Alaska in April with Absinthe
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Jeff Hawe's Haines, Alaska: April 2010. onClick="window.open('http://www.espn.com/action/snowboarding/gallery?id=5163002','Popup','width=990,height=720,scrollbars=no,noresize'); return false;">Gallery »
Tangled currents of wind converge and buck against the A-star as we hover over the kitchen-table sized platform I have chosen as my entrance to a curtain of spines below. Rocking in the mangled rhythm and waiting for a skid to touch down, I hear Al Holzman -- Haines, Alaska's most recognized helicopter pilot -- over the headset telling me he will not be landing a skid this morning. The wind is too unpredictable and he would instead like me to jump out onto the platform.
Off the back side of my drop-in might as well be a black hole. Roto-wash rips a cyclone of snow over my eyes and for a moment my footing seems incredibly foolish. When Al pulls away and the smoke clears, the relief that I didn't get blown off the mountain is quickly replaced by the realization that from where I stand it looks as if I could throw a snowball to the valley floor many grey hairs below. Just putting your bindings on in this situation presents a serious health risk.
Gigi Rüf doesn't seem to be having any issue with the heaviness of where he stands, having exited the bird onto the knife ridge in the same vein as I did, only higher -- his line quickly losing light. Al circles, and with cameras rolling out of the heli, Gigi drops in for the first run of the day. From my viewpoint I see his first two turns, then a few moments later he is a speck in the flats of the glacier before it falls out of sight.
We are on the set of "9191," Gigi's signature Volcom film project, scheduled to be released this coming September. After two epic and snow-saturated days at Crystal Mountain, Wash. with Gigi and Volcom filmer Jake Price (who is a better snowboarder than many pro shreds I know), we jetted to Haines and met up with Wolle Nyvelt, photographer/entertainer Scott Sullivan, and our mutual friend, blue sky. To balance out the good fortune of sun on our arrival, first day, first run, the buckle on my front ankle strap explodes and my camera battery dies. After two runs fastening my heel MacGyver-style with the help of zip ties and a paper clip, our guide, Beanzy, has a spare buckle delivered from the heli pad and we get dropped off on some gigantic opposing peak equally in the middle of nowhere.
The curious case of Curtis Ciszek arrived on our fourth day of sun, replacing Wolle, who had left for Austria (only to be thwarted by some ash hole in Iceland and left stranded in Whistler).
Faraway peaks began to milk over during lunch. After four days of heli-shredding, I had no issues with the prospect of a few days off. Thoughts of a deep sleep replaced those of high pressure. One might think that riding in a helicopter is light on the legs, but there is so much adrenaline and energy expended just getting into and out of a helicopter, not to mention hiking ridgelines littered with rime, ice, and scour; avoiding huge cornices and holes melted away next to rocks that demand you climb over them; finding the entrance to a line you have previously only seen briefly from across a valley big enough to hold your home mountain; looking at your camera a few more times; breathing too much; then, finally, snowboarding. It takes a toll.
With a grey blanket cloaked over Haines the next morning, Curtis wasted no time on this, our first down day, to buy every ingredient necessary to set up "The Caesar Station" and get drunk by 11 a.m. It's like he'd lived here all his life. Down days in Alaska are quite pleasant. We built fires on the beach, I found a rock that easily transformed into a sock puppet and Gigi found a dead eagle. Supposedly, you don't want to get caught with eagle feathers, or any eagle parts for that matter, as it is an offense punishable by up to a year in prison and $100,000. Sketchy bookmarker.
When the sun came back out to play, we clocked 12-plus hour days with a good mix of lines, natural hits and pat-downs. No cheese wedges were built on this trip. A few descents were pioneered and Curtis showed that, although this was his first Alaska trip, he is no stranger to hauling tail down big mountains. I knocked loose a cornice the size of a bus, but besides that, the snow was stable. We scored another two-day stretch before the clouds came back again, and with no windows forecasted for the near future, we decided this time on a different rest strategy, one that involves quieting the enthusiasm.
Our crew is not alone in this mecca. Along with DCP, Jake Blauvelt and Justin Hostynek (who our crew has been collaborating with on certain filming objectives), Lucas Debari just climbed out of the "Deeper" crew's secret polar hole located beyond the heli's permitted fly zone, joined by his sister Maria. To drop a few more names, Mike Basich drove down from Tailgate Alaska in Valdez with a string of eager disciples in tow, including the loose stylings of Skyler Thorton and his guitar-slinging amigo Brandon Cocard. Sullivan, Skyler, and Brandon wailed out their homegrown sounds well into the witching hours a few nights over with hopes of blue sky waiting at the bottom of our cups. Six days later, and I thought I might be melting.
High pressure hangs close to the coast, at least close enough to keep me in Haines another week. After six days of flying I would have been completely satisfied to head back to Baker for the last weekend of operations and ride with friends in the comfort of trees. But the anticipation of a few more days in the heli, even just a few runs, was more powerful than any storm I have ever lost sleep over. Snowboarding in Alaska is an other-planetary experience; an endless peak of possibility that will have you floating in your dreams. And so we waited ...
Many thanks to our guides Beanzy and Ted, Al Holzman at Coastal Helicopters, Sean Dog, the bartenders at the Pioneer, Phil at the Beach Roadhouse, Bruce at the Funny Farm, Mark Schultz, everyone at Alaska Heli Skiing and the town of Haines.