by Allison Sayer for Seward City News-
Silverton Mountain Guides is in its third year of heli-skiing operations in Seward, bringing skiers from near and far to ski runs with world-class views of Day Harbor and Resurrection Bay.
I was surprised to learn just how many “skiers from near” take advantage of Silverton Mountain Guides’ Seward based heli-skiing. In a recent chat with me, owner Aaron Brill told me about 40% of their clientele come from somewhere between Seward and Anchorage.
Brill said part of the reason for the high number of locals was the company’s effort to make their schedule compatible with local weekenders. Initially, the company had guests come for multi-day packages that ran into the weekend. However, after Brill realized there was more local demand than he had thought, he changed the “destination” package to be Monday through Friday. This leaves the weekends for locals. The company also offers a local discount.
Even more interesting was that about half of the local skiers and riders who patronize Silverton Mountain Guides are women. This is a big departure from the stereotypical heli-ski business which caters largely to men.
Another distinction between Silverton Mountain Guides’ Seward operations and most companies around the state is that they begin operations in November or December. In contrast, most Valdez heli-ski operations do not even have personnel in the state until the beginning of March.
Heli-skiing in December and January provides an opportunity usually only diehard local ski-tourers experience: south faces. During our long spring days, south faces spend too much time in strong sunlight. This can produce a crust in the early morning, and dangerous avalanche conditions in the afternoon. Shady north faces are a much more reliable spring ski choice.
The sun is not nearly as strong in December and January as it is in the spring. A skier can spend the day in the gentle winter sun, and ski a route that might not be accessible later in the year. Often the snow on these routes is terrific.
Tourism opportunities in the middle of winter are also good news for Seward hotels and restaurants. This is the slowest time of year for just about every industry.
Brill said he had been “eyeballing the [Seward] region” for awhile before investing in Seward operations. He had come down here skiing, and “scoped out the terrain and the town.” Seward also offers a huge advantage in that it is not that far to drive to Girdwood on a day that it is not safe to fly in a helicopter.
Seward’s lack of existing heli-ski operations was also appealing. “Where we have been successful,” Brill said, “is going to areas that are interested in having heli-skiing but are under serviced. I wouldn’t want to go into a place where there was already an operator.” He said he looks for places that are “interested in having additional winter economic development.”
Silverton Mountain Guides had been operating mostly in the North Chugach near Palmer before making the move to Seward. The company still maintains the North Chugach base, and will move clients between the different bases depending on conditions. The North Chugach base certainly has more sunshine than Seward, but it also has an “interior” snowpack. Interior snowpack is much more touchy in terms of avalanches compared to stereotypical maritime snow.
Brill’s personal life was also growing incompatible with the northern base. “Having a kid… it was a bit isolated. Seward’s great because it’s got everything you need in a city but it’s not too big.”
I asked what was particularly rewarding about working in the Seward area. Brill said “It’s a privilege to be on top of any mountain, but especially when you’re surrounded by the ocean and the coastline around Seward, it’s so beautiful. To me and all the guests, it’s so awe inspiring… You can’t take a bad picture.”
Brill also enjoys working in the Seward community. “I feel really fortunate,” he says, “that people have been really helpful and supportive in Seward. The town’s been great and we’re just happy to be here.”
What Does the Future Hold?
Aaron Brill makes no secret that he is frustrated with the US Forest Service (USFS) permitting process. Most of the higher elevation terrain in the Seward area is in National Forest, as opposed to the State Forest. Silverton Mountain Guides must currently operate entirely in the State Forest, which is at a lower elevation. This means their business is extremely sensitive to warm storms with a high rain line. Only high elevation terrain retains powder conditions during these events.
On January 22, Silverton Mountain Guides is scheduled to receive a temporary use permit to operate in some National Forest terrain. Brill feels this terrain is not enough to provide a full destination experience for his clients, and would like to have access to more areas. He adds that he may have to operate primarily out of the North Chugach when the conditions do not hold up in the State Forest.
I asked the USFS for their perspective on this issue. Public Affairs Specialist Mona Spargo acknowledged that the agency moves “cautiously.” She said that they will evaluate the impacts of the pending temporary use permit. These impacts include noise in the community of Seward, wildlife impacts, and impacts on other recreational users. The results of these evaluations will determine the extent of Silverton Mountain Guides’ future permits.