Tour Camp- A Backcountry Home in the Chugach
“I want to talk to you about ski touring in the Chugach. You think you can get up to PNH (Points North Heli-Adventures) this March or April?”
All it took was a quick call from the man himself-owner, operator and lead guide Kevin Quinn, and life got instantly better. I didn’t know how much better at the time, but I did know that the invite I just received was something that could not be refused.
Along with his wife Jessica, “Quinner” as he’s known by most, runs the most well respected helicopter skiing business in Alaska. Even though his business is rock solid, Quinner envisioned a ski touring program where one did not exist in the most famous mountain range in the world for skiers and riders. One of his heli guides, the late, great Kip Garre, was a ski mountaineer who shared this vision. Kip was a driven visionary, a true skiers skier. He wasn’t going to stop heli-guiding, but he saw that there were “heli runs” that weren’t being skied because of a US Forest Service boundary that delineates where motorized and non-motorized recreation can take place.
With Kip’s perpetual stoke and Quinner’s leadership, the idea to get skiers and riders into this non-motorized zone of the Chugach was born. The area in question is very close to where PNH runs their heli operations based in Cordova, Alaska, and in 2011 PNH was granted a non-motorized ski touring permit from the US Forest Service, the first of its kind in the Chugach. Securing the permit lit the flame to invite some lucky skiers up to Cordova to assess the feasibility of creating a helicopter assisted ski touring program. I was one of the lucky ones to get a call, and there was only one person that I wanted to join me.
In 2001, as a college senior, I found myself in Lake Tahoe, California for winter break. Like so many East Coast skiers I too shared the dream of moving out West to ski bum, but I didn’t know where. I traveled to Alta-Snowbird, Jackson and Whistler, finally spending close to a month in Tahoe. Luckily, some good friends had moved to Squaw Valley the previous year, which meant me and my dirtbag buddies had a few couches to fight over.
Back then there was no correlation to last call and first chair. The latter didn’t mean anything to me yet, but the former was all the rage. I recall waking up one powder drenched morning as foggy as the California Coast to two guys fully dressed in their ski gear, hovering over me and my buddies crashed out on the floor and couches of our friends living room. It was early, 7ish in the morning, but these guys were frothing to get to Squaw and I could not for the life of me figure out why when the lifts didn’t spin until 9 a.m.
One of the guys-Jeff Dostie, was dating one of our good girlfriends. If he had his way he’d have been in line for KT-22 at 6 a.m. However, he was clearly courting our friend, trying his best to be polite, while simultaneously holding back from completely calling her and the rest of us out for blowing it on a power day by sleeping too late. Years later, I can’t help but think I should really thank my friend for introducing me to Jeff. After all, I only got to meet him because of her, and while their relationship didn’t pan out, I ended up gaining a best friend and my closest ski partner out of the deal.
As lucky as I am to have several amazing ski partners, I knew Jeff was the only person I really wanted to sign up for the PNH mission. On the surface I didn’t know that in March of 2011 Jeff and I would be creating PNH Tour Camp. At the time, all I knew was I had this incredible invite, Quinner was cool with me bringing a partner, and together, Jeff and I would make it work to travel to Cordova that March.
Ironic as life can be in the ski world, 2011 was not a banner winter for the Chugach. It was however a banner year for the Sierra. Leaving our home range was tough, but as any skier and rider knows well enough by now, in a world full of special mountains and incredible snow, there is no place on the planet like Alaska. And to be more specific, when it’s on in the Chugach, if you ski or ride, there is no better place to be, period.
Jeff and I had developed our ski partnership largely in the Sierra, but also while skiing together in Chamonix and on a Denali expedition. With the atypical season the Chugach was experiencing in 2011, we made the most of the opportunity. We ski toured local peaks accessible from the town of Cordova, and when Quinner saw a reasonable window, we were taken deep into the Chugach via helicopter, dropped off for the day, and picked up before sunset. That allowed us to scout one zone in particular and assess whether such a service might be attractive to potential clients. At the end of our trip we were left out in the field with a wall-tent, wood burning stove, cots, a cooler of food, and a satellite phone. The helicopter brought all of our gear out on sling loads and we set up camp close to the US Forest Service boundary line. The idea was the helicopter would be able to bring us, our gear, and clients out on a weekly basis, but we would be close enough to the non-motorized boundary to access that terrain after a short tour from camp.
Ultimately, our job was to provide feedback on how we might run a ski touring program for PNH that first season. Even though the snow was so far from the magical Alaskan velvet during this inaugural year, Jeff and I saw the immense potential. Beyond being the first program of its kind in the Chugach, the mountains that could only be accessed by ski touring were the stuff ski dreams are made of, and from what we could see there were lifetimes of ski descents right out our front door. The novelty that none of these lines had been climbed, and the majority had never been skied only added to the allure.
Jeff had spent a winter in Chamonix in the past and had been a true ski bum since the age of 18. I had already traveled to Alaska several times before this first trip to Cordova, making the rounds from Turnagin Pass to Hatcher’s Pass, and Valdez to Haines. The difference we saw in Cordova was although there is no question that the helicopter is the most wild, insane, incredible tool ever built to access the mountains, some of us still find skinning, booting and accessing our lines under our own human power to be a superior reward. It’s weird on the one hand because when you nail a good heli run/day/week there’s really nothing else like it. Then again, everything that goes into climbing a line before skiing it changes how one appreciates, rides and actually feels while skiing and after skiing a line. That sensation only comes from using your own power to ascend before the descent. It’s not for everyone, but if it works for you, it ends up being the ultimate prize, and that’s what Jeff and I were after.
Heading back to Tahoe, Jeff and I complied a report of our experience, including ideas for camp, the equipment, and how to best cater the experience with clients. We honestly didn’t know if that was it. Maybe this was a one and done thing and we were the lucky ones that actually acted on an invitation to try something that’s commonplace in a world-class ski center like British Columbia, but nowhere to be found in Alaska. Maybe something more would come of it, but we honestly didn’t know until we heard from Quinner the following fall.
2012 would mark the first official year of PNH Tour Camp with guests. At first, the trickiest thing for Jeff and I was the luxury side of things. That might sound strange, but when you’re used to an expedition, light and fast, mountaineering style of backcountry skiing, anything more seems out of place. After our initial test run in 2011, this time around PNH invested in Arctic Oven tents instead of the wall-tents many Alaskan hunters use. We got rid of the wood fired stove, upgraded to oil, and indulged in the blistering warmth. The problem with the oil heaters was they were fickle. Sometimes they purred like a cat, other times they sputtered and kicked out. We tested different ways to optimize the system, and the more we tinkered, the dirtier the result. Still, when all was well the comfort was sublime, so we stubbornly vowed to dial it in, one way or another. That is until one day when we realized perhaps these oil based heating systems weren’t meant for living on the side of a mountain in the mighty Chugach Range.
It was a memorable day for Tour Camp. After welcoming our first clients and sharing in a successful trip of mostly mellow powder skiing, we had a mixed crew roll in that was keen to get after it a bit more. Out on the horizon, a forty-five minute skin from camp, a prominent ramp that reeks of Alaska immediately fills ones vantage. Jeff and I didn’t know how steep it was, how long it would take to climb, or how feasible it would be to knock off with a mixed group of clients of varying ability. No one had ever climbed or skied the line, but of most anything in our zone it had the stamp of an instant classic. The crew was intrigued to give it a go, so cautiously we went and shared a memorable day together in a very special place.
We dubbed the line “Shakedown Street” since the ramp sort of looked like a wide street, but mostly because we love the song and the band that wrote it so much. Coming back to camp before sunset the energy amongst our crew was contagious. It was all hitting me like a ton of bricks that what we were doing out here was so extraordinary. Here we are in the middle of the Chugach, climbing and skiing “heli lines”, making a map along the way of what’s possible for short, medium, and long touring days, and naming our lines along the way, the majority of which has never seen human traffic before.
As I got closer to camp I realized something was not right with one of the Arctic Ovens. Thankfully it was the guide tent, but what happened is why we no longer use oil stoves and now use portable propane heaters in every tent. While we had been out skiing for the day there was just enough wind to push the smoke stack over dislocating one of the coupling joints inside the tent. The interior of our entire guide tent was covered in soot. Every piece of gear, our sleeping bags, food-all of it was caked.
I think I have a pair of gloves somewhere that have remnants of the soot catastrophe of 2012, but all in all it was but one of the many learning experiences that has gone into shaping what Tour Camp is today. The rest of the 2012 season was filled with more great guests, fun nights camping, and even better ski conditions. It’s a theme that has carried us through the past several years. This was a major year for the development of camp, and although the highlights of living and skiing in the field were plenty, perhaps the biggest development was the addition of Wesley Thompson (aka Wes-Slay Stomp-Son) to our team.
Wes is a born and raised Cordova local, a fisherman, hunter, and snowboarder. When we first met Wes he didn’t hike very much, but was already a member of the PNH family and fully fired up to help Jeff and I out. The only thing, going back to the whole glamping thing, is Jeff and I were a bit taken back by the idea of help just as much as we were about sleeping on a cot. It seemed like too much for us to have a camp helper, but we listened to the advice of Quinner and figured we’d give it a shot.
The original idea was for Jeff and I to guide, and the camp helper to cook and watch over camp. Quickly we realized that Jeff being a past sous chef at a well known restaurant in Tahoe should be the one cooking (after all, his nickname is “Chefstie”), and together we should help Wes accrue more backcountry knowledge so eventually he could be a guide himself. Fast-forward to today and not only does Wes keep camp running smoothly, he’s a solid aspiring guide, and he’s become a brother to Jeff and I.
After the monumental year of 2012 we entered 2013 with a host of ideas for more new terrain to break in, and a more solid vision of how to grow the experience of Tour Camp for our guests. While that vision was realized, the real story was taking back-to-back 10+ foot storms on the head. We skied a lot, as we always do at camp thanks to “Home Knoll”, a few hundred foot shot that sits directly above camp that’s accessible even in complete whiteouts. In that case Jeff, Wes or I will wand a booter going up the face, assess stability, with the result usually being a face full of powder on the way down. But I’m pretty sure Jeff, Wes and I became professional shovelers that season. We joked that if shoveling was an Olympic sport, we would be primed and ready to compete after close to 250 inches of snow fell on us in about a month.
By 2014 Tour Camp had become a second home. Since the very beginning we have built camp in the same location each year, and utilize the Arctic Oven tents as a sort of modified yurt because we need to leave no trace when we pack up shop in April. However, after three years in the same location we returned to talks with Quinner about another part of his vision, which is to have a series of camps strewn about the Chugach in the spirit of hut skiing in the European Alps. While that vision remains another theoretical dream come true, it was this 2014 season that allowed Jeff, Wes and I to truly see the vast scope of what we were dealing with in our original location.
Contrary to the 2013 season of the shovel, this year was the season of the Rex Block. If you’re not familiar, this weather phenomenon is essentially a block in the ability for low pressure to impact a region. For us in Alaska it meant very little fresh snow and more consecutive sunny days than I ever would have thought possible for springtime in Alaska. From the heli skiers standpoint this was the worst thing imaginable. From our perspective as ski tourers it allowed us to get creative and check out lines we’ve never considered before, tour longer and later having full faith in our weather forecasts. With the strong groups that visited us that year, we skied more new lines in the 2014 season than in the rest of our previous three years combined. The potential we knew was there in the beginning, that we had sort of thought we had largely tapped out was now bigger than ever before. In one memorable session, touring with a small, strong group of clients, we skinned to a drainage dubbed “Gamehendge” that holds hundreds of new ski descents we’re still waiting to fully explore.
Last season marked the fifth year of PNH Tour Camp and we celebrated by filming a segment for Warren Miller’s 66th Ski Movie, Chasing Shadows. The experience was memorable in that we were treated to some of the most vibrant northern lights we’ve ever seen at camp, and the whole crew-from the filmers to the athletes, were top-notch people to share in the experience of what it means to spend a little time on the mountain in the Chugach.
As we get ready to saddle up for year six kicking off on March 13th I can’t help but think of the days when Jeff and I would tour around in the Sierra, and go back to our A-Frame in Squaw, dreaming about big adventures on skis. No matter where we discussed going, we always came back to the idea of spending time in Alaska, skiing under our own power. When I think back to that call in 2010 I’m so thankful Kevin, Jessica, and the PNH family gave us a chance to do something different that a whole community of us choose to do on a regular basis. And to share this experience with our guests, many of whom claim to have had some of the best days of their lives skiing with us is a complete honor. As much as the mountains take, they give so much, and to those of us who walk amongst them and listen, the gifts are something that cannot be bought and sold, but they can last a lifetime and provide an everlasting glow of what it means to truly live ones dreams.