DOPAMINE: A New Alaska | Ski Alaska
Words & Photos: Jerome Tanon
Originally featured in Snowboard Mag Vol. 10, Issue 2 | The 10 Year Anniversary Issue
As I climb into a rented RV in Whitehorse, Canada, the Absinthe Films crew reveals the master plan: Opening a new zone outside of Haines, Alaska.
For years Absinthe has been trying to get a permit to fly on the Canadian side of the border into the wild and virgin Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, and finally got it. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and this was the first ever permit given to fly helicopters there. We got one for three weeks. Only pioneer explorers like Jeremy Jones have accessed the mountain range before.
Stocked with two weeks worth of groceries we drive into this vast and clear landscape and set up the RV camp on the side of a deserted road. Justin Hostynek and David Vladyka will be filming Mathieu Crepel, Victor De Le Rue, Blair Habenicht, Wolle Nyvelt, Jason Robinson, Bode Merrill and Manuel Diaz in this crazy adventure. We wait as the heli arrives and the weather clears out. No one has a single clue what the mountains will look like up there and what we will find. You can feel how everyone is boiling inside. Finally, we make the move for our first day out, scoping the terrain and looking for evidence of avalanche information.
The mountains are dreamy, but the first news is not – it has been very windy up there. After digging pits and saying a few prayers, six riders stand atop the first face ready to drop. Rocks and cliffs are waiting for them at the bottom of almost every line. With eyes locked behind our lenses, we hold our breath as Manuel makes the sign and starts riding down.
“He’s going fast!” I think to myself. “He’s going fast as fuck! Where the hell is he going to exit the face? Oh shit, he hit a rock and lost control! He’s going straight towards a side cliff. He’s going to die!”
Manuel ollies as much as he can, flies upside down, his back smashes full speed on the rocks and bounces down the mountain. He finally lands in snow. I imagine if he’s not dead already he will at least be crippled. Miraculously he’s moving. Thank God he’s not dead.
“The first line is always the worst for your brain. but now that it’s out of the way, everyone is relieved and we find a name for the face — “Birthday on the rocks,” for today is Blair’s birthday”
Indeed Manuel was in shock, but he didn’t even break a bone, a true miracle. This Chilean is made of titanium. A single shark in the wrong place almost killed him. He informs the rest of the crew on the radio that he’s OK, the snow is good but to watch out for hidden rocks. The session can really begin now. Blair, Mathieu, Jason and Victor take their lines a bit more mellow until their confidence grows. The first line is always the worst for your brain, but now that it’s out of the way, everyone is relieved and we find a name for the face – “Birthday on the Rocks,” for today is Blair’s birthday.
The first three days are difficult and marked by avalanche danger. Having to explore the zone by heli takes a lot of time and even more money. The snow pack is unstable and everybody is a bit nervous. We find no really good lines, so no really good shots either. Blair and Wolle almost get caught in a tiny slide as they hike, and more slides come down as the heli drops riders on top of lines. This wind is really messed up. We decide to let it rest for a while and wait. The helis fly back to Whitehorse and we kill our time on the side of the road.
Only a few cars pass by everyday, so we play football on the open road. We walk in the forest, play Uno to see who has to do the dishes and spend hours looking at pictures we took while scoping lines. No phone connection, no Internet and not a single house for hundreds of miles on the Canadian side of this wilderness. All kinds of weather pass through the camp, from warm dry days to heavy storms. We love camping life, focused on our mission, so hypnotized by the landscape of tall peaks behind the tops of the pines that we forget about the rest of the world. Shitting in the woods is a real pleasure as well. We gather wood always further and further, expecting to find ourselves in front of a wolf pack anytime. At night we talk around the fire and get to know each other better.
A week has passed, a new window is coming and everyone is excited. It snowed about a meter during this time and we’re hoping this is our moment. On the first bluebird day we scope and dig pits understand the layers. Manuel opens another ridge full of funny short lines that we name “Buenos Diaz.” Wolle pops out of a spine with a smooth backside three and lands easily. Step by step the riders gain confidence and are starting to really rip those virgin mountains. The snow is more stable and Blair motivates the crew for some big mountain riding. Mathieu Crepel and Jason Robinson jump in the heli to get a closer look at a mountain we saw from afar the other day. From the air we discover a giant beast, steep and scary as hell, with three giant shoulders dropping down in thousand foot spines. Vlady and I get dropped on top of a facing mountain and watch the chopper as it climbs up the face, now tiny as a fly. The face is so huge that for once our guide Ivan has to leave the three explorers alone to stay with us, radio in hand in case something happens.
The boys are now dropped and ready, and the intense pressure of the first descent is coming in. This is epic! Blair drops first on the left spine and starts flying in powder, laying long turns while finding his way down the labyrinth of spines and cliffs. The snow is stable and his confidence is up, so up that he arrives too fast on a slope bank and experiences an unintentional jump into a gully. He stands up quickly and keeps descending. He is fast and his line is beautiful all the way down to the flat glacier. “WOOOHOO!!!” Mathieu drops second and in the same style makes his way down. It must be such an insane feeling, shredding a whole mountain like this. His line is just as pure, finished with a huge method from a pillow over a cliff. Jason is definitely impressed by the size and the difficulty of the labyrinth, and as he rides down yet another spine has to make a couple quick stops to make sure he’s not going towards a dead end. All three safe at the bottom, we celebrate, and choose a name for it, it will be a well-deserved “Mordor.”
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