What It’s Like to Be a Heli Ski Guide in the Summer

Eric Layton bio pic_1I left in the middle of March for my annual heli ski guiding in Valdez, Alaska. I’ve been coming to Alaska for 13 years now, 10 of those have been working in the industry. Upon my arrival in AK this season, I was greeted with the open arms of El Niño. The storm door was wide open with enormous amounts of snow that were so massive they kept us from reaching our objective time and time again. You’ve heard of the waiting game in Alaska, this was the wishing game! In all my years, I’ve never seen so many down days. When it cleared the skiing was all time, when it cleared that was. This, coupled with record warm temps was not the Alaska I’ve come to know.
Turn back two months earlier to British Columbia where I’ve been guiding for the past 7 years it was a completely different game. El Niño doesn’t typically favor BC, but this season it was constant drips and drabs some reaching the 30-40+cm days, but it was consistent, cool and damn good all season. We had a lingering instability from early Jan that kept us on our toes for the first part of the season. This persistent grain would later change my perception and mindset throughout the season. Persistent Weak Layers (PWL) do not break down easily and bond well with the rest of the snow pack. They usually also become harder to predict the deeper and longer they are buried. It’s all about hitting the right spot. Needless to say, I found it buried quite deep and though there were slight imperfections from that day, the outcome was the best we could have hoped for given the situation. This is where it got real for me, more than ever in my guiding. I found myself in a place where I didn’t want to be, the incredible days of guiding and skiing glorified by endless powder days became the complete opposite in a split second with a loud thumping whoompf.
Granite Park Basin
Granite Park Basin
Now back to Alaska where Heli skiing comes with huge expectations, huge vertical relief and very little margin for errors. Precision guiding is paramount on every run, day in and day out. It keeps you on your toes constantly. In a matter of seconds you can be whirled up to the steepest faces and put on a perch so small it’ll make ya screaming for the bunny slopes. Thus, in my early days of guiding, I was taught the three strike methodology by one of my mentors. I was taught to listen to my instincts, to watch the signs, to listen to what the mountains were telling me and to add them up. I’d count my strikes and if they were adding up it was time to leave the field. Having this type of decision-making tool along with a certain type of mindset can help reduce your exposure to hazard and lower your risk. To be honest though, most days guiding you go out with at least one strike already under your belt.
Group Dynamics can be a strike against you right out the door at least for the first half of the day until you understand the group’s mentality, then add something unfamiliar or a red flag and you’re already pushing your limits. Strikes can be cumulative through the day or they can add up throughout the season. The strikes on the season were adding up for me so it was time to call it up North.
Climbing Feather Peak Couloir
Climbing Feather Peak Couloir
It was so good to be back in the Sierra with a clean and new outlook on the Spring. Splitboarding was once again here and in my favorite range of all! It was time to start the the spring tours. This season, it was time to put in a variation of the famous Rock Creek to Mammoth ski tour. Our objectives on this tour were to turn some of the high North facing couloirs, some of the real classic Sierra descents. With a great team of splitboarders for the journey, each bringing their own style and experience to the trip, we started in the Eastern Sierras at Pine Creek Trailhead. We hit Feather Peak Couloir to start off the trip. We camped high in the Granite Park Basin with amazing views of endless opportunities. Then we headed North up and over Italy Pass to the beautiful Lake Italy. We turned the North facing couloir of Mt. Gabb a trip highlight with some pretty good off kilter double fall line exposure. The kind of line that keeps you gripped until getting spit out to the apron below only to let out a bellowing laugh of pure relief.
We dropped low, into Mono Creek at an elevation of 8350′, indulging in all the glories of summer backpacking from fire pits to cold water as well as a log crossing that if you’re a hard bootin’ splitboarder like myself, it’ll have you crawling on your belly to get to the other side. Linking up with a summer trail was the key to our route here. This trail eventually led us back to the snow and a pass linking us to other great descents such as the North Couloir of Red and White Mountain, a gem in itself and the Classic Red Slate Couloir. But I have to say, some of our best turns were the passes and little in-betweens of the Sierra Crest. To finish off the trip, we skinned into Lake Mary and the town of Mammoth Lakes completing roughly a 100km splitboard traverse over the course of 7 days, making for a great start to the month of May.
Turns off of Green Butte Shasta
Turns off of Green Butte Shasta
By the time our gear was dried out and repacked for more adventures, The Volcano season was well underway way up North. If you like 7000′ vertical feet of smooth creamy snow then there’s no better place than the Cascade Volcanoes.  I would have to say that come mid-May through June there’s almost no other place I would rather be than on Shasta. I’ve had the privilege now of guiding for Shasta Mountain Guides for the last ten years. This season was fat, we finally had a decent snowfall in California and the Cascade volcanoes were on fire! I managed to get in some great splitboarding all the way through the end of June. Great turns on Lassen’s North Side to Shastina’s South Face and all over Mount Shasta, El Nino delivered the goods this year in Cascades, no doubt.
A little rope assist off the ice rimed summit of Shastina on our double down shredski of Shasta/Shastina.
A little rope assist off the ice rimed summit of Shastina on our double down shredski of Shasta/Shastina.
Now it’s time to trade in the turns for some alpine climbing. Alpine Guiding on Shasta and throughout the Sierra is always something I look forward to each season. It’s a chance to reconnect to where it all began. As we push farther into Summer my sights are set on South America, where myself and Splitboard Guides International are running our Chilean Splitboard Adventure. We plan on climbing and skiing the Volcanoes in the Lake District of Chile. As always my impossible made possible gear by Brooks-Range has gotten me through the toughest of times and kept me warm and dry on the harshest of missions.
Some of the best moraine turns I have ever had on the dome, especially in June. Below 11000', The Gulch, wind sheltered, buttery, velvet turns!
Some of the best moraine turns I have ever had on the dome, especially in June. Below 11000′, The Gulch, wind sheltered, buttery, velvet turns!

The gear I bring on my trips from summer backpacking to Winter mountaineering has to reliable, tough and durable that’s why my Armor jackets and Armor pants along with both my Cirro synthetic pants and jacket paired with the BR puffy down jackets are always in my pack or gear bag.  My Invasion tent weighing in at 3.7 lbs gives not only myself, but also another ample living space and protection from the elements in a very light weight package. My Cloak 30 weighing in at 16oz was barely noticeable in my pack, a bit light for sleeping at 11,000′ in early May, but has become my go to sleeping system in warmer climates.

 

The storms are producing generous amounts of snow down south as I write this, and the stoke is high and optimism is up for another big snow year up north. This year brought up so many new ideas and adventures for myself and my climbing partners. I’m excited to see what the years ahead hold!!!
A look into the portal of the Shasta Vortex, a place in nature where the earth is exceptionally alive with energy. 10-15cm of new snow and a fresh skin track from Bunny Flat, now this is June in Cali. Great splitboarding on the Shastahorn today in my BR Armor Jacket! How's your Summer going?
A look into the portal of the Shasta Vortex, a place in nature where the earth is exceptionally alive with energy. 10-15cm of new snow and a fresh skin track from Bunny Flat, now this is June in Cali. Great splitboarding on the Shastahorn today in my BR Armor Jacket! How’s your Summer going?

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