Travel

Heli-skiing Will Give You the Ultimate Alaskan Adrenaline Rush

Who needs a ski lift when you have a helicopter?

Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane

Just seconds after buckling my seatbelt and putting on my intercom headset, the AStar helicopter was airborne. I took a moment to exhale deeply and could see my breath in the humid mountain air. My three compatriots and I were packed shoulder-to-shoulder like brightly colored Gore-Tex sardines, all of us silently trying to figure out what we had gotten ourselves into. As for myself, I’d spent four months preparing for the trip by skiing a couple times each week, not to mention thousands of dollars for the week-long trip in Alaska.

Our pilot, a Frenchman named Jean-Louis, was surrounded by an array of knobs and gauges. I peeked at the airspeed indicator and saw that we were cruising at a casual 140 mph, on our way from one mountain valley in the Chugach range to the adjacent one. I used a jacket cuff to clear a viewport out of the foggy window to see jagged peaks whizz by, which only added to the nervous anticipation of my upcoming run. But, at this point, I was what poker players like to call pot committed.

“Let’s go window shopping,” our guide, Matt, barked over the radio. For most of us, “window shopping” is common slang for browsing expensive merchandise as a pastime. But I figured-given the unusual circumstances-that he had something else in mind. And it was true: Rather than pointing out a sweater or a pair of boots, the life-long ski guide had set his sights on a north-facing slope that ran all the way to the valley floor. “What do you think of that line?” he asked.

Jean-Louis nodded, navigating the helicopter in a downward arc so Matt could get a closer view of the snow surface. That was the end of the conversation. For a couple of industry vets like them, this was akin to dropping the kids off at school. Matt, happy with what he saw, gave Jean-Louis a thumbs up, and in a few seconds we were landing on a razor-thin ridge. With the tail of the ‘copter hanging precariously over a 2,000-foot cliff and the cockpit not far from a large cornice, Matt motioned for me to get out. “This looks like a good landing,” he said, though I wasn’t quite so sure.

Apparently, when it comes to heli-skiing in Alaska, the word “landing” is used loosely.

Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane

The first commercial helicopters were used to access remote Alaskan ranges in 1948. At the time, they were primarily flown during summer months and used for mapping surveys, research projects, and exploration. Larger helicopters arrived at the tail end of the 1950s, helping shuttle crews and equipment to remote towns across the state, as the oil and natural gas boom started to take off.

The idea of heli-skiing-that is, using helicopters to access remote slopes of untouched powder-was born a few years later, when geologist Art Patterson took a trip with Hans Gmoser, an Austrian mountain guide, in British Columbia. The two founded the first heli-ski business in 1963, charging just $20 for a day out. Using a small Bell 47G-2 helicopter, the business struggled to get off the ground, both literally and figuratively. Fickle weather and frequent storms kept the underpowered heli from flying very much.

Patterson left the venture and Gmoser forged on, starting his own company in 1965. Bringing together lodging, food, transport, and guides into a single experience, he created Canadian Mountain Holidays, the first modern heli-ski lodge. With this full-service package, he was able to turn a profit and gradually expand the business.

The industry grew in the 1970s and ‘80s, thanks to publicity by Warren Miller, a well-known American filmmaker. It got even bigger in the ‘90s and ‘00s, as Teton Gravity Research and Matchstick Productions featured it in their popular annual ski films. Today, it’s firmly embedded in the cultural lexicon of the ski industry, although it’s banned or heavily restricted in some European countries, such as France. (A few clever operators there have come up with workarounds.)

Meanwhile, in Alaska, quite a few heli-ski outfits have popped up in the last decade, though two of the old guard still stand above the rest. With high-end accommodations, top-tier guides, and world-class skiing, Valdez Heli-Ski Guides and Tordrillo Mountain Lodge have established themselves as the premier heli-ski lodges in Alaska, and perhaps even the world. Combined, they have more than 50 years of experience.

Both operate from February to late May or early June, depending on the snowpack. In the first half of the season you’ll have less daylight and fickle weather, but deeper powder, generally speaking. Later in the season you’ll have more predictable conditions, but lower odds of deep days. I decided to aim for the best of both worlds and booked a trip through Valdez Heli-Ski Guides for March. After flying to Anchorage, driving four hours to the lodge, and participating in a short safety briefing, I was packed into the helicopter.

Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane

Without the will to argue, I opened the door, ducked my head, stepped on the skid, and hopped into the void, praying the ground was solid. The backwash of the rotors kicked around so much snow I was forced to cover my nose and mouth with a glove.

I landed without issue. Matt then unloaded our skis from a metal basket and placed them in front of us. He gave Jean-Louis a thumbs up, signaling it was safe to take off. After watching the heli fly away, I took a moment to check out my surroundings. Everything was still and quiet, including the errant thoughts in my brain. Outside of the four others next to me surveying this new world, all I could see was layer upon layer of mountain ranges. Just an endless sea of snow and ice, with no other signs of human life. The smallness I felt standing on that peak was palpable-and rare these days.

After getting my bearings, I got to work. Helicopters are new to me, but skis most definitely are not. I’ve skied since I was in middle school, and these days I spend a hundred days each season on the slopes. Nearly every lodge, including Valdez, gives you the option to rent skis, but I decided to bring my own gear out of comfort and familiarity. I’d packed my fattest skis-the Black Crows Anima-because they float well in powder, and can handle variable conditions-and paired them with K2 Mindbender BOA Boots, which keep my feet snug and my turns precise. After clicking into my bindings, I grinned. I knew what we were about to do.

Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane
Photo courtesy of Andy Cochrane

Matt was waiting when we finished getting ready. “Sneak through the cornice, traverse right, and drop the fall line,” he instructed, reminding us to spread out by a 30-second count. Not one for long-winded speeches, what Matt lacked in banter he made up for in smooth, effortless style. Watching the snow billow into smoke behind him, we let out a few hoots and hollers, knowing that his aerial assessment was right-he had found the good snow.

Still, my first few turns were short and controlled, as I struggled to get the jitters out of my legs. Without a safe place to stop mid-run that was out of an avalanche path, our instructions were to ski top to bottom, if our legs could handle it. While most runs have natural rises to take breaks, this one did not. We could also rest if needed, with the knowledge that we shouldn’t stay for long. I soon started to open up my turns, feeling the dopamine and serotonin levels rise with the speed of my skis.

The next few minutes were a blur. An empty stadium of snow and the freedom to carve turns wherever I wanted. With 5,000 feet of descending, this one run was longer than any resort in the country. But this was exactly what I’d been looking for. Riding the line between in control and not, delicately balancing fear and thrill, I found myself in flow state, consumed with what was right in front of me. Everything else faded away into a nearly perfect moment-the ultimate Alaskan adventure.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Andy Cochrane is a contributor for Thrillist. After earning a Design Strategy MBA and working in tech, a late-20s-life-crisis drove some questionable decisions, including five years and 200,000 miles living out of his Toyota Tacoma. He now resides in Bend, Oregon, with his partner and their dogs, Dusty Bottoms and Bea, working as a freelance writer, photographer, and producer. You can follow him on Instagram @andrewfitts.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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