"Self-portrait" - Self-portrait moments before take-off in the helicopter landing mirror.
My breathing is irregular. My heart beats in a rapid staccato. My vision blurs as my goggles fog over, and I have not even stepped out of the helicopter. The small craft takes a hit from a wind shear as we nose down towards the impossibly small landing area carved out of the snow and ice, and I wonder why I have allowed my hobby to take me to this dangerous place.
The pilot edges to the platform and I exit the craft with my gear. We huddle over our skis and snowboards as the ‘copter takes off - swirling snow and wind all around, blinding me for several seconds as I realize there is really only one way down now. The team leader is yelling something but I can’t hear him over the din of the engines and the wind caused by the blades. He seems to be very excited and is gesturing behind me at something.
I turn expecting to be confronted with something other than what I see. All around us is a pristine and never ending series of peaks, stretching out to the horizon. The sky is an impossible blue color, and the sun shines so brightly it is almost warm. What seconds ago was a terrifying and inhospitable place has suddenly become the fantasy land that riders all over the world dream of when they think of Alaska.
It takes several seconds for me to slow my breathing and adjust to my surroundings, and I sit to strap in as our guide explains the route down. He turns and vanishes over the edge. One by one, we all do. We drop into a deep coulier, with rounded sides raising 15 feet on each side. We are in the shade, so the snow here is cold enough that is dry and champaign-like. One by one we course through this tunnel-like formation, and emerge into a bright white and sparkling snowfield littered with jagged ice heaves.
What strikes me the most now is the silence. No sound for miles. I have never been a religious person, but I am very close to my spirituality on this day. We are often too distracted to realize how much beauty is in the world – but right now I am overwhelmed by it.
I remember feeling awe, fear, and accomplishment – but the photographs taken on that first heli-trip do not show these emotions. What they show is a person with an ever-present, enormous grin who appears to be having the time of their life. I was.
There are a lot of firsts in every life, and all of them are marked. For the passionate rider, few destinations and activities hold as much meaning as skiing or snowboarding the backcountry. This is a first that will never fail to brighten up a bad day, and will make you smile when there is nothing else to smile about. This is a first that will inspire seconds, thirds, and so on for the rest of your life. ©2006
The author back on the ground after heli-drops in the Valdez backcountry.
Amy Hastings is a freelance writer in Anchorage, Alaska. She can be contacted via email@example.com.