Easy Heli-Skiing in Alaska

Will Wacker

The Klondike Gold Rush lasted just two years, from 1896 to 1897; the tourist boom in Skagway, Alaska, has lasted more than a century. Situated 90 miles north of Juneau by ferry (there are no roads leading to it), the town of 910 residents is cut off from the world thanks to surrounding peaks that rise 7,000-feet from the sea. Close to one million cruise ship passengers swarm the former mining outpost’s cluster of historic buildings every summer, but in winter, the town is home to some of the best heli-skiing in the country.

Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG) opened heli-ski operations just two years ago to take advantage of the 4,000-foot powder runs overlooking Skagway. The choppers launched us from a pad that sits just a few yards off the Lynn Canal, a 100-mile-long fjord that strikes due north into the heart of the Coastal Range. Five minutes later, we set down on the top of a craggy peak with views of Skagway to the east, and untracked powder below.

Our guide dropped in first, searing turns 1,000 feet down an exposed ridge to wait in an avalanche safe zone and keep an eye on us as we followed. We collected at the spot, shook out the lactic acid, and dropped one by one into the remaining 3,000 feet to where the waiting heli would ferry us up top again.

Weather is the biggest variable in Alaska heli-skiing, and the dirty secret is that while coastal Alaska snow is some of the dreamiest stuff to ride, the storms that put it there could ground helicopters for days. But Skagway is relatively free of this problem. The area usually gets even more flyable days than the Chugach Mountains of Valdez, and because of the mountains’ proximity to town, the second a bad storm clears, it’s easy to sneak in a quick run. When clouds shut us down one afternoon, we flew back to Skagway, ate lunch, and were back up for a few more runs in three hours, when the weather had passed.

Skagway itself, when settled into winter, offers plenty of small-town comforts. The Skagway Inn is a renovated brothel with 10 rooms named for Flo, Alice, and other ladies of ill repute who plied their trade there in 1897. It’s located in the middle of the six-block Klondike Gold Rush National park Historic District, where many buildings are owned and maintained by the National Park Service. There’s even a brewery, Skagway Brewing Company, which makes a signature brew with actual spruce tips and serves as a lively, post-run kick. As nice as it is, though, the town is ultimately just a distraction from some of the best untracked powder you’ll ever find.

More Information: Trips run mid-February through April, and rates include accommodation, breakfast, and lunch. From $900 a day to $3,800 for four days.

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