Thomas Gaisbacher: Skiing and Guiding in the Wild YukonThursday, December 1, 2016
Everything started during the ride up a chairlift at Les Marecottes. Sam Anthamatten and I were chatting about our plans for the end of the season. He told me about a big project in the remote Yukon. It involved three weeks in April, glacier camping, heli-skiing and a really big spine descent. He mentioned how he had gotten the info via e-mail a few days before. I laughed because I had just received nearly the same e-mail. The only difference was that I had been asked to guide.
But could that be? Was it really the same project?
In the evening we checked our inbox and yes, it was indeed the same project. Sam had been invited as a rider and I as the guide.
At first, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to commit, because I ́m more into riding rather than guiding right now. But Sam and I have done a lot of projects together, so why not be the guide for him this time? He also liked the idea and we both signed on.
We were heading to the Yukon—more specifically Haines Pass and the Tsirku Glacier—the first week of April with a film crew from Sherpas Cinema. The objective was to ski one of the biggest spine-walls on earth, known as Corrugated. I would be guiding along with Yvan Sabourin, and riders Sam Anthamatten, Johnny Collinson, Hadley Hammer and Ralph Backstrom would provide the entertainment!
Peter Wright, the owner of Yukon Heli, gave me a call and asked if I could come two weeks earlier to help him build up the camp for the crew. Plus, he’d need someone to explore his brand new heli-skiing terrain. So if I would help him build up the camp, I would get free heli-time? Yes! Best deal I’ve ever gotten.
My departure was on March 18 and Peter started sending me pictures of un-skied mountains one week before. I got really excited and a bit nervous because I would be the head guide. Being in charge of all the safety and avalanche forecasting and being responsible for seven people, plus a pilot and heli is no easy task. But I knew I’d have time to get comfortable with all the new situations, check out the area to see what’s going on in the snow and of course ski and make some first descents.
Peter picked me up from the airport at Whitehorse and the next two days involved organizing all the stuff for the camp. We drove all the way up to the Alaska Highway and stopped at Haines Pass near a landing strip. The landscape was amazing—just a black road which led through the white nature with all its beautiful mountains. Next to the highway we built up our camp and it got pretty fancy. We got a big wall tent with a kitchen, a couch, a flat-screen and a wood stove inside. For a camp in the middle of nowhere, we had everything we needed.
After everything was done we decided to play a game that everyone plays in Alaska. It ́s called the Alaskan waiting game. The weather forecast was bad and the temperature was rising. The snow was melting really fast and our camp turned into a mud hole. It was frustrating sitting at a place where every skier wants to be—with a heli in front of the tent just waiting—yet you are not able to do anything.
But then … if there is a weather window and you are able to fly, holy moly!!!!
Everything is forgotten.
We got our first flight after seven days. This was the first time I saw the whole terrain and it was awesome. Mountains as far as you can see. Spines, pillows, chutes … everything you love as a skier was there. We studied the snow and found some weak layers. It was not the best season for Canada and Alaska. Low snow levels and a lot of changing temperatures made the snow-pack unstable. We searched for the safest spots to ski.
I dove into my work, learning how to spot lines from the helicopter, searching drop off and pick up zones and landing spots for the pilot ... you have to work fast and make quick decisions for safe heli time. After some pretty cool days of skiing, it became really normal to work with the helicopter. It was like using the car for going skiing. I could explore Peter ́s terrain and found some really cool spots for filming.
After two weeks the whole crew arrived at Whitehorse and Yvan (one of the best and most experienced guides) and I picked them up. When we arrived in camp, the weather turned and we decided to make a trip with the snow machines into the big park to check out the trail to our main project, Corrugated. By land, it takes roughly two days to reach the base of Corrugated through big ice fields with crevasses. Not the easiest way to get there but the only legal one. Nobody was allowed to go there by plane or helicopter for years until now. But Peter Wright got a film permit, which means he is allowed to fly there by heli … only without landing. He is also allowed to travel there by snowmobile, though nobody had ever made this crazy trip by sled.
After we rode across three mountains we reached a place we named chicken bone and stored gas for the snowmobiles’ final trip and then headed back. It was great to drive through this amazing landscape, but in the evening we were really tired. It looks so easy when you see someone riding the sled but if you are driving it by yourself it can get very hard and scary.
Some storms blew in and we spent a few days more at camp and made a short trip to Haines to have a shower and some beers at the bars there. We met most of the high society of skiing there. Everyone was here and waiting for good weather.
Eventually the sky cleared in the evening and we went out to try some filming and skiing. I dug a lot of snow pits to check the avalanche danger. It was really high. We had a lot of surface layers and the snow was collapsing pretty fast. Only west aspects were not that bad and we found some wonderful lines.
It was really impressive standing in the mountains in the perfect evening light. I waited for Sam and Johnny to drop in. I saw them from above skiing down these nice spines and pillows and having fun. It looked just perfect! Then I got the radio call that I could ski and it was absolutely perfect. We skied until dark and went back home.
We were all super stoked and ready to go big, but the weather changed and we were stuck in camp … again. The forecast was not good for the next 10 days and we were running out of time. There was no good weather window for more than one day in the forecast and for Corrugated we would need more than five. So we made the decision to move the Corrugated project to the end of the trip and concentrate on getting ski footage, which meant flying in the heli.
We found an amazing spine-wall—really steep but with perfect shaped spines. We landed in front of this face and checked out the lines. This time I had to take care of Leo because he wanted to shoot from an exposed tower covered with snow and I had to belay him. So I was standing next to this perfect run looking at Sam who was getting ready for the descent. This was an interesting and new situation for me. I think I was more nervous than him. I know Sam pretty well and he’s known for going super fast and making the impossible possible but this time the snow wasn’t made for that. It was safe but the quality was bad—crusty with a 10-cm thick layer of unstable snow on hard pack. It was also the first time we had not been on top together. I was thinking about calling him to ask if he knew what was going on down the face but I didn’t want to make him feel uneasy. This is the last thing you need standing on the top of such a mountain. I was really nervous but when I saw him skiing down I was super stoked. He dropped in and straight away checked out what was going on. The crusty snow slid down and he was skiing on 50-degree ice. He worked his way down the upper part and when he saw that the snow was better, he shot down like a rocket.
I wanted to ski it also but there was no time for that. I was the guide, not the athlete this time. We had to collect footage, and that was the reason we were there. So I watched Ralf and Hadley ski down, called the helicopter and we picked them up again. Next stop, same situation.
The following days were nearly the same. It was really cool work, I admit, but if you’re an athlete it can also be really hard. You have to calm yourself down, and make everything as easy as possible for the others.
Peter got three new clients who joined the camp. One was his friend Kurt Lauber from Switzerland. He is a full mountain guide as well and came here with his wife and a client. He asked me if I could join them when we were not filming to show them the terrain. Of course! We flew out and his client got one of his best ski days.
We skied 20 runs in perfect snow. I found a really playful area with many possibilities. This time I could ski by myself and it was amazing. I was surfing spines and pushed myself harder and harder. I checked out a really cool pillow line during the flight up and knew I had to ski it. I dropped in and caught a lot of air on my way down. On the last pillow I did a backflip and thought the landing would be steep … but no. It was super flat. I crashed really bad. I twisted my knee and instantly I knew that there was something wrong with my foot. It was one of the last runs and when we got back to camp my knee was already swollen. Bummer. The next day it was clear that for this trip skiing was over for me. F**k! I spoke to Eric and Leo about my situation. I could help them with filming, but for Corrugated, where we had to hike and climb, there was no chance for me.
But that’s life. Shit happens.
Eric and Leo told me that the Cineflex camera would be ready in the next few days and they would need a really good spot for filming. It’s a lot of money when the helicopter is in the air and they needed to make it count. I went through all my photos that I had taken during the days I was scouting the terrain and found it. It was a place far out and it looked a bit like Chamonix, with huge granite towers and perfect chutes—not your typical Alaska footage but really cool. I showed them the pics and they were stoked.
We studied the weather forecast because we really needed perfect weather for the Cineflex shoot. The only problem was that we didn’t have the exact GPS coordinate from the place I had found in the picture. The plan was that the athletes, along with Leo and I would go out first in the heli, and once we scouted the location, we would call the film crew and give them the exact coordinates.
We were fully loaded and the pilot tried to save fuel on the way there. It was not easy to find the location again but we managed it. We landed in front of these huge mountains and called the other helicopter. Everyone was ready to go big.
Ralf was the first to ride and he chose a really beautiful line. It was a long chute through two granite towers and he killed it! He was going super fast and we could hear Eric, who was in the other helicopter filming, shouting. Sam also found an interesting, exposed line and he skied it like a boss. Hadley the same. Now the team was on fire and they pushed it really hard.
Ben, the heli pilot, saw that I would have loved to ski one of the couloirs too, but he knew I couldn’t. So he flew the helicopter like in the movie “The Art of Flight.” I was shouting when the nose of the helicopter pointed straight down to the bottom. I loved it! Eric and Leo told us in the evening that the footage was going to be amazing. Everyone was happy. Yeah!
The crew packed all their stuff for one last attempt at Corrugated. There was a four-day weather window coming and they wanted to give it a try. I wasn’t able to join them and booked my flight back home. I felt a little bit sad that I couldn’t be part of the crew on the last project, but with a damaged knee, no way. I wished them all the best and flew back home.
Sam contacted me afterward and told me the story of Corrugated. Oh man, it sounded like it was a real adventure …
I will be back!