Saddle up for an emerging adventure sport
WHEN MICHAEL OVERCAST, AN OWNER OF TORDRILLO MOUNTAIN LODGE, saw the Aero Design Quick Release helicopter bike rack, he knew immediately it would let the lodge offer the quintessential Alaskan cycling experience. The racks attach to the side of an A-Star helicopter and are capable of holding up to six bikes that can easily be loaded and unloaded without overcomplicating flying or landing. Tordrillo Lodge is a 40-minute flight from Anchorage, tucked on the shore of Judd Lake in the heart of a remote mountain range. When the racks arrived, they opened vast tracts of wild, roadless lands ripe with mountain biking potential.
“A lot of it is really just off the cuff,” Overcast says. “You go out there, look at the ground and land the helicopter, do some biking, and load them back up and go biking in another area.” Riders can spend one day pedaling over a dry lakebed scattered with massive, stranded icebergs, and the next morning zip to the flanks of Mount Spurr, above Chakachamna Lake, to an area where a volcanic eruption created a cyclist’s playground rolling with dense cinder over a terrain of gullies, jumps, and mounds. “It’s quite extraordinary,” Overcast says. The sport of helibiking and FAA-approved racks like the one made by Aero Design are new to the United States. When Tordrillo purchased a rack in 2017, Overcast says it was the first outfit in Alaska to own one. Since then, operations like Alyeska and Alpha Aviation have also purchased helibiking racks.
Alpha Aviation, a helicopter flightseeing company that flies out of Anchorage, Soldotna, and Talkeetna, offered their first helibiking tours in summer 2018. Most of the tours fly from Talkeetna and last about four or five hours, starting high on a ridge with stunning vistas and descending below the tree line into an alpine environment. The routes are chosen so riders with limited experience can still enjoy the trip, but if more seasoned mountain bikers book a flight, the ride can be tailored to their skillset.
Chad Emswiler, an Alpha Aviation owner and tour guide, says there’s lots of excitement surrounding the helibiking potential in Alaska, but it’s so new that many people aren’t yet aware of the opportunity.
“We really see this as the next big up-and-coming thing in terms of getting people out and experiencing Alaska the way it was meant to be experienced,” he says. So far, commercial helibiking is limited to only a few Alaskan operations, but that hasn’t stopped the state’s outdoor enthusiasts from embarking on their own airborne biking adventures.
Lifelong Alaskan Cary Shiflea has loved biking since he was a kid, and as an adult he’s been at the core of the state’s mountain biking scene. Biking, he says, has the same downhill flow and energy as skiing, except there’s no chairlift. Shiflea and his friends sometimes spent four hours carrying their bikes to the top of a mountain before getting one run down.
“Bringing a helicopter into the picture was always kind of the dream,” he says. This past summer, Shiflea and his friends brought the dream to life when they chartered a helicopter to lift them to the top of Government Peak in the Matanuska-Susitna valley north of Anchorage. The ride down was intense and hair-raising at times, Shiflea says, but it was still the highlight of his summer and left the group making plans for a multiday helibiking excursion this summer.
The cost of renting a helicopter seems to be the main barrier for most hobbyists, Shiflea says. His group opted to rent a small helicopter, one incapable of providing mountain bike racks. This meant the pilot had to make multiple trips, carrying the riders to the destination before zipping back to load their bikes into a sling hanging beneath the chopper, and flying the equipment back out to them.
Despite the cost and logistical challenges, Shiflea says he’s noticed there seems to be a lot of simmering excitement about helibiking in Alaska. “I think it will grow. I think it’ll just be a slow-growing segment of the sport,” he says.
Out at Tordrillo, Overcast agreed that the sport is so new that the destination helibiking market is basically nonexistent; demand for tours remained fairly low in 2018. But for a lodge that’s already catering to adventure-seekers with opportunities like spelunking through glacier crevasses and climbing rock walls with a via ferrata, helibiking was simply too exciting an opportunity to pass up. “There’s an element of discovery every time you go out in the helicopter with the bikes attached,” Overcast says.
Alexander Deedy is a freelance journalist and assistant editor of Alaska magazine.