine hotel with all the amenities, great food, wine, and hospitality. We spent the first night in anticipation of scaling the mountains the next day.

Breakfast was at 6:30 am, an hour later we got into our touring ski boots and strapped the skins onto our touring skis. It was cloudy in the morning and we followed the road up the hill which led to another couple of huts which was  to be our destination the following day. Quite a few other skiers were on the same path, but we hung a left up a steep ravine higher up and were soon alone. Higher and higher we climbed until we got to a saddle with a breathtaking view of the surrounding peaks. At the same time the sun came out to complete this spectacular scenery. The snow got soft very fast.

Dolomiti1Another narrow slope and we had reached the highest point of the day. We took a break to enjoy some of the tea we had brought in our thermos that morning.

We took off skins, tied our boots down, fixed our bindings in the skiing position, and off we skied down the other side of where we had just ascended. The snow has breaking up and there were a lot of half frozen tracks from other skiers, and it gave us no pleasure to ski whatsoever. Further down, however, the slope widened and we moved to a trackless expanse. The snow there was soft at the top, and we could carve our turns leaving a signature for all to see. The altitude – we got up to almost 3000m – and the skiing made us breathe hard as we were descending to a high plateau. Our next goal was still another hut, so when we reached the lowest point we put our skins back on and trudged uphill once more. It was really warm by then and the snow had a distinct mushy quality. After another couple of hours of going up and down we finally reached the Sennes hut where we had some well deserved pasta and lots of liquid to replenish our fluids.

Now it was time to descend into the narrow valley below back to our hotel. It felt more like descending into hell, the canyon got very narrow and we ended up on what felt like a twisting bobsled run. The road we ended up on was a military road built in World War I. South Tyrol was the location of heavy fighting between Austrian and Italian soldiers. Both sides dragged cannons up high into the mountains and battled each other in every manner they could think of.

IMG_3954The next day we packed our belongings and headed higher to the Fanes hut. Here we stayed in a room for eight, with a shared  bathroom and a shower outside in the hallway. The sky was cloudless, which also meant that the night had been colder. We could expect better snow conditions, especially on slopes facing north. We left some of our belongings at the hut and headed to our mountain of the day, the Monte Castello. An initial climb of 150m high, we later ended up on another plateau with our intended peak visible in the distance. The Dolomiti mountains remind me of the American Southwest, with large blocks of rock rising from snowfields.

Another short downhill later we traversed a side valley, then put our skins on for the final ascent, this one took it all out of us for the next 2 1/2 hours. But we were rewarded with breathtaking views at the top and no other skiers in sight.Dolomiti2After a long break we skied down on wonderful snow, ascended back to our plateau and skied back to the hut for some welcome libations. An excellent dinner completed this amazing day.

The next day was my last, so we went on a ski tour with southern exposure. On the way up the snow was hard, but a couple of hours later in the hot sun it was soft like silk. My last run down was on an untouched carpet of snow. The road back to the Pederü hut followed, then I packed it up for the exit from this fairytale location.

 

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