Dream Jobs: Heli Ski Guide in Alaska
Heli Ski Guide at Alaska Rendezvous
Valdez, AK/Jackson, WY/soon Bozeman, MT
Other Day Jobs:
Ski Instructor, Forest Service Backcountry Trail Crew
At 30 years old, Theresa Gerdin has had more outdoor experience than most have in a lifetime. This outdoorswoman spends her spring days hopping on a helicopter at a remote, off-grid, lodge in the Chugach, and taking very lucky guests to ski untracked powder on Alaskan glaciers.
On a sunny April evening at the Rendezvous, with Happiness peak in the distance and a spirited game of wiffle ball happening outside, Theresa took a moment to share a bit about her unconventional career.
Theresa, what is your job?
I am a guide at the Alaska Rendezvous heli ski lodge, just outside of Valdez, Alaska.
What’s something you love about your job?
Skiing amazing powder!
Also I really have a passion for sharing my love of the mountains and skiing with other people. Usually when someone comes to ski in Alaska, it’s the pinnacle of their ski career. It’s really cool to share that experience.
What’s something surprising about your job?
The amount of shoveling when we first get here! We arrive in early March and no one has been here all winter, we shoveled for three days to dig this place out of the snow. This year was a LOT of shoveling!
What’s your typical day like?
I am either out skiing with clients, making sure helicopter operations at base go smoothly, or dispatching from the central communications hub. Doing flight following, communicating with guides, pilots, and other aircraft in the area, and being the first line of contact in case something goes wrong.
Also, our lodge is off the grid so there’s always a project. We all pitch in where needed.
Some days are the highest of highs. Those fleeting moments, having the craziest experience with people you love. Sometimes it’s less glamorous, like hanging under the building trying to thaw the pipes, or fixing the generator - everyday is an adventure!
Got it. Cruising around Alaska in a helicopter and skiing bottomless pow, with a possible apres of Carhartts on and tools in hand. What’s the area like?
Thompson pass and the Chugach, it’s the birthplace of Alaska heli skiing. Right in our backyard is the competition site for the first World Extreme Skiing competitions that Doug Coombs won and the Jackson Hole Air Force dominated. We still ski that terrain.
Alaska is larger than life. The mountains here make the Tetons seem small - and the Tetons are a badass mountain range! The scale here is mind blowing, especially when traveling through these mountains in a helicopter.
Is it really long daylight hours?
It’s only mid April, and it doesn’t get dark until 10:30 at night. We’re gaining 15 minutes of daylight a day.
Do you get to see the Northern Lights?
It’s pretty magical!
If you’re the last one going to bed and you see them, you have an obligation to wake everyone up to have the opportunity to see the northern lights! I’ve gotten up at three or four in the morning, if the bartenders are shutting down and see them, there’s a lot of shouting of THE LIGHTTTSSS!!! and everyone comes outside.
This is a really special place.
How do you make going to Alaska for two months work with your spouse or family?
My wife Emily is here with me! We came as a package deal, she is the restaurant and lodge manager so we get to be here together which is pretty awesome.
How long have you been doing this job, and what are the qualifications to be a heli guide?
This is my third year on the guide staff.
A heli guide needs a lot of skills and certifications. Skiing skills, I had PSIA certifications. Also Medical training, at least Wilderness First Responder. I’m taking my EMT this summer to increase my medical knowledge. Snow science is another area, at least a Pro 1 avalanche certification. We need guiding certifications, rope work is important because we’re skiing on glaciers, so we need crevasse rescue and mountaineering skills.
Wow. That’s an impressive skill set, and I know on top of that it’s very competitive to be a heli ski guide.
It’s a process, it doesn’t happen quickly. It was five years from when I decided to try to make this happen until I was hired on guide staff, and three years as an apprentice and learning the ropes, before even being considered to be in the front seat.
What do you mean by the front seat?
The guide sitting in the front seat, next to the pilot, makes the call on exactly what terrain to ski, does snow stability analysis on the slope, and navigates safely to where the helicopter picks you back up again.
When you start guiding, you’re an apprentice guide, taking direction from whoever is in the front seat.
Yesterday I got to sit in the front seat for the first time.
OMG THIS IS HUGE!!!!! I can hear in your voice what this means to you. Tell me more about the day.
I’ve been the apprentice, learning the ropes, the last few years. My dad is here for a visit, and yesterday I got to go in the front seat for the morning. I wasn’t totally on my own, there was another guide double checking everything I was doing. I got to ski perfect Alaska powder with my dad, and it was really magical.
As we were coming back in, I got a call from dispatch telling me to keep my boots on. When we landed, they told me I was going to guide an awesome lady shred crew in the afternoon, all by myself, and my wife was coming!
This is getting even better.
I got to guide a bunch of amazing ladies in Alaska! It was SOOOOO RAD!!
I don’t think there has ever been so much ‘wooo-ing’ in a helicopter!
Ladies in the front seat, ladies in the backseat, constant ‘WOOOOOHOOOOOO!’ and it was really awesome!
This sounds like the best day ever.
It was the most awesome and overwhelming day of my whole life.
And even more special because I got to share it with some of the people I love most. Emily was there when I got to call in my manifest for the first time from the front seat, it was so cool that she got to experience that with me.
I held it together and didn’t cry until I went to bed, and then I just lost it! I told Emily, honey this day might have been even better than our wedding day, and our wedding day was so great! You don’t get days like that very often in life.
YES LADY SHRED CREW! It tends to be a lot of dudes, and heli guide is a predominantly male job.
All the jobs I do are predominantly male! We really have a family mentality, it’s a very supportive, safe, friendly, amazing group, and I feel like I have a lot of older brothers that will always have my back and watch out for me.
But actually the new apprentice guides hired this year are female, and Ali Meiners is our owner/operator. She’s super rad, an amazing boss, and an incredible human. To my knowledge she’s the only female owner/operator of any heli ski operation.
That’s so cool. What are your other jobs, when you’re not in Alaska?
I’m a ski instructor at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in the winter. And in the summer I’m on a backcountry trail crew in the Teton Wilderness. It’s between Togwotee Pass and Yellowstone National Park. The Thorofare is the most remote place in the lower 48.
Do you hike to get back there?
We ride horses and bring pack mules. It’s a three day ride to get into the Thorofare, then we spend 10 days working on the trails, then a three day ride back out.
So you head to a super remote area on horseback and look for downed trees to clear from trails. Casual. Do you bring a chainsaw or something for the trees?
We bring a two-man crosscut saw. In designated wilderness areas, there’s no motorized or mechanized anything allowed, plus a crosscut saw never breaks unless you do!
Have you ever had scary wildlife encounters?
No. We see wildlife all the time, I’ve never felt there was a threat. The closest would be one morning, I was making coffee, and across the creek was a mama grizzly with two cubs. I grabbed my bear spray, she was heading straight for my coworkers tent. He heard them, woke up, and was standing in his boxers with his bear spray. We stood together and presented a united front, and she just wandered through our camp and moved on. We see bears all the time, and they’re never doing any behaviors that bears who feel threatened do. I think having the horses helps because they make a lot of noise.
Trail crew, ski instructing, and heli guiding - your life is all mountain adventures! What’s next for you?
Actually, moving to Bozeman! Emily is going back to school, she’s enrolled in a pre-med program at Montana State University. She’s been super supportive through all my crazy certifications to get to this point where I’m doing a lot of my dream jobs. Now it’s my turn to support her so she can get there as well.
We’ll explore new mountains in Montana, and I’ll still work for the Forest Service, as a dispatcher for Wildland Fire. I’m really excited to ride my bike to work.
I’ll never be stagnant, I will always continue training and certifications. I’m happy with the path that I’m on, but when things change, doors can open up that you didn’t know existed.
Did you ever think about having a mainstream type of job?
I grew up in a mountain town and my dad was in the ski industry, I didn’t know any other way!
I’ve been on skis since forever. My dad couldn’t find boots small enough for me so he duct taped me to a pair of skis and sent me down the driveway.
What does success mean to you?
For people who pursue life and a career in the mountains, we don’t do it for the money. Our success comes in experiences.
I get to experience something that not a lot of people even know exists, let alone get to do. I keep thinking about yesterday, trying to solidify every part in my memory - that’s an experience I never want to forget.
We all make a lot of sacrifices to be here in Alaska. It’s a short season, it’s far away, and it’s hard work. But most things worth doing in life have all those components.
Thank you for sharing, Theresa!
Want to learn more?
Read about Ali Meiners, owner and operator of the Rendezvous:
Check out the Alaska Rendezvous site and read about how Theo Meiners started it all: