Dreamers: Dancing With An Alaskan Dragon

Words by Lynsey Dyer.

One of the essential characteristics of a dreamer is a highly developed imagination. You could argue that you’re either born with imagination or not, but either way, it’s a beast that you have to feed. a fire you have to stoke. And for dreams to take flight, the dreamer has to fight—tooth and nail—to unshackle them from the paralysis of self-doubt, the fear of failure, the nagging what ifs and I can’ts. 

This particular mountain ridge always looked like a sleeping dragon to me, coiled peacefully…beautifully. Its under-lying danger only adding to her appeal. For three years I gazed at photos of it, captivated. Her spines spread like tentacles of a jellyfish flowing down the mountainside between light and shadow. She was everything the perfect line could be—beautiful, alluring, and captivating. The kind of line that haunts a skier. Equally dangerous and seductive. Of course, I imagined skiing it… but the consequences, risk, and lack of opportunity had kept her out of reach. I wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse.

Named Spine Cell, this series of peaks in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains spreads along an arc jutting up from a glacier 2,500 vertical feet below. The peaks are famous for their beauty, fickleness, technical challenge, and danger. For three years I’d hoped for the chance to ski one spine in particular. I’d seen the artistry of Travis Rice, arguably the best snowboarder in the world, as he left his mark and the images inspired me, haunted me. Like a giant high-dive platform, the line begins with a steep entrance requiring a mandatory air right off the top. From there it traverses a knife-edge ridge of snow no wider than four-inches, falling away almost vertically on both sides before dropping off into a near-vertical white abyss on the final pitch. My friend Rachel Burks, known for her bravery and ability on Alaska’s biggest lines, tried once from halfway up (in our Pretty Faces film) but got eaten by her “sluff,” pulled over a cliff, and rag-dolled all the way to the bottom, injuring her ankle. “Sluff” is what we call the avalanche of falling snow created when a skier makes a turn on a steep pitch. The displaced snow tumbles down the steep slope, gaining momentum and mass quickly, like a dragon’s fiery breath chasing its prey. If it catches you and sweeps you off your feet there’s no stopping until you reach the bottom with a good chance you’ll be buried beneath it, thousands of vertical feet below, after countless cartwheels—we call them tomahawks—potential broken bones, ripped tendons, or worse. It’s the price of admission in these mountains.

The dragon slayer has two options: Either ski faster than your sluff, or make sure it falls away from where you are skiing. Either way, it requires memorizing the slope because it’s so steep you can’t see more than a few turns below you at any one time. We call it the “roll,” where the slope’s steep pitch rolls away out of the skier’s view. It’s this sluff that adds an extra challenge to skiing steep lines in Alaska.

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You don’t see it much in the Lower 48 because frankly, snow doesn’t typically stick to faces this steep. Alaska’s maritime snowpack creates the ideal conditions for skiing the steepest, biggest faces in the world. I’d never seen another female step up to it before, so I wasn’t sure it was possible, but it wasn’t my first time trying something I’d never seen another female attempt.

The idea of skiing that spine became an obsession. The harder I tried to make it happen, the more impossible and intimidating it became. So many elements have to line up just right to even land a helicopter on top of a cirque like Spine Cell, much less ski down it.

When people watch ski films, they only see the outcomes of what can take years of preparation. Spine Cell is no exception. It’s a logistical nightmare. Weather conditions, snow conditions, heli availability, permits, insurance, money, a pilot who can maneuver the ridgelines and shifting winds, a guide who trusts your skills enough to allow you to try. After all, your life is in the guide’s hands and if he deems you unfit, he won’t even let you look at it. And then there’s the confidence and courage I would need to push myself over that blind ledge if I ever did get to the top of it. The fact is, there’s no place to practice skiing a spine this big. Sure, you can ski smaller spines and other steep lines but if a mountain is steep enough to form spines, it’s also steep enough to create sluff. Steep enough to make it blind and definitely steep enough to ensure that any mistake will end badly. This particular spine was even trickier because it needed to be skied super early in the season, when the daylight hours are short and the weather is extremely volatile. Suffice it to say, heli-skiing in Alaska is always a gamble and skiing Spine Cell is a long shot no matter how you play.

Then I heard a quote that inspired me to try one more time. I don’t know who said it but it goes something like this: “When you want something more than you’re afraid of the failure of not having it, that’s when it becomes possible.”

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I’d tried to ski Spine Cell before and been shut down—three times actually. There were so many moments during those frustrating missions that I wasn’t sure I could, or ever would, ski it. But damn, she was beautiful. I would find myself drawing or painting it, dreaming about it. It was one thing to imagine surviving it, hacking my way down the thing; a lot of skiers could do that. To dance and flow down it, in one sweeping motion, that’s what I wanted to do more than anything. When I was little, my dad had always said before every run, “Dance, darlin’… dance.” I didn’t understand what he meant then, but the older I got, the more it made sense. In my mind, this dance my dad always referred to, it’s the ultimate feeling of freedom.

It’s also something that didn’t come easily for me. Much of my big mountain riding in the past meant muscles gripped with fear, being forced to jump from one turn to another, the way most people jump off cliffs into water. Eyes closed, nose plugged, frozen in air… I wanted the opposite of that. It would be the equivalent of the most trained high diver dancing and twirling in the air with ultimate confidence and grace. Art in motion… that was my dream. Weightless joy on the edge of possibility was what I’ve ached for as a skier for a long time.

To dance down a mountain requires commitment, confidence, grace, vision, and faith. There were plenty of guys who could probably shred this line, there were very few I could imagine flowing down it. The typical mentality would be to conquer it, slay the dragon and mount its head in a trophy room… but I had no interest in beating her. I wanted to dance with her. I wanted to join that fearsome dragon, merge with something far older, wiser, and bigger than myself.

I didn’t even want to talk about it. I didn’t tell any of my sponsors or friends… afraid to fail again with anyone watching. If I was going to pull this off, it needed to be for me, not for any outside affirmation or attention. I needed to take full responsibility. But the doubts took hold. Could I pull it off? Who goes up to Alaska in the beginning of February to go heli-skiing in the first place? Did I really think somehow it was going to work out this time? I did my best to ignore these doubts and rallied the troops. I bought the plane tickets. I made friends with the Forest Service’s permitting department. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it on my own. Put my own team together and do it my way.

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I show up in Alaska a ball of nerves, not sleeping well and feeling anything but confident. It rain for days and days. My already small window shrinks steadily before my eyes as the helicopter sits dripping wet and motionless on the tarmac at the Girdwood airport. I start to feel the weight of my gamble. Every time I’ve been to Alaska, I’ve felt like the underdog, kicking and scratching through the expensive politics of filming and skiing with helicopters. In such a male-dominated arena, it felt like I was representing female skiers everywhere. I wanted to show them that we could do this, but first I’d have to see if I could do this.      

Then the weather clears and blue sky is in the forecast. Finally a bit of luck. The helicopter isn’t booked. Second bit of luck. I was going to get the chance to ski. I throw in all my chips, bet everything I have, and load my dream team up in the helicopter. Best guide, best pilot, my favorite cinematographer (My “adopted” little sister I’d mentored into this world of skiing straight out of college. She’d never shot skiing before, never been in a helicopter before, never sat waiting to ski or fly this long before. Never realized it was this hard because, like most people who watch ski movies, all she’d seen was how “fun” it looked, how easy it seemed, and how sunny and powdery it always was.). We get there nice and early. I study the line and make a plan with the guide, waiting with held breath for the low-angle light to catch the spines. Slowly, the light peeks over the horizon and the lines are just coming into view and I can’t believe it, but it’s about to happen. This dream of mine is going to actually happen… then the clouds roll in. Uncaring and unstoppable, the thick grey clouds of Alaska grow and envelop the mountains. Before I know it we’re back in the heli, flying home…with nothing, nothing but a rapidly increasing pile of bills.

I sit stone-faced and numb, listening to the thump, thump, thump of the helicopter’s blades. It costs $48 per minute to fly (I’ve done the math). Acutely aware how expensive each turn of that rotor is, I add up the numbers and try not to puke. The heli bill, the insurance bill, the permitting bill, the cinematographer’s bill—it all makes my head spin. I’ve been here before and failed. What am I trying to prove? Who do I think I am? Maybe this whole skiing game just isn’t for me anymore? Not even the guides have stood on these peaks this time of year! What made me think I could pull it off? We land and I leave the heli pad. It’s over as far as I’m concerned. My tiny budget is basically blown. Game over.

With no other choice, I try to let it go. At least I tried, I think to myself. I despise that mentality, and it doesn’t make me feel better. It’s only money, I try to console myself again…a lot of money… That doesn’t make me feel better either. With nothing left to figure out or worry about, exhausted and defeated, I fall asleep and sleep well for the first time in a while.

I wake up late to blue sky and a call saying the helicopter is still open. Do I want to fly? No one knows what things look like out there after yesterday’s storm. It’s so early in the season that no helicopters have been flying; there’s no information about what to expect for snow conditions. Once again, it’s time to gamble. With nothing to lose and no expectations, we take off from the airport around midday, a late start by any measurement. At this point skiing in any capacity feels like a huge maybe. But it’s a beautiful day, the sunlight sparkles through the helicopter’s cockpit and I let myself become mesmerized by how beautiful the mountains are. Then we’re out there and the guide asks me what I want to ski. It’s all up to me? For the first time, it’s all up to me. I’m not mentally prepared, and I have to make a quick decision. Suddenly everything looks HUGE and intimidating…then my guide Jeff Hoke, one of the best in the business whom I trust with my life, says “Spine Cell is all lit up.” And then waits. On me. To make a decision. It’s all happening so fast…too fast. My eyes get big and I can’t talk. It’s just too big for me, I say. Jeff says, “No, it’s not.” He would never take me anywhere too big for me. I still turn him down and ask for a warm-up.

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Three runs later and things are starting to click. The snow feels stable; my skis feel good underneath my feet. It’s just me and some of my favorite people in the mountains. It’s a dream, my dream, and this is fun! I remember smiling and thinking, “So this is what it feels like to be Beyoncé!” Dancing. Confident. In charge. The light starts to dip and take on that perfect shade of yellow just before going pink and all of a sudden I’m overcome with gratitude. I feel beyond lucky to be here, to have had this day at all. We are on our way home. The day is already a huge success just for being able to ski. Then we fly over Spine Cell, and it hadn’t even crossed my mind, but there she was…the dragon…all dressed up golden and heroic in the evening light. Now fading ever so slowly into the gentle pink alpenglow.

I look down and realize for the first time, it’s not just nice to look at…I CAN ski that! Holy shit, I can SKI that! My pilot Zach feels my change of energy as we ask to land and shut down to assess the snow from an adjacent peak. As the roar of the heli quiets down we all peer out at her. I say, “I think I want to ski it,” and Zach says without a pause, “I think you HAVE to ski that.” I make a mental reminder to find him some of his favorite gummy bears as I say to myself, “And this is where I learn if I’m a real big mountain skier or not.”

The light is going fast and we’re up in the air again as Hoke asks with all respect if I want to start halfway down this giant, which is still no small feat and would measure roughly the size of most the film lines you see. For the first time in my ski career there’s no second-guessing when I say, “Let’s go to the top.”

The tears build up in my eyes, not from fear or anxiety, but from joy. For the first time it is actually happening and dare I say it…happening easily…flowing even? After years of frustrating politics, working with various film companies and two and a half blown knees and countless hours of planning and following up, it’s ON now. Hoke and I jump carefully out of the heli and grab my skis. Zach, easily one of the best heli pilots in

Alaska, dives the bird gracefully as ever off the slope and lands on an opposing ridge where the crew can keep an eye on me. Everything goes completely silent, a stark contrast after the whirl and thump of the helicopter. The silence is surreal and I take a few deep breaths. It’s so pure here. My first time standing on top of Spine Cell, and there’s not a single question or doubt in my mind. I look over the edge and can see one, maybe two turns below me before the spine rolls over into space—but for the first time in my career, I don’t feel nervous. I smile and repeat what I have always thought looking at pictures of it. Of all the lines in the world, this one wants to be skied.

Not a hint of wind. Not a cloud in the sky. Perfect light. A great team on my side. No egos…no expectations…just a great day of skiing and stoke. Everything is as it should be.

My radio chirps that they’re all set. The back-up guide, Rich Peterson, counts down. The light is going fast and there’s no time to hesitate.

5…4…3…2…1…

Dropping.

I say a quick, “I love you” and drop in. Pushing myself over the cornice’s ledge, I land weightlessly on the spine. It’s a dance two thousand feet above, death all around me. A few quick turns and my sluff builds. Rich’s voice crackles through the radio telling me to slow down. I laugh a bit as I rally up onto the knife-edge, and for the first time, I don’t feel like I need any outside reinforcement about what to do, but I appreciate his concern. I watch as the sluff pours over the sides of the razor-thin ridge. Staying light, I bounce from one side of the ridge to the other. It’s too narrow to stay on top. I don’t look down, knowing my eyes will take me wherever they go. I fight to keep them trained straight ahead of me, forcing myself to breathe, repeating internally, don’t look down… breathe…don’t look down… breathe.

Arriving at the diving board platform, I take a few quick breaths. Feeling like a tiny cat on the tippy top of the world’s biggest skyscraper, blowing in the wind with no way down except, down…down…down…in every direction. I wonder if my friends watching from below think I’m gripped and want a rescue but I’m laughing out loud now. Because I can. Because I’m actually, finally here and I’m going to enjoy every millisecond with this majestic creature some people call a mountain. Because after so many years of fear in these places, I finally feel like I belong, like I deserve to be here. Because I’m ready and just want to dance.

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Dropping over the precipice, the next few turns become visible. Now the sluff is really starting to move and I put my foot on the gas. It’s a test of faith, there are no landmarks to aim for, just memorization of every undulation and spine formation. Rich comes on the radio and says, “Stay right, stay right,” but I know exactly where I am. I lay into a few turns knowing full well it will really get the sluff moving. Knowing it adds fire and power to the dragon that’s chasing me but I’m playing with her now. I’m not afraid like I’ve been for so long. Not skiing all locked up and forced like so many times in the past. This time I’m loose and playful. Enjoying the moment enough to truly play…to dance with this million- pound ancient dragon.

The bottom run-out is finally in sight and part of me wants to slow it down just to stay here longer, but I don’t. The steepness of the line has me going faster as my inside hand flows into the wall of snow behind me the way a surfer’s back hand finds the barrel. It’s a moment I’d dreamt about for so long. Worked so hard to find. Gambled so much to achieve. I transition into another turn, free falling at least 15 feet down the impossibly steep face… swoosh… swoosh… from one perfect turn to the next.

Tucking my knees to my chest, I sail over the final bergschrund crack—where snow pulls away from the mountain creating a crevasse—and onto the glacier, floating on air and trying to stay alert for potential crevasses and respecting my training and protocol. Coming to a gentle stop, I’m still too in shock, too humbled, too amazed to make a peep.

My team cheers from above and Rich’s voice comes over the radio. “Great job, Dyer,” but I barely hear him. I’m laughing and can’t stop.

Flying back, the moon is huge and glowing in the long twilight as we head towards the last rays of the sunset and now I can’t stop thanking everyone on my team. Everyone who worked so hard to help me make this dream of mine a reality, all the people who believed in me and showed up for me and supported me through all the ups and downs. Lastly, I thank myself, something that’s never come naturally for me. I thank myself for showing up, for being willing to take on the responsibility of failure for the potential of success.

I think to myself, “Maybe anything really is possible.”