The dirty little secret of the Alaska heli-skiing industry is that a day of heaven is all too often bookended by days – sometimes weeks – of no-fly weather and endless cups of coffee with the pilots. Alyeska ski resort, a 45-minute-flat drive from Anchorage, is the heli experience for those who don't get paid to ski (or to wait in bars until the weather clears). The terrain is Alaska-extreme, with runs like the 45-degree couloirs and ridges of Christmas and New Year's chutes on the North Face. The lifts keep running you to the top no matter how much snow is falling. "It's steep and aggressive," says Dirk Collins, who co-founded the action-sports film company TGR after spending his formative years ski patrolling on Alyeska. "I don't know of any ski area in the U.S. that has terrain like Christmas Chute."
With just seven lifts and 1,500 in-bounds acres, Alyeska isn't huge, but new ownership has since updated some lifts and committed to opening the steep terrain called the Headwall. For some, the resort is just a backup plan anyway. You see, Alyeska is more a ski "area" than it is a resort, and Chugach Powder Guides, one of the most experienced heli- and cat-skiing operations in the country, has a satellite office right in the Hotel Alyeska. If the weather does happen to cooperate while you're there, use the lifts of the resort as a warm-up for the real thing, or insurance against getting grounded on a cloudy day. And if the sun does shine – be sure to come after March 1, when it stays light for more than eight hours a day – CPG has access to 3,500 acres of nearby sidecountry and the entire Chugach mountain range, where it's not uncommon to clock 20,000 vertical feet in a single day. The Chugach is a bona fide coastal range, its roots submerged in the dark North Pacific, its peaks bleeding snow from passing storms at only 4,000 feet. If not for the latitude, it would be a rainforest. Instead, low pressure smelling of salt water shellacs the summits with wet snow. On average, 650 inches paste the Alyeska summit. "The storms are like snow hurricanes," says Collins, whose new production company, OneEyedBird, has filmed out of Girdwood three times in the past year. "It can drop 40 inches at a time. People get freaked out."
Basically, you must be ready to sleep, breathe, and eat skiing. Nearby Girdwood is considered by locals to be the Boulder of Alaska. While that's a stretch, there is quality Nordic skiing, with sunset views of the Cook Inlet, decent burgers at the Chair 5 restaurant, and excellent fresh fish at the Jack Sprat. And even though Girdwood is only a 15-minute walk from the resort, anything involving your legs may not really be an option after a day of skiing Alaska-style.