Nailing it in Cordova: a Dream Trip to Points North

Willie Mein approaches the summit of Mt. Eyak on our dream trip to Points North, with Cordova and Prince William Sound in the background.

By Bruce Edgerly

When Kevin and Jessica Quinn said “come on up and see us sometime” at our bi-annual snow science conference a few years ago, I figured it was a long shot I’d ever actually get up to Points North Heli Adventures (PNH), their legendary heli-skiing operation out of Cordova, AK. As a longtime cheapskate and turns-earner, I’d never considered throwing down for a full week of guided heli-skiing. But then I ran into Boulder pinhead friend Donnie Martin. “Hey, my bro’s getting a knee operation so we might have an extra spot at this heli-skiing place up in AK.” At nearly 57 years old, I figured I’m approaching “carpe diem” time, so when I heard it was Points North, I jumped on it. Good decision, to say the least.

Even though most of Alaska had a horrendous year, this part of the Chugach recovered just in time for the last session of PNH’s nine-week season. We scored four days of bluebird heli-skiing and a “rest day” of ski touring on Mt. Eyak, possibly one of the most scenic little “ski areas” in the world.

Heliskiing-Points-North-Cordova-1-940x705Guide Chris Anthony and Points North owners Kevin and Jessica Quinn at PNH’s base at the Orca Adventure Lodge, a remodeled cannery complex on Prince William Sound.

Points North has always been a great champion and supporter of BCA, with a full fleet of Tracker2 avalanche transceivers and Float 22 avalanche airbags for the guests — and BC Link radios coming “highly recommended.” So it was my duty to go up there and check it out! It’s no mystery why they like BCA gear: one guide flies with four guests and the guide usually goes first, relaying info back up to the guests from below, via radio. You’d better hope the guests have an easy-to-use transceiver (and dependable airbag) if the guide gets buried.

Heliskiing-Points-North-Cordova-2-940x705Talented (and assertive) PNH guide Kim Grant issues one of many Float 22s. If you bring your own, they’ll refill your cylinder upon arrival (sorry, no ABS cylinders).

The terrain can be steep and potentially exposed at times, with lots of sluffing on each turn, so the first thing you learn is “sluff management:” skiing off-fall-line, in front of, or in back of your sluff, so it doesn’t carry you off a cliff or into a crevasse. The other fun thing you get to do on almost every run is jump the bergschrund (“schrund”) at the bottom, although most of the crevasses are pretty filled in this time of year. Many of the runs have a dicey landing zone at the top, with minimal room for maneuvering a helicopter, not to mention getting your gear unloaded and attached to your feet. The pickup zone is usually out on the glacier a few thousand feet below. In between, the runs can have sections pushing 55 degrees. If you want, you can sneak into some pretty technical couloirs. But there are plenty of mellower options too.

The highlight of the week was Bubby’s Run, a sustained 3,000 foot descent on day two with carveable near-surface facets (a.k.a. “recycled powder”) and a few moderate airs you could take if you wanted—and of course the mando, but mellow ‘schrund air at the bottom. There were many others, including a steep, unnamed ramp that PNH hadn’t guided before, probably for a good reason: they generally don’t make a habit of putting clients above exposure. Classic quote of the week on that one from our assertive guide, Kim Grant, over her BC Link: “I want you guys to ski this line like friggin’ 90-year-olds!”

Heliskiing-Points-North-Cordova-4a-940x705We got to ski this line (“like friggin’ 90-year-olds”) on the second day, once we got a feel for the snow conditions–and dialed in our sluff management.
As a dedicated backcountry junkie, the other highlight was a ski tour up Mt. Eyak with fellow guest and Boulder shredder Willie Mein. At the base of Eyak is Cordova’s town-owned single chair, the oldest chairlift in North America. It was closed for the season, so we skinned up the hill, then on up to the summit of Eyak and back down to the Orca Lodge, the remodeled cannery complex where PNH’s fun and relaxing base is located. Other folks from our group opted to go salmon fishing, sea kayaking, and sauna-ing. The views of Cordova, Prince William Sound, the southern Chugach and Heeney range were beyond description.

Heliskiing-Points-North-Cordova-4-940x1253Kim relays beta to the guests on her BC Link two-way radio. Each guide is on a separate BC Link channel, listed on a card issued to each guest. Communication between guests–and between groups–is seamless.

We were back at it the final day, the grand finale being Four Horsemen, a huge descent with some heavy exposure if you didn’t precisely follow Kim’s directions from below. By then, she trusted us to ski these kinds of lines cautiously, not like the ski movie rock stars that frequent this place: Warren Miller has filmed 14 segments at PNH–usually starring Chris Anthony. But even Anthony skied this one like he was 90.

If you’re an expert skier looking for the ultimate skiing experience, this is the ticket. Normally, given notorious AK weather, you can expect several down days. But not us: we nailed it. Thanks to Kevin, Jess, Kim, and Chris for a killer week!