Traverse untouched slopes with an Olympic gold medalist for the ultimate winter escape at an exclusive, updated heli-skiing lodge in Alaska’s backcountry
BY CINDY HIRSCHFELD — Winter 2018
An Alaskan Ski Adventure begins. Meringue-dolloped Alaskan peaks stretch to the horizon all around as I revel in the fact that moments before I had climbed out of a helicopter and clicked into my skis atop some of the deepest snow I’ve ever experienced. In front of me, guide Tommy Moe, the 1994 Olympic downhill gold medalist, glides away in a silent rush of powder, charting the way for our group of four to follow.
Once he stops a few hundred feet below, I push off down a steep side hill into a long, snow-choked gully, feeling out the consistency of the untracked powder beneath my skis. From his vantage below, Moe motions for me to ski past him and I continue, making turns for another 1,000 feet or so, snow billowing behind me, until my quads scream at me to stop. The run descends in an area called Spinal Tap, and the fun meter is most certainly getting pushed to 11. I look back up at my tracks, scribed on the slope like ephemeral graffiti, and get out my camera to snap the rest of the group finding its own snowy nirvana. Alaska Heli-skiing is full of pinch-me-am-I-really-here moments like these.
Up to 20 lucky skiers at a time can experience similar moments during a week at Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, which offers fly-in, backcountry heli-skiing on such a grand scale that memories of the endless, craggy peaks stayed with me months later. About 60 miles northwest of Anchorage, and reachable only by a 40-minute bush plane ride, the lodge sits in the foothills of the Tordrillo Mountains, the southernmost portion of the Alaska Range. The high-end yet thoroughly unpretentious boutique lodge celebrated a dozen years last winter with a $10 million renovation, which required 1,000 air trips to bring in materials to the roadless area. An expansion to the now 5,600-square-foot traditional log main lodge includes a bright new dining and bar area where you can spread out to partake in the buffet breakfasts and three-course dinners (focused on Alaskan game and seafood, natch).
From there, large picture windows capture the views of frozen-over Judd Lake just outside and the Tordrillos in the distance. The four rustic-chic double bedrooms upstairs have been expanded and baths updated; the addition of an intimate lounge, tucked under the steeply sloping roof above the new dining room, provides an enviable spot to bring up a glass of wine from the 500-bottle cellar, sit back on a sheepskin throw, and watch the sun set.
Just steps from the lodge, two new Scandinavian-designed cabin suites provide total privacy when you want it. With separate bedroom and living spaces, efficient wood stoves, and sleek blond-wood walls and cabinetry, each cabin sleeps two in a best-of-both-worlds arrangement — eat and socialize at the main lodge for as much as you can handle, then retreat to your cozy haven to recharge.
These upgrades make a special place even better for TML’s international clientele, which includes loyal guests who return each year for the exclusive ski experience with top-notch guides (and the aforementioned opportunity to ski with a former Olympian), gourmet meals, fine wines, and seclusion — there’s no cell service, but there is newly upgraded Wi-Fi.
This winter brings even more news. TML has partnered with the Winterlake Lodge, another high-end retreat 30 miles north, to provide guided heli-skiing. Five log guest cabins provide accommodations, with meals and a bar in a main lodge. TML’s guides rotate between the two properties, meaning a similar ski experience, with the opportunity to explore the more northerly parts of the Tordrillos. An added bonus: Winterlake offers dogsled tours and mushing instruction.
But why ski Alaska? The weather may not be as consistent as at the popular heli-ski lodges that dot western Canada, but the stakes are bigger, the land wilder, and everything happens on a grander scale. Whereas many adventurers visit heli-skiing mecca Valdez, 300 miles east of Anchorage, where five heli-ski operators fly clients, here there are no skiers other than the ones you’re with. TML’s permit gives access to 1 million acres of terrain. What’s been skied so far constitutes no more than a fraction of that. A 3-by-5-foot topo map on a lodge wall details the areas skied, with the runs’ names penciled in. It’s a work in progress. Those runs average anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500 vertical feet, equivalent to a top-to-bottom descent at many western North American ski areas. Because TML lies farther inland than other Alaskan heli operations, the snow usually comes in drier and lighter.
Originally, lodge co-owners Tommy Moe and Mike Overcast and their partners in Chugach Powder Guides, the company they helped found in 1997, ran late spring skiing and fishing trips in the Tordrillos out of a leased location elsewhere. But when a friend told them in 2004 about a former lodge for sale aside a lake, they flew over one day to investigate. “I looked at this old, dilapidated building and something resonated,” recalls Overcast.
Sold on the location, and the building, the team overhauled it for TML’s first winter there in 2005. In 2012, Moe and Overcast split from their former partners at Chugach and took over the Tordrillo operation solo. The most recent upgrade became possible when new New York investors came on board in June 2016. They also added their own private lodge and cabins farther along the lakeshore so they can fly in at a moment’s notice when the snow hits its prime. On a limited basis, up to eight guests who can swing last-minute travel plans can book this rustic-luxe mini-complex, too.
A large group of friends may more reliably opt to stay at a second, more modern lodge that TML has leased for the past few winters, about a five-minute walk over the frozen lake from the primary lodge. It houses eight guests — often a group traveling together seeking ultimate privacy, like the German auto company execs who arrive toward the end of my stay — and provides its own helicopter, guides, chefs, and other amenities.
It’s not every day you wake up with a helicopter — in this case, a new A-Star B3E — parked outside your window, something I realize my first morning at TML. After breakfast, our group gathers in the great room for a safety briefing. At 9 a.m. on this mid-February day, the sun just begins to touch the tops of the trees across the lake, a reminder of how far north we are.
As guide Brad Cosgrove fills us in on helicopter procedures and etiquette (his mantra: “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”), he introduces Greg King, a.k.a. Kiwi, one of the pilots who will fly us around during the week, as “the coolest chairlift operator I ever met.” No kidding. Helis not only multiply the convenience of lifts by an untold factor but when you’re sitting in the back, looking out the window at row after row of pristine peaks, knowing that within moments you’ll be getting out to ski on one of them, it’s impossible to sport anything other than a huge grin.
After an outdoor practice session with the supplied avalanche safety gear, we practice the fine art of waiting. Knowing a couple of things about heli-skiing in Alaska will help you to manage your expectations: 1. Bring a good book; and 2. Be patient. The above-treeline terrain means that in stormy weather or flat light, visibility gets compromised for both pilots and skiers, and the choppers won’t fly. But know a third thing, too: 3. When you do ski, you’re very likely to have some of the best runs of your life.
On that first day, we don’t have to wait too long for the payoff. Once word comes down after a couple of hours that the weather has cleared enough to fly, everyone springs into motion, strapping on beacons, bundling into jackets, and fitting climbing harnesses over ski pants — a necessity when traveling over glaciated terrain.
It won’t be until the next day that we’ll glimpse Denali and Mount Foraker out the window of the bird. But we have other things on our mind, like wondering about snow quality. Within about 15 minutes the answer comes as we put on skis and snowboards, snap photos, and breathe in the view while our guides dig a snow pit to get a handle on the stability of the run we plan to ski.
The guides have chosen a relatively mellow slope for us to warm up on, and I unexpectedly have to keep my skis pointed straight to get through the bottomless snow, making only the slightest wiggle of a turn. Sure, the Tordrillos average between 600 and 800 inches of snow a year (in comparison, a lower-48 ski area such as Vail gets about 300), and as storms come up the Cook Inlet, about 30 miles away, the orographic lift of the mountains acts as a catcher’s mitt for snow, as Overcast describes it. But the amount of snow surprises for mid-February, the beginning of TML’s operating season. “I knew it was going to be deep, but I didn’t know it was going to be this deep,” says Moe at the end of that first run. The verdict is clear; we head to steeper terrain for the rest of the afternoon.
The second day, after waiting for a stubborn layer of fog to lift from the mountains, we’re ready to kick it up a notch. The helicopter lands on a narrow ridge, skids extending over the edge. We clamber out, huddling close together as the bird lifts off in a burst of rotor wash, its engine momentarily drowning all other sound. During the week, I start to think of these moments as silent-movie clips — cueing into my fellow skiers’ facial expressions and our guide’s hand signals, the heli’s motor like a super-loud projector running the film.
As I put on my skis and peer down the slope we’ll ski, snow crystals glitter like so many pieces of stained glass at my feet. Moe gets ready to lead the way. Much of the time he’s out skiing, he sports the sort of grin that implies he’s up to something incredibly good, maybe even a little mischievous, and you’re about to be let in on the fun. Just try resisting his infectious enthusiasm for being out in the mountains, as he skis every run like it’s the first time he has experienced such joy in sliding on snow. We, too, whoop it up as we descend a 40-degree slope, equivalent to a double-black run at most ski areas. Then we take pictures of each other, skis off, standing in waist-deep snow as we wait for the heli to return.
During a week at TML, you may ski wide-open powder fields, cliff-lined couloirs, powder-filled gullies, narrow flutes, and steep faces. It’s diversity like that that keeps Moe, Overcast, and the guide team so enthusiastic after all these years.
Good as the skiing is, there’s more to do. The lodge grooms a cross-country ski trail that loops around a nearby meadow, and fat bikes stand at the ready for riding around the lake. A full-time masseuse works out of a small cabin next to the lodge, while another cabin houses a small fitness center and adjacent sauna. The great room, with a wood stove blazing, offers leather chairs and sofas where you can read or gather with other guests.
Après-ski, I recommend the following: Grab a cocktail or hot toddy from the bar, then head outside for a soak in the copper hot tub on the front deck. Afterward, work up a good sweat in the sauna and run out to the lake, where a ladder leads into a hole chain-sawed into the ice for the ultimate cold plunge. Lodge lore has it that regular TML guest Laird Hamilton, the pro surfer, has stayed under the water for up to four minutes. I made it about four seconds, with my head sticking out. But the intense tingling afterward brought pure exhilaration.
After a few days at TML, it becomes easy to settle into a simple schedule: anticipating skiing, skiing, and recovering from skiing, along with ample eating, drinking, and socializing. You check for clear skies as soon as you awaken. You get used to bush planes buzzing in each day with supplies or staff. You start to recognize the pilots and their planes. You start to think it will be weird to see a car at week’s end.
Turns out there’s one more thing to know about heli-skiing in Alaska. Leaving the routine will be harder than you ever anticipated. Returning to your everyday life, no matter how good it is, will feel like returning to Earth after an out-of-orbit experience. It may take a couple of weeks to come down off the buzz. But now you have something more: memories of rustling through deep powder as soft as silk, feeling weightless between turns, taking an invigorating plunge in the lake, raising a toast with your lodgemates during the cocktail hour as alpenglow tips the mountains rosy pink — and all of it was very, very real.
Things You Should Know
The season at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge runs from mid-February to the end of April. In June, the helis fire up again for Kings and Corn, a legendary experience of fishing for king salmon and skiing corn snow. The lodge stays open in summer for fishing, heli-hiking, water sports, and other mountain adventures, including a new via ferrata climbing route. Heli-skiing costs $14,000 per person for a week, which includes an initial overnight in Anchorage; flights to and from the lodge; seven days of skiing; all meals; and use of wide powder skis, snowboards, and safety gear. For more info: 907-569-5588; tordrillomountainlodge.com