Skiing - - Untracked Line - By Devon O’neil

Ten miles in­land from the small fish­ing

port of Cor­dova, Alaska, on a bench at 3,600 feet amid the craggy, bleached ex­panse that is the Chugach moun­tain range, Bren­nan La­gasse keeps a small white note­book next to his sleep­ing bag. The names con­tained within this note­book rep­re­sent a his­tor­i­cal record for La­gasse, one of two back­coun­try ski guides man­ning a camp on an ex­clu­sive non­mo­tor­ized per­mit area for Points North Heli-Ad­ven­tures and the man charged with chron­i­cling an en­deavor unique to Alaska as well as the Chugach.

Con­sider it a skier’s 21st-cen­tury ver­sion of ex­plo­ration. Ev­ery so of­ten over the past three win­ters, La­gasse has gone back to his tent on the side of the moun­tain and en­tered a new name in the note­book, a quirky ti­tle like Sluff­head, Tweezer, or Shake­down Street. The names re­fer to couloirs, ramps, peaks, and spines that had almost cer­tainly never been skied be­fore.

PNH has run heli-ski­ing trips out of Cor­dova for 15 years, but chop­pers are pro­hib­ited from land­ing inside the bound­ary of the U.S. For­est Ser­vice’s mo­tor-free zone. So a few years back, PNH own­ers Kevin and Jessica Quinn se­cured a com­mer­cial per­mit en­com­pass­ing hun­dreds of square miles that had pre­vi­ously been of­flim­its to ski­ing, prac­ti­cally speak­ing. The only way to reach the ten­ure would’ve in­volved mul­ti­ple days of hu­man-pow­ered travel through a com­plex river drainage teem­ing with griz­zly bears and deep-wa­ter cross­ings—just to reach the foot of the moun­tains worth ski­ing. Far bet­ter op­tions ex­ist within easy reach of Cor­dova, with­out any of the ex­tra ef­fort or risk.

But over the past two sea­sons, PNH has staged what La­gasse’s guid­ing part­ner, Jeff Dostie, calls a “five-star win­ter camp­ing” base above the Rude River. The camp sits at the edge of the mo­tor-free zone, so he­li­copters can trans­port clients and sup­plies to within easy reach of its ter­rain. It’s sur­rounded by cirques and spines, walls and glaciers—ba­si­cally a back­coun­try skier’s par­adise, with no one else around. The Quinns hope to add more camps and al­low guests to tour be­tween them, in an Amer­i­can ver­sion of the Alps’ Haute Route.

Hav­ing heard through the grapevine of the guided op­er­a­tion—the only one of its kind in the Chugach—I flew in on a Sun­day last March along with five other skiers and snow­board­ers pre­pared to earn their turns. We stashed our gear in Alaska-made Arc­tic Oven tents, which were erected over ply­wood floors and stocked with cots, propane heaters, and gaso­line gen­er­a­tors. Then we set­tled in for what be­came a high­light of ev­ery day: din­ner. Hal­ibut, pulled pork, or the like was pre­pared nightly by Dostie, who made his liv­ing as a chef at a high-end Lake Ta­hoe restau­rant be­fore he be­came a guide.

The next day, we lapped Chugach vel­vet un­til our legs ached. After our sec­ond run down to the Franklin Glacier, where we spot­ted fresh wolver­ine tracks, La­gasse and I as­cended a puck­er­ingly steep couloir to a shaded notch, top­ping out with both hands cling­ing to rock. Upon de­scend­ing what we climbed, La­gasse asked me to name it. I picked Full Con­tact in honor of Kip Garre, a mu­tual friend and long­time PNH guide who per­ished in an avalanche in April 2011 and who used that phrase to re­fer to any wor­thy ad­ven­ture. La­gasse added it to his note­book that night.

Un­sea­son­ably cold tem­per­a­tures and bru­tal winds ham­pered our next two days , but on the

fourth day of the trip, our en­tire group skinned and cram­poned up a large peak five miles from camp for a blue­bird de­scent of the run called Shake­down Street. On our way back, not want­ing the day to end, four of us broke off for one fi­nal climb and de­scent of an un­skied chute on the west face of a peak the guides named Sluff­head in 2011. The sun was orange and fad­ing into Prince Wil­liam Sound by the time Adam Heil—a Navy pi­lot who booked his trip at the last minute when a year­long de­ploy­ment to Bahrain fell through—pi­o­neered the line. It was per­haps the only place in the en­tire range where the wind hadn’t stripped the pow­der, and de­scend­ing it sent a surge of adren­a­line through my veins.

That night, after re­turn­ing to camp from 11 hours of ski­ing and a mag­i­cal first de­scent in soft pow­der, our faces glowed like the sil­very moon over­head. We toasted the day with sin­gle-malt scotch in Dixie cups, chilled by the large chunk of glacial ice Dostie had sawed off on our way home from Shake­down and which I’d strapped to my pack for the fi­nal de­scent.

After think­ing about it for a few hours, Heil an­nounced his name for the run—his honor, since he’d been the first to de­scend it.

“Bet­ter than Bahrain,” he de­clared, and we all raised our cups. The next morn­ing, La­gasse wrote it in his note­book.

Skier: PNH guide Ben­jamin Mitchell

Ready for some “five-star win­ter camp­ing” in the Chugach? Points North Heli-Ad­ven­tures’ chop­pers (right) trans­port guests and sup­plies

to the edge of its spe­cial non­mo­tor­ized per­mit area. From there, all turns (op­po­site) are


Clock­wise from op­po­site page A skier— clearly not Tyler—does not tom­a­hawk down newly named Tyler’s Knob; the new yurt at Di­a­mond Peak; base camp; the snow­cat; Sway, the San­delins’ pet bob­cat.

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