When I show up in Valdez, Alaska to heliski, I’m not expecting my guide to be rocking braided pigtails, a pink puffy, and a hand-painted helmet topped with a unicorn horn. But when you’re Kirsten Kremer, you can wear whatever the hell you want because gravity-defying lines speak for themselves.
Kremer, 50, is pixie-sized at 5’4″ but catch a glimpse of her sinewy forearms and there’s no question this woman is sheer strength. Her male peers speak of her using terms like “hero” and “bad ass” and she’s been skiing the surrounding Chugach Mountain Range for more than half of her time on this planet.
A California native, she came to the area in the early
’90s when it was still the Wild West of skiing, luring daredevils like Shane MacConkey and Chris Davenport with its near-vertical spines and untouched terrain. Extreme ski pioneer and Valdez Heli-Ski Guides founder Doug Coombs hired Kremer as a guide in 1996 and she hasn’t missed a season since. You can tell just by watching her eyes dart across a sea of peaks from the co-pilot seat of the chopper that she has every inch of the outfit’s 10,000-square-mile permit area mapped in her memory.
Today, her eyes arc on the Ivory Tusk, a classic Chugach descent of 3,000 powdery feet. If someone tells you they weren’t scared the first time a helicopter buries its skids into a knife-edge ridge and their guide gives the green light to exit the chopper, they are lying. The whomp-whomp of the rotor combined with the whipping wind it creates amps up the intimidation factor. I glance at my three heli-buddies-a guy from Israel and two brothers from Vail, all in their 30s. They’ve gone pale in the face and for a second I think I might have to push them out the door. My stomach is also a knot of nerves, but when I glance up and see the ear-to-ear grin on Kremer’s face as she stares down at the slope, I feel a wave of calm.
One of her many super-woman skills is to know we’ve got this, even if we have doubts. And any first timer will have doubts. Anywhere else, you’d expect a slope of that angle, with that much snow, to instantly slide. But this unique area, located by the coast, is blessed with a maritime snowpack that clings well to 40-plus degree slopes. It takes time to trust. Yes, there are dangers to navigate, like sluff and bergschrunds, but Kremer, whose nickname is Gnarmom, drops the first line and coaches us down by radio the entire way. Listen to your radio closely, you may even here her crooning, “This is the way we ski the powder” to the tune of the children’s song, “This is the Way” as if lulling you into a state of confidence as you drop into the scariest line of your life.
For the rest of the week, she’s ready to dial it up (always her preference) or down, depending on her clients’ abilities to handle the physical and mental challenges. When Kremer first started guiding, clients only came for the gnarr. But as hcli-skiing prices skyrocketed beyond the means of passionate ski bums, she often finds herself guiding a mix of abilities. Some weeks, she’s leading descents of storied peaks

like Meteorite. Others, she’s sticking to the mellow glacier runs and powder bowls that get left out of the Warren Miller and TGR films. When Jeff Fraser, a long-time VHSG client and former tech exec, bought the heli­ operation in 2018 he ditched the “experts
only” warnings on the website and instead touted, “any skier who is confident in bounds at a ski resort can have a world of fun at VHSG. We’ve got more blue and black runs than any dozen resorts in North America put together, and ours are always covered in fresh snow.”
This certainly isn’t terrain for beginners or first-time powder skiers. But if you’re comfortable shredding waist­deep, top-to-bottom pow runs at Alta, he promises you’ll have the time of your life in Valdez. Especially, if, like me, you prepare. People who show up and haven’t skied all season suffer pantyhose legs after day one. I hire a trainer to help build my leg endurance and sign up for a steep-and-deep camp at Jackson Hole ahead of my trip. The work pays off. On day four we score perfect weather and lap runs from 10am until

8pm. When two guys in our group confide their legs are shot, Kremer has them dropped home early and we continue skiing.
A hot tub and masseuse at VHSG’s basecamp, Tsarina Lodge, also ensure I’m able to charge hard all week. These luxuries did not exist before Fraser purchased the infamous ski bum hangout set atop Thompson Pass since 2011. When Fraser first started snowboarding with VHSG, lodging options were grubby to say the least. Ski bums camped in Tsaina’s parking lot. Some splurged on the lodge’s rustic cabins. Most stayed in shabby hotels in the town of Valdez and braved the 40-minute drive up to Thompson Pass. “I really just wanted a nice place to stay and a great meal after snowboarding all day,” says Fraser.
Fresh off a renovation in 2019, the 24-room boutique hotel has luxe touches like a gym with Palo ton bikes, heavenly Tempur-pcdic beds, a cigar room and a wine cellar stocked with cult California cabs. And the crowd is far from the bro show that used to frequent the Tsaina in the ’90s. The week I am visiting, nearly 25 percent of the guests are women.

combined with the lodge’s mostly female staff, we have about an even male-to-female ratio-an anomaly in Alaska.
This is the fifth Alaska heliski trip for Heather Mclnerny, 52, Vanessa Bentley, 49, and McKenna Douglas, 47, friends from Vail. The stylish ladies have booked other Chugach outfits but are nowVHSG devotees. “Jeff put the five-star touch on everything from the management, to the food, to the linens,” says Mclnerny. “The staff even stocked our rooms with extra towels and hair dryers.” As much as the ladies appreciate the amenities, it’s the guides that keep them coming back. “Kremer is like the horse whisperer of ski guides,” says Douglas. “She has this incredible ability to read her clients and push them to that next level. We always leave feeling like we’ve done the best skiing of our Jives.” And it doesn’t hurt, she adds, that guides are just as much fun off the slopes.
Over a dinner of king crab legs and wagyu fillet with truffle pomme puree, Kremer regales guests with outrageous stories of bear bites and extreme ski competitions. It’s Woodstock Revival Night and karaoke and costumes follow dessert. Kremer’s prodigy, guide Brooke Edwards, ensures the entire lodge is on the dance floor and we boogie down late into the evening.
People book their first hcliski trip and think it’s a one­time, bucket-list experience. But once they get a taste
of endless terrain, talented guides and the pampering touches ofTsaina, they’re re-booking for next season before they fly home. As one guest aptly puts it: “Valdez is like heroin. Once you’ve skied it, everything else feels like adult cocaine.”