Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Warm weather worries heli-skiers


Unseasonably warm weather has local heli-ski operators and backcountry skiers biting their nails about snow conditions and the future of the skiing season.

Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures co-owner Scott Sundberg said this week if he had clients booked for this week, the company would be unable to provide their service.

“No one would pay to go heli-skiing right now,” Sundberg said.

Fortunately, SEABA’s first booking isn’t until Feb. 24, though the official heli-skiing season started Feb. 1. Sundberg said most of SEABA’s clients come in March and April.

Rain at the mountaintop level from Jan. 21-24 and a major thaw from Jan. 25-28 recently caused large and deep avalanches in the alpine range, said Erik Stevens, founder and director of the Haines Avalanche Information Center.

“During that time, temperatures didn’t drop below the mid-40s at the upper elevations, even overnight. The snowpack reacted to the thermal shock by weakening at its layer interfaces, especially where it meets the ground,” Stevens said.

“This type of thing is typical in April, but very unusual for January,” he added.

Now that everything has frozen back over, the skiing conditions are “pretty wrecked,” Stevens said.

“Backcountry riders will need to watch this layer carefully after it is buried. It could give us trouble for the rest of the winter,” Stevens said.

Sundberg said the hard, icy top layer has pretty much “super-glued” everything on the mountains right now. That could make it difficult for the next snowfall to stick and make for avalanche conditions, he said.

Sundberg recently took an hour-long flight with pilot Drake Olsen to assess the situation. He noticed several of SEABA’s “bread and butter” runs, which are mainly in the Kicking Horse region, have been ruined by the weather. “Those particular runs – there were only a few – they need a lot of snow. They need 10-12 feet of snow,” Sundberg said.

New crevasses due to hot weather last summer and a lack of snow this winter have also presented problems. “We’re looking at a whole new palette out there in some respects, and a lot of runs have new cracks in there, new crevassing,” Sundberg said.

No clients have yet canceled, but nationwide news about high Alaska temperatures and a highway-closing avalanche in Valdez have people calling the company with concerns about the conditions, Sundberg said.

Alaska Mountain Guides owner Sean Gaffney said he isn’t despairing yet.

“Things do change fast and we are heading for the two biggest months of the year... We had a big December, and we haven’t gotten it in January, but we are coming into the time when you expect to have a lot. The truth is we just have to see how it goes,” Gaffney said.

He did admit a variety of factors, including the snow conditions, are causing the company to already start looking toward next season. “The way 2014 is lining up with snow and whatnot, it’s already pushed a lot of our focus to the 2015 season where we are having a lot of good early bookings,” Gaffney said.

Even if conditions don’t significantly improve, skiing isn’t going to be impossible. The runs might be different and the areas available might be smaller, but with a couple feet of snow, the season could still move forward, Sundberg said.

“We have areas right now that if we just got three feet of snow in the next couple weeks... we can keep them happy,” he said.

Haines Borough Tourism Director Tanya Carlson said though the season opened Feb. 1, most heli-ski companies don’t start operating until the end of February. Carlson said she hopes the weather turns up so the rest of the town – hotels, restaurants, businesses – isn’t affected.

“We’re holding our breath that snow happens,” she said.