What it’s really like to conquer the biggest snow lines in Alaska

alaska
ALASKA. Pic by Matt Ward

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Thirty eight year old Matt Ward is at first glance, your average Sydney Northern Beaches Joe. An outdoor adventure loving larrikin from Australia who grew up skateboarding and mountain boarding in the summer and snowboarding in the winter. 

Look twice because this patent lawyer conquered what few skiers and boarders have conquered before him last week in Alaska. Him and his band of merry heli skiers made their mark on not one, not two, but three of Alaska’s Big 5 descents.

And they did it in three consecutive days. If you’ve been to Alaska you know the weather odds of that happening alone are extremely low. 

These guys scored the Alaskan ski lottery.

Alaska’s ‘Big Five’

Think Alaska and many think extreme spines, exposed lines and steeps to make you call for your mamma before your first turn. But in reality, these lines are reserved for the pros, and mere mortals get rolling powder filled glacial terrain. 

Ward and his friends took five years of annual Alaska heli skiing before they got to try the truly big lines reserved for energy drinking sponsored athletes and the rewards on this occasion were well worth it.

The Big Five are debated by skiers and snowboarders. But they all agree on three of them. The fifty seven degree pitch of the mammoth Pontoon peak, the helicopter hover and jump at the top of Sphinx and the rarely skiable conditions of Tusk. Then it’s a mix of Dimond, Meteorite, Cordova Peak or Ocean View depending on who you talk to.

It’s rare for the stars, conditions and timing to align to even ski one of the Big Five. This is Matt’s far from average story of the road to skiing three.

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I’VE BEEN SNOWBOARDING since I was eight. Throughout high school I was pretty obsessed; I’d regularly hang out at Balmoral Boards on my way home from school to watch movies and drool over all the gear. 

Instead of going to schoolies (Australia’s high school graduation holiday), I’d saved up all my coin to spend a few months in Whistler riding every day, and repeated that a few times through my university years. I’d also gotten involved in the competition scene, initially as a GS and SBX racer, and later with Snowboard Australia with judging and admin. 

But once I got into the “real world” and started by career in law there were a few years where I just wasn’t getting the days on snow I craved. 

Eventually I got my priorities back in order, negotiated an increase in my annual leave entitlements, and got back on the program. At first it was all about Japan, but I also managed trips to out-of-the-way places like Kamchatka and Antarctica. 

Several years back I started taking my backcountry riding more seriously, and that led me down the path of completing my Mechanised Guiding certification with Heli Ski US. That was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life – they managed to pull in so many amazing experts to pass on their wisdom about the mountains and guiding. 

Being a heli ski guide is absolutely one of my long term objectives – the challenge of dealing with client safety in a high pressure setting really appeals to me. And the reward of giving people their best days ever is pretty enticing also. 

When I was younger and dumber I made all sorts of mistakes, and it was probably blind luck that got me through. Those sort of mistakes are probably what put me on a good path as I’ve matured, with loads of education and optimisation of my safety practices.

Still, it doesn’t matter how much training and experience you have, sometimes the mountains remind you that they are in charge. 

Back in 2016 I got caught in a very large avalanche in Japan, on a day and in a place where I’d have never expected it. It was later in the day, and in spite of feeling really good about stability, we decided to ramp down and ski a mellower zone to close out the day. 

About 100 metres into my line, I heard what sounded like dynamite, and pretty much the whole side of the mountain I was riding had released above me. The fracture took both sides of a terrain feature I had planned on using as an emergency safe zone, and before I could do anything much I was completely buried and taking a long ride to the valley floor. 

That’s a feeling I hope never to experience again. In the end, I got lucky, and was able to dig out my face and clear my own airways before my ski partner started a search. What scares me the most is looking back on days when “afternoon complacency” might have resulted in multiple burials from an unexpectedly large avalanche like that.

The road to Alaska’s big lines

Sphinx, Alaska. Video Matt Ward. TAP ABOVE ON A MOBILE DEVICE TO WATCH.

MY BEST ADVICE FOR PEOPLE wanting to get over to Alaska to heli ski the really big stuff is to accept that it’s a long-term play. Plan to be heading for about five years or so, and over that time you’re likely to get enough good days in the mountains to build up the experience needed to tackle the more challenging lines. 

It takes a few trips to learn how to ride big mountains like that, and it’s pretty unlikely any guide will be putting people on something huge and consequential in their first season there. It’s also really important to make sure you book in with an operator you trust, and ideally go along with a crew of people with similar goals and expectations so you can have a helicopter to yourselves. 

You start small, and learn about sluff management and terrain navigation. Over time you ramp up and start to learn when you can push it, and when to hold back. There’s nothing more fun than sending lines full-pace from T to B, but those times tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

You never want to fall in Alaska, and you reign yourself in accordingly. 

With lines like Pontoon and Sphinx, the snow is usually better described as “edgable” than “powder”, and so when you get on these big lines like these, it’s more like ski mountaineering. You’re moving slowly and deliberately, making each turn count. 

I tend to ride with an ice axe in hand, in case I need to self-arrest in an emergency (and it’s also nice to feel out variations in the snow).

It’s not pretty, but it’s rewarding to feel solid and in control each time you change edges. 

matt on tusk
Matt Ward and his ice axe on Tusk in Alaska. PHOTO: Sam Hancock

My first Alaska trip was about 10 years ago in Valdez – and to be honest it was a real let down. 

I’d been dreaming since I was a kid of getting to Alaska and riding the sort of lines I’d been seeing in the old Standard Films movies, and found myself riding low angle pow. The operators there crushed my dreams with comments like “those kind of lines are only for the pros”. 

The best thing to come out of that first trip was meeting Kevin Bibby. He’s the guide that got me to come to Points North Heli (PNH) in Cordova for the first time, and give me my first proper Alaska experience out of the Chugach mountains near Anchorage. For the next few years, Bibby was an amazing mentor for me in big mountains, teaching me how to plan out a line to work with my sluff, and getting me to a point where I started to feel comfortable on the massive walls out there. He’s a badass human. 

After that, it’s become an annual pilgrimage, for anywhere from two to five weeks each year. Alaska is all about being in the right place at the right time – all you can control is being in the right place. 

A cool thing about PNH is the friends you make. I’d have never met any of these guys I skied Pontoon, Tusk and Sphinx with this year if it weren’t for this place, and over the years we’ve become like family. 

We’ve got  Dicko – a former Olympian ski racer from Sydney; Jeremy – a doctor from Colorado; and Sam – an electrical engineer who does some kind of high tech secret military stuff. There’s no competition or egos in the crew; just a bunch of guys who take their skiing/riding seriously, and want to push themselves in big mountains. The team dynamic is amazing, and that’s incredibly important when you’re in those kinds of mountains. 

The legend of Alaska’s Pontoon 

Three of us had gotten really close to tackling Pontoon a few years back, but the winds were too strong to get a landing. At that altitude and exposure, it tends to blow more than elsewhere in the Chugach.

Pontoon was a surreal experience. I remember the first time I laid eyes on that peak: you’re standing on top of these huge steep lines coming off a run they call Toon Town, scared out of your mind, and then look up and notice that you’re only about a third of the way up Pontoon proper. It just towers over everything. 

In the years since, we’ve come close to getting it a couple of times – we even tried to make a landing once. Any day you know it might be on the cards is nerve-racking; it had been slated as a possibility earlier in the week and for the whole morning we were riding what should have been fun lines, but everyone was super quiet, and taking every turn way too seriously. When the plan got cancelled we all loosened up and were able to ski properly again. 

The day it finally happened was a surprise. We’d been riding what’s one of my favourite areas, but the snow was a bit funky and we were staying off the steep stuff. Our guide, Aaron Dahill, had decided that we’d close out the afternoon riding some mellow corn laps in the sun. 

Then, at about 6:30PM, we got a message that Quinner (PNH owner) had given us a green light to fly way out to the other side of the zone and land Pontoon. It took us all by surprise, which was probably a good thing. After some nervous chats between the group, we decided to go an at least have a look, knowing that the opportunity was a rare one, which might not come again for years.  

Pontoon, Alaska. Video Matt Ward. TAP ABOVE TO WATCH ON MOBILE DEVICE.

THE PONTOON LANDING itself isn’t so bad – there’s enough space on top to set down without a toe-in or anything crazy. But when the heli leaves, the feeling is remarkable. You’re standing on this ridge that absolutely towers over the rest of the Chugach – everything else suddenly looks so small. Admittedly, I was so amped on adrenaline at that point that it was tough to really take in the beauty.

From the landing zone, it’s a nervous ridge walk to the start zone, followed by what is for sure the most gripping traverse I’ll ever make. You’re on a knife edge ridgetop spine, and the world just drops away into nothingness on both sides. 

All you know is that if you slip an edge at that point, you’re going off some big cliffs and it’ll be a body recovery job. 

So you try to breathe normally, and creep on down until you get onto the main panel. 

Pontoon ridge walk, Alaska. Video Sam Hancock. TAP ABOVE TO WATCH ON MOBILE DEVICE.

I DROPPED IN FIRST, and it had to be the most gripping experience I’ve ever had on a snowboard. The snow felt crispy under my edge, but I was getting good penetration and purchase with my ice axe. 

It took what felt like an eternity to go from axe-assisted side-stepping, to a cautious falling leaf, and finally getting the trust to start making turns. The hardest part was the battle between my mind and body – you know you’ve ridden steeper lines in worse snow, but getting the confidence to open your shoulders and commit to a jump turn when there’s that much mountain below you – it’s wild.

But eventually you cross the first bergschrund (a crevasse at the junction of a glacier or snowfield with a steep upper slope) onto the shoulder and into a safe position, and the scary part is over. 

At the bottom it was a feeling of relief, and an amazing natural high. There’s no better way to enjoy that than a couple of fly-pasts of the peak, and a long sunset flight back to PNH.  We had an awesome welcoming crew waiting for us back at base, lead by Quinner and a crew of guides who knew exactly what we’d just gone through. 

Sphinx, no ordinary beast

The momentum kept going after Pontoon. The next day we landed Sphinx, which is one of the most beautiful ski lines on the planet. It’s a perfect sustained ramp, about 57 degrees, which opens up from right to left so you can work away from your sluff the whole way down. 

There’s photos of this thing all over PNH base, but until this year it’s just been a teasing peak out in the distance, and out of bounds for commercial operators. This season PNH secured a permit to fly out that way, and Quinner had been dying to get some groups out there. Again, right place and right time, and we were the first group landing up there for the season.

The landing for that one was insane even by Alaska standards – the pilot was basically hovering. 

Sphinx is a different beast to Pontoon. With Pontoon you’re always just looking off the side of a mountain; with Sphinx you get through a bit of ridge walking and down climbing, and then set eyes on the most beautiful ramp ever.

It’s still confronting; you know that a fall would see you tumbling all the way to the valley floor (assuming you don’t end up in the gaping bergschrund), but a few turns in it becomes an absolute pleasure. I’d happily party lap that thing all day given the chance. 

sphinx
Sphinx, Alaska. Pic Matt Ward.

Day three, Tusk

The following day we were enjoying some blower pow laps at the northern edge of the PNH zone, and just having fun in playful terrain. Big turns, high speeds, and all the fun stuff we’d been missing on the huge descents. 

Then, out of the blue, we find out that Quinner had given approval for us to go and check out the Tusk, a couple of ridges over. I’d heard of it, but honestly had no idea what to expect. However, you just can’t turn down these opportunities, and ten minutes later the ice axes were back out, and we were at it again. 

That one is a mutant looking hill, with some serious exposure for the first half, but by this point we were just taking it in our stride. 

Tusk by Sam Hancock. TAP ABOVE TO WATCH ON MOBILE DEVICE

That leaves us now with two more to conquer. One is Meteorite, just out of Valdez. There’s a little disagreement as to which peak rounds out the list as number 5 (it would have been Cordova Peak, but that’s no longer skiable). I subscribe to the opinion that it’s a peak known as Ocean View, which is kind of neat as it’s out of bounds for all heli operations.

That’ll make it a real challenge. 

Check out more heli ski and backcountry feature articles here.

Follow Matt Ward’s adventures on Instagram @matt.is.stoked

Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.