IT WAS A simple exercise my grandfather gave me: “Write down a list of your dreams.” That list became the first page of my first journal nearly 20 years ago, and at the top of that list? Heli-skiing in Valdez.

No contest. As a ski-obsessed teenager, there could be no higher aspiration than to find myself in the mythical Chugach mountain range. I pictured myself watching the helicopter fly away, standing on top of the kind of terrain straight from my teenage fantasies, made famous by legends and heroes like Doug Coombs, Seth Morrison, and so many others.

And 20 years later, here I am. Valdez is ground zero for Alaskan heli-skiing, and experiencing the place and these mountains firsthand should be on every snow rider’s bucket list. If these photos don’t prove it, nothing will.

All photos by the author. Watch the companion video here.

The Chugach Mountains

Straight out of my teenage fantasies. The Chugach Mountains — and the ski terrain they hold — are nothing short of legendary. You’ll get your first taste of this other-worldliness on the drive into Valdez on Alaska State Hwy 4, taking you up and over Thompson Pass. Zones like this are visible from the road on a clear day, and if you’re anything like me, it’ll become instantly obvious why Valdez has such a powerful hold over skiers and snowboarders from all corners of the planet.


Driving to Valdez

The stretch of Alaska Hwy 1 (also known as the ALCAN Hwy) from Anchorage to Glennallen and then the Richardson Hwy (AK Hwy 4) down to Valdez is known as the “Adventure Corridor,” and it certainly lived up to the name during our trip. Chasing a promising weather window led to a late night drive from Anchorage to Valdez, and we were lucky enough to witness a dazzling display of the aurora borealis spinning across the night sky. Staying on the road during such a show wasn't going to happen, and we quickly pulled over to watch in awe. If you’re driving during the day, make sure to keep your eyes peeled — not for the auroras, but for moose and other wildlife.


Valdez Harbor

The town of Valdez has always been centered around the harbor, and checking out the vessels that call these Alaskan waters home is a great way to spend a few hours when the clouds roll in and the whirlybirds aren’t flying.Also worth a look on a down day is The Fat Mermaid for a good lunch and Roma Italian Kitchen for dinner and a drink (or three, depending on the weather forecast).


And we're off!

The helicopter rides around and to the mountains are sometimes as much — if not more — fun than the skiing itself. The places these talented pilots can put their machines will blow your mind, and it’s always a pleasure just watching them fly. Especially when you know where you're off to.


Our first run

The history of heli-skiing in Valdez runs deep. It started with the early exploration of the Chugach, grew into $15 plane shuttles to the top of Thompson Pass, got even bigger with the wild WESC (World Extreme Skiing Championship) days of the early and mid '90s, and now the explosion of media coverage has turned the sport into the big business it is today. But through all the changes and evolution over the years, the feeling of dropping into an untracked ramp remains the same.


Out of the helicopter, still in the air

Possibly the greatest myth about heli-skiing is that you need to be a pro or a crazy good skier/rider to enjoy it. With modern equipment and top shelf operators on offer like Alaska Rendezvous Guides, Black Ops Valdez, and Alaska Snowboard Guides, anyone with enough interest and wherewithal is welcome.

We flew with the three above and would highly recommend any of them. Safety is always the number one priority when heli-skiing, and the guides and pilots made sure we were well-informed on current conditions and felt safe the whole time we were in the mountains. They also got us into some amazing terrain when the time was right — they’ll make sure your time in Valdez lives up to the hype.


Hold onto your hat

This run was a perfect example of what Valdez heli-skiing is like — the stomach-in-your-throat, pro-level terrain that’s made Valdez a media darling for so many years. 2,500 vertical feet down a sustained 35-degree slope over no exposure with a rock solid snowpack — the fun meter maxes out on days like this.


Second tracks aren’t too bad, either

Given the well-earned reputation of Valdez and the Chugach range for being the “North Shore” of skiing and all the videos of pros dropping ridiculous lines, I was surprised to see the crazy variety of ski terrain on offer. There really is something for everyone long as you bring your own boots! While Valdez is home to a number of top shelf operators who provide much of the gear you’ll need to safely ride the Chugach, a good pair of boots that you know fit well are crucial to making the most of your time and money in Valdez.


Feet flat on the ground

Down days in Valdez are a perfect time to relax, eat, drink, and talk story while dried-up adrenal glands replenish. Luckily, Valdez has some great ways to spend the hours when the clouds and winds keep the birds on the ground. There’s classic bars and restaurants spread out along the harbor and plenty of places to just watch the clouds roll in and the eagles fly.

As for getting there, the town definitely has an “end of the road” feel, though it’s actually a pretty straightforward place to access. Valdez has its own airport that’s served by daily Ravn Air flights from Anchorage that are definitely the quickest way in, but flights are heavily weather- and wind-dependent, so you do have the option of a beautiful five-hour drive down the Adventure Corridor from Anchorage.


Gliding through a few final turns

The mountains around Valdez seem to encourage individual interpretation of how to ride them. The lines people choose to ride and the way they draw those lines through the snow are as varied as the individuals themselves. Spending the day in these mountains with a group of strangers from all over the world was a great example of the many approaches towards the same goal. Sharing a bluebird day in the Chugach inevitably turns strangers into lifelong friends.


Skiing in the shadows

Shadow dancing in the evening light on the run out of yet another perfectly formed ramp.


Flying back into Valdez

A huge thanks to the teams at Alaska Rendezvous Guides, Black Ops Valdez, and Alaska Snowboard Guides for keeping us safe and showing us what skiing and riding in Valdez is all about!