Hayley Total Heliski

Hayley Total Heliski photo

Record amounts of rain in the lower elevations means conditions for Northern Southeast’s heliski season are the best they’ve been in at least two years.

What was warm and soggy January weather for residents at sea level created a great base of snow on area peaks. Tim Thomas, is lead guide for Alaska Heliskiing company. He’s been flying over the mountains recently, scouting terrain. He compared conditions to plastering and painting a room.

“It’s not the final coat, we could use some more,” Thomas says. “We could us a lot more. But it’s a really good start. A nice big, thick coat of plaster.”

Haines’ back country terrain lures elite skiers from around the world during this part of the years. The commercial heliski season in the Haines Borough started February first , but companies don’t normally start operations until mid-month, depending on conditions. Thomas says the conditions this year are better than they have been in the last two.

“That two weeks of rain at the beginning of the month, it was a little rough for us down here but it’s exactly what the doctor ordered for up top,” Thomas says.

Scott Sundberg of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, or SEABA, agreed with Thomas’ assessment. He says the company has bookings starting Feb. 26th and running through April. But local companies will also be busy with the FreeRide World Tour that is coming to Haines in March. The international ski and snowboarding competition is hosting an Alaska stop for the first time this year in part because of poor snow conditions at some sites in the Lower 48. The event is expected to bring athletes, tour staff and spectators to Haines. While not directly involved in FreeRide, Thomas said it’s a huge boost to winter tourism for the town.

“It’s magical, it’s the best thing ever because Haines is so great for the summertime for having events and music and food and parties and there’s nothing like that in the wintertime and here’s an opportunity for that for the community where’s there’s something going on,” Thomas says. “So I think it’s awesome. It’s a beautiful thing for Haines.”

Heliskiing has always caused some controversy in the community. The Haines Borough regulates commercial operators and there are members of the community who complain to the borough of noise and companies using backcountry areas they aren’t supposed to. In the last few years, injuries and deaths have also checkered the heliski season. Now, SEABA and Alaska Heliskiing require all their guides to wear avalanche airbags. Thomas says his company cannot require customers to wear them, but they are encouraged.

Other communities have commercial heliskiing operations, including Valdez and in the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains. Skiing in the Tordrillo Mountains in Southcentral has also risen in popularity. But Thomas says Haines still offers excellent conditions in a market with only a few operators.

“Our terrain and the variety of our terrain that’s never going to change and I think that’s really what makes Haines so special,” Thomas says. “We have a 4,000-foot, 30 degree mellow glacier run that intermediately skiers can ski all day long and then right next to it is the most beautiful spine wall that athletes around the world dream at to come film at. So I think, that’s never going to change.”

The heliskiing season near Haines runs through April.