Welcome to Alaska, land of the huge, and a heli day with Verbier Xtreme winner and Freeride World Tour regular Matilda Rapaport
Always pack your toilet paper! This is frequently on my mind as I’m grabbing my gear ready for the short transfer to the heli. It happens to everyone at some time in Alaska. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go! A big day here can mean 12 hours out skiing, so you can’t stay shy. You just have to find a space and get on with it.
Other things I’m packing? Avi gear of course, another layer of clothing, extra gloves (I don’t like it if mine get wet) and lots of food – we always seem to be eating in AK. I’ll have sandwiches in my pack, some Red Bull, nuts, chocolate. And this is after we’ve got up at 5am and had a proper breakfast too. My favourite, if we’re looking after ourselves, is porridge with something like seeds or raisins on top. Lots of strong coffee too, and eggs.
The best place to be and where I’ve stayed many times is the Funny Farm, located around 20 miles from downtown Haines. It’s run by a very special guy, Bruce. It’s just like staying in his house, and I think he was the captain of a fishing boat previously. He’s quite a character.
Even if I’m here, feeling at home and it’s forecast to be great weather – hence the early start – I struggle to get up. I like my sleep. I am very good it. I have even been known to snooze in the helicopter!
To ensure maximum time in bed, I make sure everything is laid out, or if possible packed and ready the evening before. I stay away from partying too. Due to the weather patterns around Haines, we’re always on what we call aggressive stand-by routine. Last season for example, I was here for four and a half weeks but only skied seven or eight days. Yet all that time you have to be ready.
This means staying mentally focused and checking and checking the weather. On your phone, on the computer, on the TV news… I do all this when I’m at home in Engelberg, via sites like meteoblue.ch, but here it becomes more pressurised. You’re constantly aware you’re on the clock. The trip is costing a lot, you’ve spent a lot of time organising it, yet if you’re unlucky you can go home having spent three or four weeks and a load of money and got no footage… You try not to think too much like this, but it’s the reality. The good news is that when things do go right, the release of this pressure makes it a huge rush.
Last year in Haines was my third visit, and I’m really starting to feel at home. The first time the heli company take you up the areas look huge. There is fear, no matter who you are. But after a while it becomes just like a large ski resort – albeit with much more risk and need for evaluation. At first it’s difficult, but the more you ski it, the more comfortable it is. You know which lines to choose, where to go, what to do…
For that reason I’m not nervous on the 15-minute transfer from the Funny Farm to Alaska Heliskiing (or double the journey time if we’re staying in Haines). Normally in the shuttle there’s a crew of three athletes, but last winter it was just me and Henrik (Windstedt), as we were filming A Skier Knows for Peak Performance.
Fewer skiers is better, as the heli drops you in a spot and waits until every athlete has done their line. Obviously fewer people means you can move on quicker and it also gives you a better choice of line. What do I mean? Well, say there are the usual three skiers. Coming to the first drop, I’d have first choice of line, second drop I’d have second, third I’d have last choice. So fewer skiers is definitely better!
Early morning and early evening are the key times, because the light is better for filming. But in good weather at any hour Alaska is magical. You put so much into it mentally and physically – even getting to Anchorage is a big deal – that there’s a real burst of joy when it goes right.
Skiing in Alaska is work for me. It’s the best job but it’s still work. I’m at my happiest in performing terms here. The terrain is like nowhere on earth, the way it’s so steep yet has snow that somehow sticks to it. Then there’s that euphoric feeling after a good line…
I moved from Sweden to Switzerland years ago, and I love my home of Engelberg on a powder day. But it’s different. No pressure as there’s no heli, filmers or mountain guide (which is the usual AK set-up). You’re skiing with your friends. So it’s freer and more relaxed.
For three years I used to run Ski Lodge Engelberg. That was busy! I was working seven days a week, and only skiing when I’d got all the guests out for the day, and then getting back in the afternoon before the first of them too. When I look back though, I’d not change that. It makes me thankful for all the opportunities I have now. I’m not sure I’d be a professional freerider without my time as manager there either. So many people from the industry passed through I learnt so much, about teams, marketing, everything…
I try to remember those days when I’m feeling tired. To remind me how good things are now. How I can leave at any time and chase snow. But it’s rare in AK to need anything to get me pumped. Just the sound of the heli does that.
It’s not all adrenaline; there is tea-drinking too! Or maybe a Thermos of warm lemonade if I’m filming with Shades of Winter (the all-girl movie crew). You must keep hydrated to stay fresh and it’s somehow easier with something hot. That and plenty of snacks, plus a rammed sandwich at lunch – black bread from the organic store in Haines, stuffed with avocado, cheese, ham – are crucial to keep me going on days when the heli sometimes doesn’t touch down until 7pm.
Who would my dream choice of skiers to ride Alaska with be? There are not many to touch Henrik. He’s taught me so much. But maybe my boyfriend Mattias Hargin. He’s currently ranked 17th in the World Cup slalom, took part in the Verbier Xtreme last season (as a wildcard coming eighth), and has had podium finishes at Scandinavian big mountain championships. He can do it all, and we are just competitive enough to push each other on but it never gets too much.
Back on the ground, there’s usually a de-brief. We grab some food, and a coke or beer, and talk about what we’ve achieved, what needs to improve. Already we are thinking of tomorrow. And then getting to bed early.
Ideally I’d choose 9pm, but it never works out like that. There are things to pack, to plan, emails to answer and then there’s social media. It’s a big part of being a sponsored athlete. But I am never doing a huge spine thinking “this is going to look great on Facebook”. I want to share my experience to inspire others but my primary thought is to push my limits, to have fun.
Also, the real challenge is not what to post in winter, it’s keeping things interesting in summer, and the balance between telling your story, but keeping a distance. For me, some things in my life must remain private.
When I do usually get to bed by 10 or 10.30pm, there is no problem sleeping. That is one of my biggest qualities!