ON ALASKA HELI SKIING, STAYING HUMBLE, AND TRYING NOT TO DIE.
How did a 39-year-old self-proclaimed “recreational skier” from Connecticut rise to the top of the ski-bum pyramid? After four years escorting clients up rock faces for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, Doug Workman was brought into the Valdez Heli-Ski Guides fold in 2004. Along with stints avalanche forecasting in Utah and patrolling at Jackson Hole, Workman has guided in France, Iceland, and Antarctica and locally with Jackson’s High Mountain Heli-Skiing. Last year, he was named snow-safety advisor for Swiss gear and apparel brand Mammut, but Workman keeps it real by chasing Jackson locals around the mountains near his adopted hometown.
For me, it’s all been about Alaska. There’s nowhere else where you meet people who have a really hardy sense of adventure and a certain appetite for risk. There are still people who come to Valdez who are scraping their pennies together to make it happen for a week or even a day.
My clients are mostly people who work in finance. There’s also a group of big-wave surfers from Oahu who are real-estate agents and insurance salesmen. It’s cool to develop friendships and working relationships with people who are living in a world that we don’t see around here.
Chamonix is awe-inspiring. Everywhere you look there are places where you can go and get hurt. Antarctica is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Every night the boat moves and you really don’t know what you are going to see, much less ski, next.
I hate to blab about Doug Coombs because it seems like everyone loves to capitalize on any kind of friendship they had with him, but nobody I’ve ever met could give clients the amount of confidence that he was able to give them.
I’m constantly reevaluating how I do things to make sure I live, because statistically, if you’re in dangerous places 200 days of the year for 100 years, you’re opening yourself up. Just living in this town, you become hyperaware of how easy it is to die. I don’t think six months go by where I don’t have a close friend die, which sounds horribly morbid, but it’s the truth.
People die regularly in Chamonix and the communities don’t freak out, because they understand that there’s an assumed risk, and if you increase the numbers then more people are going to get hurt.
We’re all going to die. I have friends who are dying from MS and friends who are dying from cancer. I used to think it was really trite and cliché when people said, “At least he died doing what he loved.” Then a good friend hung himself and it really sharpened my focus. There’s a plus side to people dying doing what they love.
I’m inspired by people in Jackson who are as good or better than any world-class alpinists and skiers, and a lot of them are also managing family life and a business. I don’t have that balance at all. It’s really hard to exit when every time I turn around, someone hires me to go on the trip of a lifetime.
The reality is, the Grand [Teton] is a pretty damn easy ski run if you ski it in the right conditions. In the end you’re skiing an average steep run and you have to do some rappelling. That’s the joke about ski mountaineering. At any point you can just build a snow bollard or drive a picket and start rappelling.
It’s pretty bold to say you’ve done a first descent, because more often than not, someone else has been there before you and just never said anything about it.