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Our Alaska: Heli-skiing history in Thompson Pass

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch
TGR

Ski movies usually entail little more than goofing off and jumping out of helicopters into rugged terrain while communicating in a ski-bum lexicon chock full of phrases like "freshies" and "shredding gnar-pow." So when the folks over at Teton Gravity Research took it upon themselves to tell the story of the origins of heli-skiing in Alaska's world-renowned Thompson Pass near Valdez, it offered a look at the recent history of the outdoors in the region -- while still shredding some of that aforementioned gnar-pow, of course.

Thompson Pass offers some of the best skiing on the planet, and holds the record for highest annual snowfall in the U.S., set in 1953 at a mind-boggling 974 inches. 

Bush pilot Chuck McMahan is widely credited as the progenitor of Thompson Pass's thriving freeskiing scene, when he started flying his buddies up into the untouched peaks in his ski-equipped Supercub in 1987. 

"So when we'd travel to Valdez, I'd look up at those nice snow-covered mountains and I'd say, 'Man, I think I could land at the top of that one, and we oughta get something going with skiers down here,'" McMahan says in the short documentary.

Those early trips were a bargain, too: only $15. Today, a trip would cost you a lot more, into the thousands of dollars.

The video also covers a brief history of the Tsaina Lodge, a longtime headquarters for the Thompson Pass skiing scene. Built in 1949 as a pit stop for truckers, McMahan and friend Michael Cozad purchased the lodge after realizing the area's potential for great skiing and knowing the lengths that skiers will go to to achieve that perfect run.

From there, Cozad conceived of the World Extreme Skiing Championships, which the September 1991 edition of Powder Magazine described as "...37 skiers who traveled all the way to Alaska to compete for no money in a first-time contest run by people nobody had ever heard of."

But the WESC caught on, and even though the Tsaina Lodge changed ownership in the interim, the competition continued to run for nine years, until its interruption in the year 2000. By then, Thompson Pass had established itself as a world-class destination for skiing -- if not necessarily for ideal accommodations or ease of access -- and the area would continue to draw skiers for years to come.

It's a different place today -- gone are the day-glo, one-piece snowsuits; snowboarders flock to the slopes as much as skiers; and perhaps most significantly, the Tsaina Lodge is a far cry from its former brusque, rough self. Already old in the early 90s, the lodge was closed down for several years, and as one ski guide and former regular of the lodge recalled in a 2012 ESPN article, it was no high-end resort even before its closure:

"I would stop in town when we got to Alaska and buy a container of bleach for the showers," said Alaska heli-ski guide Benny Wilson, who'd stay at the dilapidating lodge. "My clients would give me funny looks -- but there was black mold up the walls."

That's changed now, after the original building was razed in 2011 and rapidly reconstructed into a contemporarily-architectured, modern hotel.

Perhaps part of the appeal -- and mystery -- of Thompson Pass is its limited skiing and snowboarding window: despite the massive snowfall every year, there is only a brief period in the spring when conditions are ideal for helo runs.

Our Alaska takes a look at the people, places, activities and wildlife that make Alaska great. There's the Alaska that many people know from reality television, and then there's Our Alaska. If you have a video that puts the spotlight on the positive, educational or unique aspects of Alaska and its people, send links or submissions to ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.