Experiencing ‘The Search’ With a Native Son of the West
There’s a map that is mountain culture and marked upon it is a main vein coursing north, to daydreams of empty space, ever-white peaks or personal challenge. Its allure is owed to risk, as well as hope, and the certainty that something calls from that route’s farther end...Alaska.
Back in 2008 a footloose couple was drawn north by this risk as well as their hope. They followed the call toward a sizable change-of-scene. Packing their world into bags that zipped closed, a young Henry Munter alongside his new wife Kelly gripped the wheel, filled up the tank and released their spirits. Headed north from the Lower 48 to an untamed and unknown 49th they were looking for big country and with it the promise of room to create. When they hit the Chugach Mountains, Family Munter knew they’d found both.
Ranging nearly seven million south–central Alaskan acres—of which 30 percent is ice-locked–Chugach National Forest’s sprawling, gulf-shored wildlands are considered among the top-three largest forests in the United States. Its mountainous ramparts span an area 249 miles long by nearly 62 wide, rocketing from sea level to Mount Marcus Baker’s 13,100 feet in a mere 16 miles while bristling with fourteen additional peaks surpassing 7,500 feet along the ascent.
Adventurous spirits endearingly refer to its expanse as “Alaska’s backyard” while snow obsessed powder hounds plan by the wintery knowledge that the right day in the vast Chugach can mean the best skiing and snowboarding in the world.
Make no mistake, the untracked range can run away with its audience, literally as well as figuratively. In Henry’s case, specifically, both seem to apply. His younger years were a foundation of travel and adventure. There were paddle-mad river trips to Nepal, Zambia and Ecuador. Winters were spent in the mountains of Idaho and Montana. But at the end of the day it’s just inner nature, Henry’s is to seek pure experience.
“For anyone from the Rockies, Alaska’s a pretty natural fit,” says Henry. The Alaska transplant chooses his words with care, and they reflect the quiet consideration of his demeanor. “Maybe my favorite thing about it is to know that there’s way more than a lifetime of exploration to do here.”
Fortunately for Henry, chance (or luck) led to Alaska substantiating his optimism. “I got to AK ready to fall back in love with skiing,” Henry said, “and the mountains provided.”
To hear the man tell it, that year’s backcountry skiing was epic from November onward. So when the family van went bust amidst wild Chugach country, it proved more fortuitous fate than problem. Minus the wheels Henry had little to do but tour to ski and, after that week, there was no going anywhere but deeper.
“I was hooked,” Henry recalls. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
If life experience can be likened to a curriculum then Henry’s border advanced placement status. Cutting his teeth within the adventure incubator that is Backwoods Sports Shop at Ketchum, Idaho Henry had learned well what personal experience would teach. As happy result, the man had wilderness—as well as snow– in his blood. That pulse played its part in drawing himself and missus to the map edges of the Last Frontier. All that remained was the minor matter of building a life there.
Unifying cord of Man’s drive for pure experience is surely desire to delve deeper. Without it no frontier would be crossed. Be it state lines, map lines, or personal firsts; Alaska—the Great Land–is an arena where boundaries are put to test.
“When I got to Alaska I did my best to be available for any opportunity heli-guiding.” Desire for the profession already burned like flame for Henry and encouragement from family and friends had done well to add fuel to that fire. “Getting in takes awhile though,” Henry is careful to add.
Still, he managed to fill the “downtime,” a sizable portion of which went toward ski touring.
What he found once outward bound is a region that unfurls near endless stretches, matched only by a limit-less imagination. And, for the ski micro-verse, that fact alone draws with magnetic force. If the mind’s eye conjures images of crisp lines through billowing drifts, then an inner compass points inevitably to the communities of Haines, Valdez, Cordova or gritty Girdwood–Family Munter’s home–where culmination of exploratory intention actually commences via a phonecall both prayed for, and feared.
Forecast is promising; flightline awaits. “Congratulations,” says the caller, “time to go.”
Life-long dedication to pure snow passion, somehow, has manifested a dream; backcountry at big AK. Those four simple words spike to the core of ski culture, framing the lives of countless seekers who make snow their life’s pursuit. But more, the words ring as reminder of this: once immersed within that raw, unforgiving realm no amount of careful preparation can offer absolute assurance of what actually happens next.
Focus would prove the ‘trump card’ for Family Munter–and Henry specifically.
“As a kid, I loved to ski and I loved to paddle. I remember waking up each morning to the avalanche forecast,” Henry reminisced. “Later I journeyed a lot of iconic whitewater rivers during breaks from seasonal guiding or ski area work”
“I even met Kelly when she and I were guides on the Salmon River in 2001,” he said.
With backgrounds in guiding, Henry and Kelly were no strangers to assessment matured by methodology to achieve result. A good job offer for Kelly got the wheels in motion, and Henry had a notion on how to add his own aspiration to the mix.
Primed by post-collegiate years as a Yellowstone Club ski patrolman, and apprentice to avalanche researchers from Montana State University, Henry already sensed in his gut that mountain guiding was for him. As it happened, the people closest to him were on the same page. Wise words from Henry’s step-mom, Janet and kayak buddy-meets-jedi heli-guide, Bozo Cardozo set Mr. Munter’s course directly for Chugach Powder Guides [CPG]. A mainstay of Alaska’s mountain community CPG was then what it is today, a premier provider of backcountry services; a crew with keys to the White Room.
Founded in 1997, CPG’s history is as dynamic as the terrain its programming accesses. Originally an independent enterprise, the company caught the eye of EpiQuest, an investor group keen on aligning elite operations from around the world to deliver pinnacle luxury travel experiences. Through EpiQuest CPG joined an assemblage of top-tier providers, and the sky truly was the limit. But then the bottom fell out.
Recession rolled across the business landscape, and it impacted luxury travel with wrecking ball strength. The walls of CPG began to quiver, but its core values refused to crumple.
Investors Nick and Heath Thomson, commerce savvy sportsmen with a soft spot for AK, knew the true value of CPG was in people. When the going got tough Nick and Heath stepped forward, empowered the staff and let their passion and professionalism steer a course to distinction.
“CPG has a talented and experienced team which acts like a family,” Henry said. “We provide peak experiences for our guests and are mindful that every guest comes into the mountains with different skills and expectations.”
“Where CPG is able to control the experience, like seeking great snow on gentler terrain for one guest, or finding the steepest of steeps for another, we do. What we can’t control, like the weather or the avalanche danger, we manage attentively and with humility,” he said.
Elbow grease with a spot of luck remakes a ski dream as reality, and the same applies to Henry’s calling at CPG. As a Young Blood he seized every opportunity to tour, to cat-guide, to teach avalanche courses and, ultimately, rise through the ranks; hard work if there was any. But early luck too would lend him a hand, in the form of one very lost ski.
It was a preseason day while out with the boss man, when Henry (then a tail guide) saw a client lose a single plank down 2000 feet of pitch. Young Mr. Munter not only swapped his sticks for theirs but mono-skied down–and recovered the runaway gear. Henry reckons that’s when he locked the job, and the career experience of a lifetime opened up.
Post-advent of the helicopter, anyone who’s seen a snow-edit can attest to the pinnacle caliber of backcountry skiing at Alaska. Furthermore ask any Alaskan how the best of that can be accessed, and they’ll point toward CPG.
From around the world, and season-after-season, thousands of downhill disciples flock to the company hanger for its twenty-two year history, safety-focused sustainability…and 750,000 ski-able acres. Add to that CPG’s exclusive heli and cat-ski access to the Chugach National Forest and it’s equally little wonder why Henry and crew have kept so busy. They’re dealing in daydreams made real.
Out here, snow-steeped spines falling sharply from a snow-packed summit are hallmarks of even an average fly day, and an AStar B3 Helicopter the flash equivalent of public transport. If there is a queue, it’s in the form of tiny figures spaced along a curving, treeless ridge.Whispering wind doubles as ‘word on the street,’ and the body’s own hammering pulse as accelerator pedal. It’s a setting described aptly as “one for the ages” and happens to be CPG’s daily commute.
“Clients desire to experience skiing steep, far away and untouched zones,” Henry said. “Every ounce of CPG effort goes to creating that for them.”
That creation—thanks to countless moving parts and Henry’s orchestration—manifests as a plunge through open space, compounded by deep snow, to arrive to a state of altered time. Seconds, minutes, days; the defining lines of seasons (and lives) fall away. Physical reality and perceptive sense co-mingle to create a seamless, velvet flotation; an experience infinitely named yet uniquely un-label-able—and a regular day at the office in the Chugach National Forest.
It’s been a decade plus since Family Munter risked a hope-fueled slingshot into an untamed north and today, as General Manager at Chugach Powder Guides, Henry is a professional facilitator of the ultimate snow-dream. Naturally duties—as well as daily routines—have changed greatly as his career has grown but gratitude for the mountains remains Henry’s constant as CPG continues to evolve.
The company’s sterling reputation ensures each year that heli-classic months, March and April are booked to the brink of what manpower can sustain and sunlight allow. Yet this seems to indicate opportunity rather than limitation. By adapting to its environmental as well as business climate, CPG is growing into fresh terrain, new facilities and early winter operations. Henry, for example, has found his personal number of guide days to be increasing over January. This suites the GM fine as low-angle sun over south face skiing happens be his personal favorite. (Not bad for a kid whose childhood touring was limited to Christmas Day) And these days missions fly in and out of an upgraded CPG HQ that might better be called a ‘clubhouse deluxe.’ The new digs feature offices beside guide ops, locker room as well as lounge and, as matter of course, a hanger to make any airport proud. Henry calls the facility revamp a “total game changer” yet it’s been built to enjoy something that hasn’t changed at all, passionate pursuit of Mother Nature’s best.
Alaska is a tough arena where ‘blink and it’s different’ definitely applies, but the state also breeds pure life experience. The thrill of that certainly calls to Henry. The familial hope is that it will help his and Kelly’s two boys to one day to hear their own and follow it, ultimately, to appreciation.
“Sometimes, people arrive to Alaska intending to prove something,” Henry said. “Very quickly, however, they realize being out in the Chugach is not about that.”
“It’s simply about great days on mountains, and staying ready for the next.”
As for the Idaho home once waved to in the rearview? Well, Henry hasn’t left the Wood River Valley fully. There’s too much beauty to see or history to know; simply too much adventure to pursue to not be called back to the gem state. The man raves over Warm Springs laps on Mt. Baldy and visits are frequent to his Ketchum alma-mater but, for this native son of the west, Alaska is understandably where ‘it’s at.’
The Great Land’s challenges are part’n parcel to its allure. Its extended darkness reveals Aurora Borealis. Dreary months open the door to powder days. And through that door is a beckoning vastness of pleasures large as well as small. For Henry, who has lived what many only dream; risk has led to rushing waters or silent summits and hope to woven community where families ski til bedtime. It’s a journey alongside CPG which, for him, has confirmed something indeed calls from the end of life’s longer routes. All that remains is commitment to follow.
ANSWERING THE CALL:
Who – Chugach Powder Guides; chugachpowderguides.com; 907.783.4354
Where – Mt. Hood Dr. Girdwood, Alaska 99587
What – 5 to 7 runs, totaling 18,000 vertical feet per daily program, featuring the best of steep, deep and empty AK backcountry
When – Seasonal window typically spans Christmas holidays thru late spring, with a peak period of March and April
How – To Alaska: By road through Canada along the Alaska Highway. By sea from Bellingham, WA to the Last Frontier via the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry. To the White Room: Helicopter (seats 4 plus guide and pilot) or Snow-cat (seats 12 plus two guides and operator)
Why – an approximate 1,200 to 1,600 heli-user days of skiing or boarding within 750,000 Alaska acres, including exclusive access to Chugach National Forest