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One unforgettable day with Dean Cummings in Alaska

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March 10, 2020, 4:41 pm

I met Dean Cummings in late April of 2005 when I flew with a friend from Cordova to Valdez, Alaska, on a Cessna 172 and got a day rate the next day to ski on one of Cummings’ helicopters at the company he founded in 1995, H20 Guides.

Dean Cummings, left, in Alaska in 2005.

That was after a week of heli camp with Points North in Cordova, where we were mostly shut out by the weather as it snowed day after day but the helis couldn’t fly. When it looked like the weather would clear but our reservation was up, we asked the owner of that company – Kevin Quinn — where to go in Valdez (who knew when we’d be in Alaska again?) and he grudgingly said H20.

“Quinner,” as his friends called him, is a former National Hockey League player who was not long on chit-chat, as I recall, and he didn’t seem thrilled we were off to try out a competitor. But if we had to go (after just five runs with his company before the weather turned), he’d only recommend one outfit of the six operating in Valdez at the time – Cummings’ H20.

I realized after the fact how extraordinary that recommendation was when I found out just how bitterly Quinn and Cummings were fighting over territory at the time – a feud that was appealed to the highest levels of the Forest Service years later.

Not a lot of love for Cummings in the rough and tumble world of Alaskan heli-skiing but a hell of a lot of respect. As it turned out, we got that ultimate Alaska ski-movie day with Cummings and his crew, and I never did make it back to Alaska (I suppose I still have heli hours left at Points North).

Cummings was very professional, if a little gruff, declining an interview request. I was fine with that as I had conducted plenty of interviews in Cordova and wrote a story that appeared in the now defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver. I’ve re-posted it below after first publishing it on an early version of RealVail.com with some very rough coding issues.

I also did a story for Ski Area Management that I later re-posted on a better version of Real Vail.

We just had a lot of fun on that one seven-run day with Cummings and H20. It was easy to forget he was a former U.S. Freestyle Ski Team member who pioneered Alaskan heli-skiing during the era of the World Extremes in the early 90s, battling with legends like the late Doug Coombs.

He matter-of-factly told me after one run over a 50-degree nose, “Nice turns.” I joked he probably said that to all the clients, but he just skied away.

The next day, when it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit in town and pushing 50 in the zone, we skied a couple of runs and then water-loaded slopes started crashing all around us as roller balls kicked up by our skis formed into car-sized death traps 1,000 feet below.

“It’s kayak season,” Cummings said with a shrug, skiing off again. I agreed, and they flew us off the top of a run and back to town, earning my respect.

For years we got a company Christmas card from Cummings, his wife and kids, asking us to come back someday. I never did go. Now I hear his company is shut down, and his Facebook page has complaints from customers who paid deposits in the spring of 2019 but did not get to fly.

For some reason Cummings was back in his native New Mexico earlier this month trying to buy land when a dispute somehow led to a local man being shot and Cummings being arrested on murder charges.

Other ski journalists are dusting off their remembrances of Cummings, so I thought I would as well. Now here’s that 2005 story from Cordova that first ran in the Rocky Mountain News:

Chasing the bluebird

CORDOVA, Alaska — The longer we stood on our skis on the parking-spot-sized landing zone atop an unnamed pinnacle of rock and ice in southeastern Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, the louder and more insistent my inner voice became: “Just where the hell are we supposed to ski?”

By the time I vocalized my concern to our Points North heli-guide, Will Paden, a 35-year-old avalanche forecaster from Squaw Valley, Calif., he had already begun cautiously but confidently making his way down a 50-degree pitch that dropped 4,000 vertical feet to the glacier below.

So this is what they meant by a “no-fall zone.”

Flying with H20 in Alaska in 2005.

No new snow in eight days dictated that catching an edge on the recycled, windblown powder and taking a tumble simply was not an option. Such a mistake would result in a headlong, three-quarters-of-a-mile ride into a bergschrund — a 70-foot-deep crevasse where mountain meets glacier.

That possibility was why we wore climbing harnesses over our powder pants: so our broken bodies could be extracted from the icy depths.

These are not thoughts you want to have crashing around inside your skull as you tentatively traverse out across a 4,000-foot elevator shaft of hard-packed snow. But the subconscious whispers were hard to beat back.

Noting the fear in my voice, one of my helicopter mates, John Alfond of Vail, calmly advised me to be aggressive then executed a series of solid jump turns, triggering a mini-slide of loose snow before ducking into a “safe” zone below a rock outcropping several hundred feet below.

Welcome to helicopter skiing in the Chugach.

“You can’t be afraid,” another of my heli-mates explained that night after several beers at heli-camp near the coastal fishing village of Cordova. He was precariously balancing a boogie board atop a large wooden cylinder at the time. “Fear leads to pain and pain leads to suffering and suffering leads to death,” said Mark Manley, 35, a corporate attorney for Vail Resorts.

Indeed. So why were we all here in late April – 40 or so skiing-obsessed souls shelling out several thousand dollars a head to ski scared on the steepest, nastiest terrain any of us had ever pointed our boards down?

“We came up here looking for the kind of terrain you can’t ski anywhere else,” said Marc Beasley, a 33-year-old commercial insurance broker from Denver. “Backcountry skiing in Colorado just gives you the potential to get caught in an avalanche; you don’t necessarily get significantly better terrain (than at ski areas).”

But with the bigger terrain (the area of the Chugach we were skiing tops out at 7,000 feet, but the mountains start at sea level and timberline is at 1,500 feet) comes the potential for bigger injuries. A member of Beasley’s group, Bart Spaulding of Denver, broke through crusty snow on a glacier at high speeds at the end of his first run, crashed hard and broke his leg and hand.

And there’s also the potential for moments of life-altering terror.

Rich Brooks, 43, a Miami financial manager, caught an edge and started to tumble down a 3,000-foot, 52-degree slope before self-arresting by digging an arm into the snow.

“You’re going to go back home and things are just going to seem a little bit less traumatic because here you’re looking at some of the biggest, harshest, mountain terrain around, landing on it in helicopters and skiing down it. It’s going to change your perspective on the world,” said Brooks, whom I first met in Telluride after he had just skied with Colorado’s only heli operation, Helitrax. Brooks says there’s no comparing the terrain.

Nor is there any way to really prepare for the scale of the Chugach. I skied 50 days in the lower 48 to get ready for Alaska but was still pushed to my physical limit by the length of the runs and psychological limit by their steepness.

Despite what one of my ski buddies would describe as my “cow-on-ice” moment, I made it down my unnamed 50-degree nemesis without falling, which made the 40- to 45-degree runs we took next (about the steepest you’ll encounter at most Colorado ski areas) seem moderate by comparison.

Then the clouds rolled in and shut us down for the rest of the week. Even flat light is enough to ground helicopters in the treeless Chugach. One pilot described it to me as “trying to fly in a bowl of milk.”

Over the next week it snowed more than five feet high in “The Zone” where the best skiing is and rained relentlessly on us down at the Orca Adventure Lodge, a converted cannery two miles from Cordova on the shores of Orca Inlet.

In a strange 180 from Colorado skiing, we found ourselves begging the snow gods to make it stop, amusing ourselves with dodge ball at the local gym, very soggy ice climbing expeditions to the nearby Sheridan Glacier and hours of pool at the Reluctant Fisherman.

“It’s a very expensive adult summer camp,” remarked Beasley after three days of waiting out the rain. “Or I should say, “Winter camp?” But it’s got a great vibe.”

For skiers, hanging out in heli-camp is akin to fantasy camp for baseball fans. Playing ping pong and lounging in the “Hippy Sauna” right along with their fellow campers were big-mountain ski film stars Dan Treadway and Hugo Harrison, grounded with the rest of a Warren Miller film crew.

We all tried hard to “drink it blue,” a heli-camp catchphrase for ensuring blue skies by being hung-over, but to no avail. My week of lodging and space on Points North’s three helicopters was up after just one fly day and five runs on marginal snow — a fairly typical result in the Chugach.

So my friend John and I caught a flight to nearby Valdez, another town on Prince William Sound — one made famous by the Exxon-Valdez oil spill and in the ski world by a half-dozen heli operations.

There the skies cleared, and we were guided one epic, seven-run day by the dean of Alaskan heli-skiing, former World Cup mogul skier and ski-film legend Dean Cummings, who owns H2O Heli-Guides.

I discovered that bombing down 50-degree slopes choked with thick, imminently carveable maritime powder is a far more relaxing experience. Until the weather got too nice the next day.

Melting snow adds water weight to the snowpack, and huge avalanches — even on north-facing slopes in the shade — became a very real possibility. In fact, the day before we got to Valdez, six people were partially buried in non-fatal slides at three other heli operations.

Despite carrying shovels, avalanche transceivers and probes, the enjoyment factor was greatly reduced for me by the awesome sound of slides crashing down south- and west-facing slopes all around us.

Cummings’ H2O operation impressed me by lifting us off the top of a run after determining the avalanche danger had progressed from considerable to high. I greeted the decision with a palpable sense of relief. I had promised my wife, who bought me the trip for my 40th birthday, that I would live to ski another day.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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