It does not take much time hanging out with Jon Devore, Andy Farrington and Mike Swanson of the Red Bull Air Force to realize that these guys can be anywhere in the sky that they want to be at anytime. Late this fall, it dawned on Timy and me, the potential of mixing their parachute flying skills with our skiing and mountain skills. The idea was concocted after one of those sessions after which you not only keep running the highlight moments of the day through your head, but you also feel a huge high from making some breakthroughs with your skills, all because you got to rip it up with people way better than you. Those are moments of utmost clarity.
Alaska Trip Report from JT Holmes
Within 6 weeks, we found ourselves in Juneau Alaska, five men trying to scrape together as many pennies as possible for that helicopter bill. There were 5 of us 5 men crashing in one hotel room, with a purple minivan from Rent-A-Wreck and we were all pretty worked from the travel because the cheapest airfares involved an overnight in Seattle and a milk run flight through AK that stopped at THREE airports between Seattle and Juneau. Make a mental note when booking, Alaska Airlines flight 65 makes unadvertised stops in Wrangell, Petersburg, andKetchiken!Some of these distances the jet covered in just 10 minutes.
The lengthy travel was instantly forgotten with one foggy, sopping wet snow day at Eagle Crest. This mountain has a totally bitchen vibe. Immediately upon arrival, we could see the locals lapping up the mash potato freshies, and we got that panicky feeling, as though we had just showed up late to KT22 on one of those overlooked stormy pow days. We were off the back. Timy literally was literally running up the hill to the lift before I could even put my wallet away after handing him a full day adult lift ticket (which costs a whopping $38).
Soon, we ran into a crew of beaming local rippers that recognized us from non other than unofficialsquaw.com. “Hey, Timy Dutton, JT Holmes, what are you guys doing here?” They hand us a piece of paper, and welcome us to play a game that is their version of GNAR the next day. Their “scavenger hunt” includes 87 ECPs, my favorites being:
1) Naked Run down Insane - 1000
3) Hit a ski patroller with a snow ball - 50
11) Shave on chairlift
17) Water skiing
23) Ride Chair after patroller at end of day
24) Spray random stranger
35) Talk on cell phone entire run - 35
37) Get season pass pic taken with pass girl - 200
40) 3 people on the chair (it’s a double)
52) Rope Off your own zone
55) Capture and eat local wildlife
56) Ask for job (while drunk)
57) Shotgun Mountain Dew while waiting for the lift
60) Cross swords
70) Convince someone you are Shawn White or Tanner Hall
71) Puff and Pass run (all members must smoke, and can’t stop)
73) Change run difficulty signage
74) Cook lunch on ski patrol grill
75) Knock over ski rack
80) Light off fireworks out of tree to scare someone
81) Smoke out an employee (85 points) Kris Duncan (8000 points)
86) Get a ride down in a toboggan… and then get up and leave
87) Puke off chair
Day two we waited for fog to clear, wishing we were up at Eagle Crest witnessing the “scavenger hunt” antics. We later heard that the game was not well accepted by management and was shut down early… go figure!
Fortunately for us, the fog cleared and we went helicopter skiing. Before we even dug a pit, Johnny, our guide, triggered this massive cornice and slab. He was walking along a ridge, and just as he thought to himself: “maybe I should think about being a little further away from the cornice” it broke off. After the avalanche scare and a miss-launch (high speed paraglider twisting up before gaining flight), it was pushing 230 PM, and on January 6th in AK the helicopter is required to be on the ground back at the airport by 245 due to darkness. (This grounding time would be extended by 2 minutes each day, as would the take off time in the AM) >We’d had one run, a miss launch and an avalanche scare, but we had soaked up the beautiful views of Juneau from the nearby Mt. McGuinness, breathed moist thick Alaskan air, and tasted some exceptional powder snow. Mike and Andy had flew their wings down the hills touching down from time to time for a taste of their own. At the same time, we were low on confidence that the mountains were welcoming the monkeys for a session. The glacial cracks were huge and hungry making many lines un-skiable, and winds were forecasted to be typical for Juneau: absolutely blasting.
But the monkey’s got a bone. Kevin Quinn gave us a morsel of information that would prove to be invaluable during the coming days. "Go to the Theil Glacier, it should be protected from the winds, the winds are gonna be really strong, but it is all channeling. Got to the Theil. I think you guys will find some zones that you can fly in, and have good snow, even considering the wind forecast (45mph).”
The next morning we bombed it through turbulent winds straight to the Theil Glacier and found zero wind, powder snow and rad terrain. It was on. We proceeded to play, get familiar with the snow pack, the zone, and the communication skills of our hodge-podge mix comprising the helicopter group. Thank you, Kevin!
One of our shortcomings in the coming week, the five of us would learn was communication, particularly on the first run of the day. For some reason, we just could not dial this one in. For instance, the first run that we all 5 skied (nobody airborne), Johnny instructs us that Timy or JT should go first, this of course, means one at a time. TImy and I listen poorly and dropped in together, and Jon, Mike and Andy interpret “first”, as a 5 second head start, when a typical Alaska practice is one skier on slope at a time. Now a slope that our guide wanted one skier at a time on, has 5 monkeys are raging. All is well that ends well.
Next example, day 3. We are back at our standard Kevin Quinn zone. We’re eyeing up a line that has a rollover exposed over a massive cliff, it has sun on it, we had scoped it the day before so we were up for it on number one. Johnny states “I don’t really like that loaded rollover, I want to keep an eye on you guys (from a strategic rescue position) for this one.” Meanwhile, Andy, Jon and Mike (also not the best listeners) are laying out their speed wings for launch. Suddenly winds pick up. Gusts can really create a tangled mess. The wings are in the air, there is seemingly no harm in them dropping in, the LZ is established from previous days and it is safe. The guys will be in the air, so there is no avalanche danger. Andy goes. Jon goes, Mike goes. Timy and I stand by watching, Johnny is descending, out of sight… and…. miss launch! Jon’s wing gets twisted up about one hundred yards into the descent. He was taking a high traverse line to desired terrain and “kiting” the wing while his weight was on the ground. Before full pressurization was achieved, disaster struck and he aborted the flight with a hip check into the critical rollover.
Jon is now faced with a descent he never planned to ski, with no poles and a tangled cumbersome mess strapped to his body. Timy and I drop in to assist. Johnny gets on the radio, “OK guys, almost in position” “Hey, uh, Johnny, remember that wind loaded rollover you were concerned about? ... the one above the big cliff beneath it… yeah we are 3 guys standing on it right now, and we are gonna need a rescue!!” We could see him shaking his head as he listened to us over the radio. It was during the 150 vertical foot side stepping mission that we finally verbally recognized our poor listening and communication skills amongst the 5 of us. We dug out a flat enough spot for Tyler, our heli-pilot, to come pluck us off the mountain via a “toe-in” style. He stomped the rescue and we were glad to be off that face. The rollover was steadily getting more and more loaded with snow as we stood there. It just did not feel right to descend it. Especially after establishing that a rescue was necessary, we figured it was probably smart to get everyone off the mountain in one rescue, right? Live and learn.
As if to tell us to beat it and go somewhere else, when we were almost to our pick up zone on the same run, a huge serac cracked loose and triggered a massive avalanche that covered our helicopter and us in a light dusting of snow. It was time to find a new zone. We did and it was rad. This last zone, we just ripped to shreds. Zones with good snow were not in abundance and required searching, which was tough on our budget, so we just skied sloughing AK semi-tracked snow.
All in all, shooting skiing with via speed flying wings shows huge potential. By the end of our 3rd day, we were starting to synch up with each other nicely. With some more practice and with the speed fliers more familiar with the lines we will take and our speeds, you could really get some amazing stuff. We learned to modify the way we skied and they learned to modify the way they flew in order to not make the viewer so dizzy, and it was all coming together that last day or two, but the winds shut us down a bit too.
We were generally very impressed with AK as a January option. It was cold, windy and daylight hours were very limited, but January has its advantages too. For one, helicopters are in less demand. You spend less time waiting for the helicopter to shuttle other groups in the mountains. Secondly, you have the entire range nearly to yourself, so tracks are not an issue. Third, the light is rad all day. Lengthy sunrises and sunsets create amazing alpenglow and you do not have to wake up early for it. Harsh crisp shadow lines made already ominous terrain even more powerful, sometimes they were so intimidating, they would stop us in our tracks. The sun is not yet powerful, so while you may be limited in what you can ski because snow levels are low, you are not limited in the aspects that you ski. You can ski South facing powder snow. In March and April, it is nearly unheard of to ski Southeast, South or Southwest facing runs. We skied them all!