Interview With Heli Ski Guide Dan DC Caruso
Anyone that’s been skiing or snowboarding for a number of years comes to the conclusion that being a heli ski guide is the ultimate dream job. Let’s face it, getting paid to ski powder seems about as good as it gets. To find out a little bit more about this dream job we sat down with long time heli ski guide and all around badass Dan DC Caruso to see what it takes to be an Alaskan heli ski guide.
So Dan, how long have you been in the industry, and how did you first get involved?
I have been involved in the snowboard industry since 1990, as a pro rider for K2. Mountain guiding since 1992 on Mt Rainier. Started heli-guiding in Valdez with ABA in 1994.
What level of training is required to become a Heli guide, and what level of certification do you have?
The State of AK and HeliSki US requires Avy 2 and WFR, as minimum. I have Avy 3, EMT and a crevasse rescue cert…
When did you start working for Alaska Snowboard guides?
ASG began in 2012.
Did you work for other operators?
Yeah, I worked for Alaska Backcountry Adventures ABA, the first heli op in AK from 94-2011.
Even though you’ve been at it for awhile, can you recall what surprised you most about your first season as a heli guide?
The massive expanse of the Chugach Range and the accessibility you get with a heli!
It’s a dream job on those perfect days with perfect groups and perfect conditions. But in Alaska, there are tons of hazards and these make the job stressful, keeping everyone safe and happy is not as easy as it sounds. Also, the weather up here can drive you crazy as it changes through out the day..
So, when you’re out with clients how do you analyze the slope and pick a line for us to ski?
Look for perfect settled powder and within the scope of the groups ability. We can determine stability based on what we saw yesterday and extrapolate what transpired overnight ie. new snow or high winds… Over the years, it becomes second nature. You can either read it or you can’t…
Those factors allow you to judge whether or not it is safe for us to ski?
Yeah, I can tell if there’s instabilities from seeing wind affect, but we also have pit data from similar slopes that we scouted on our guide mission earlier that morning… Then I ski cut every slope and probe around to check for instabilities… We are blessed with a very stable Maritime snowpack in the Chugach, so I’m usually more concerned with cornices, crevasses, cliffbands, rockfall and other hazards…
Do riders ever get in over their head on terrain? How do you determine your client’s ability and how fast does it take for you to figure it out?
We always take one or two warm-up lines and we’re pretty good at accessing ability, experience and confidence… I can usually suss out a clients level by the way the put on their harness and backpack, but we go through all the steps and it’s amazing to see how apt most our clientele is and how we can get them on expert terrain before the week is up..
Do you have a day that sticks out as the most positively memorable, and why?
Almost every day up in Alaska is memorable and the years have surely flown by and blended together in my mind. I love seeing ordinary riders getting on perfect conditions and rip steep lines. They start ‘epicing’ and it’s really fun to share the best day of their lives with them. I remember ripping first descents with Craig Kelly and that was really fun because we were buddies and we had a perfect scenario deep in the Range. Riding last season with Jamie Lynn and Bryan Iguchi was fun, because we were riding top quality cold -smoke and when they say it was the best day of their lives, you know you’re in a good zone!
What is the most challenging situation you have encountered as a heli ski guide?
White-outs come in quick, and getting trapped in one is frightening. All the hazards increase dramatically with loss of sight and orientation… Avalanches and sloughs become more dangerous due to not being able to know where to go to avoid them. Crevasses and cornices sneak up on you when you are blind…
It’s truly the greatest snowboarding experience there is. When it’s on, it’s all-time…
Dan DC Caruso