Interview: Theo Miners on Surviving Avalanches, Pioneering Backcountry Skiing, and Heli-Skiing

Theo Meiners "cradling" a helicopter. (A. Meiners)
“People are drawn to (skiing) not just because of the speed, powder and jumping off rocks with soft landings. It’s more the piece of mind. I’ve participated in a lot of…sports over the years, but nothing quite does it time and time again like skiing.”

Theo Meiners and I don’t have much in common. He’s a living legend. His list of accolades, if laid out like fresh tracks in the Chugach Mountains, would stretch for hours and miles beyond the reach of the Alaska Rendezvous Guides helicopter.

He’s been a ski instructor longer than I’ve been alive, has worked as an examiner for the PSIA for nearly as long, and was part of the Jackson Hole Air Force long before backcountry skiing became “mainstream.” He mapped out many of the first lines in Jackson Hole. He’s also survived not one, but four avalanches, and knows more about snow science than I thought possible.

Me, I’m just a girl who likes to play outside. But Theo and I do have one thing in common – we love the peace of mind our sports give us, and we love finding ways to open the possibility of those experiences to others. We caught up on the phone just before he left for Valdez to prep his heli skiing business for opening . For those of us on the East Coast, the ski season is almost over. But for Theo and the Alaska Rendezvous Lodge, the fun is just beginning!

Turning Dreams into Realities

“I knew it was going to be a big project and a lifestyle change because before, I'd just worked for other people and now I was taking on this financial risk. But that's what you are – you're a risk taker if you're a guide, a manager, so taking on the financial risk was just part of the evolution.”

Theo became well acquainted with helicopters after spending four years as a wild land firefighter. After pilgrimages to Valdez to work with the World Extreme Skiing Contest as an avalanche technician and judge, he took a job as a guide with the legendary Doug Coombs and worked his way up the ranks. “Doug and I had been friends for a long time before his meteoric rise to fame in skiing; the guy was a phenom. I learned quite a bit from him even though he was younger than I am. It was great watching him gain his confidence and footing on a global stage."

With a desire to make serious backcountry skiing available at a higher level, Theo took his lifetime of experiences and purchased 27 acres of land near Valdez. There, he built Alaska Rendezvous Guides. “We needed property, our own restaurant, our own hotel crew quarters, etc. It took us about four years to gain momentum and for the buildings to be completed. It’s been wonderful…we feel really blessed.”  Theo and his team have been fulfilling Alaska backcountry skiing dreams ever since.

When asked, “Why Alaska?” Theo launched into a discussion of weather systems, geography and meteorological phenomena, all of which make the Valdez area one of the snowiest places on Earth.  In describing how the ARG team chooses where to take clients, he drew me a mental picture of a constellation of stars. “Imagine…each star being a big mountain peak. The peaks are in groupings, and depending on the level of the group, we know where to go. Of course, we’re always looking for the best snow, and we’ll travel long distances to find it.” His incredible passion for skiing and snow science is obvious.

Theo dropping in... see if you can spot him near the top! (A Meiners)

Buried Alive…Almost

“People have three instinctive reactions to catastrophe and chaos – they fight, they flee, or they freeze. That's basic human behavior when you see something biblical. My reaction was to fight and to survive.”

Theo has survived not one, but four avalanches. The worst, a Class 4, engulfed him in an area called Clueland in Alaska eleven years ago.

Wet autumn snow bends vast forests of 25-30 foot tall aspen, willow, and alder trees, top branches touching the Earth. Packing a serious punch, winter storms bring up to 1200" of snow. Trees are buried and we’re left looking at a huge alpine face instead of a vast forest.

On top of that face in that particular valley, surface hoar had developed at lower elevations. It’s an incredibly weak layer and difficult to detect, which can make lower elevations more avalanche prone. Theo hit a weak spot and the entire slope gave way. The avalanche propagated ¾ miles and was so deep that the tall trees, relieved of their burden, all stood up. The helicopter waiting to pick him up below was completely buried in spindrift.

“I was knocked over and resurfaced by using a technique called ‘brace and spin’” he says. (He’s pioneered avalanche survival techniques and makes information available for free on ARG’s website.) “I was able to slingshot myself out into some open areas between sliding snow. I was moving to the flank when I was hit by another wave. I did the same move again, this time coming up with only one ski on…I skied into the trees thinking I was going to impale myself and ended up six or eight feet up in the branches as the slide kept moving below me.”

Theo was lucky. He wasn’t injured in the first few moments of capture, which was crucial. But he also credits his situational awareness and survival instincts. His expertise in snow science helped save his life. He described the different avalanche zones, the destructive forces of each, and how knowing where you are in the avalanche can be the difference between life and death. He knew where he was, how to handle it, and fought for his life.

What surprised me the most about Theo's account of these experienced was the lack of fear and emotion he expressed. After the Clueland avalanche, it took him eight years to visit the spot again. That's the only indication I got that the experiences had any emotional effect on him. What was most obvious, though, is the fact that he's an incredibly intelligent and calculating sort of man with survival instincts some of us can only hope we have when the time comes.

Never Stop Learning

“At Alaska Rendezvous, our credo is: ‘We are all students of our environment, and we will never stop learning and never stop training.’"

Theo (far left) and part of the ARG crew. (A. Meiners)
Though a legend in his own right, Theo credits a number mentors with helping him develop direction and understanding. He'll always be a student, and always looks to learn more. His list of mentors include Karl Birkeland, avalanche scientist, Bruce Jamieson, avalanche researcher, Dave McClung, co-author of The Avalanche Handbook and Rod Newcomb, founder of the American Avalanche Institute. Ski mentors and training partners include Jackson Hole skiing legend and Olympic medalist Pepi Stiegler along with Fritz Stamberg among many others.

Theo’s advice to anyone seeking advancement in backcountry sports is to have a mentor. “Guiding and mountaineering is still kind of in the old school way of learning. It’s an apprenticeship in a lot of regards. No matter what you get from a class or course, until you really start to put it to use with someone with better skills, you don’t really learn. That’s why having a mentor is important.” 

And of course, Theo is a mentor himself. The ARG crew is poised to lead the future of heli skiing in Alaska, and he couldn’t be more excited. “There’s so much energy. It’s their future. If they can manage the learning curve, stay safe and not get injured, they’ve got bright futures as heli guides.” The future looks bright for Theo and the Alaska Rendezvous Lodge as well. “It’s a great environment. Lots of hot water, great food and kindred spirits. It’s people seeking adventure and getting to become friends. You know, when you risk with a group of people, you develop a bond. I don’t say that lightly. People become very close. The experiences you have, you learn a lesson each time. You learn something about yourself, your partners, and your environment.”

Theo and the ARG crew continue to learn their environment and to make safety the number one priority. It was obvious after the first five minutes of our conversation that returning from any adventure in one piece is paramount to Theo. His weapons against anything thrown at him are knowledge and experience. “It's really important that everyone takes their time and doesn't rush their adventures. What we say at the Rendezvous is that the really objective is to come home. Whether you're climbing Denali or Everest, going heli skiing, or going out to Red Rocks for climbing, plan your trip to come home. The peak or the summit is only halfway. It's that last run in the fading light, the alpenglow, it's sharing memories. Make lots of memories, but come home.”

So, if you're ready for it, Theo and his crew open the Alaska Rendezvous Lodge opened at the end of February. Give him a call and let him show you the experience of a lifetime. Or just travel to Valdez and revel in the fact that you're in the company of a legend.

Comments

SuzRocks said…
Wow- what a great article. You did a great job interviewing him and putting it all together on paper.

Maybe when I'm a good enough skier to ski Valdez, I'll go up there and visit them.
Still Learning said…
Re: "Theo has survived not one, but
four avalanches." I would never want to ski with a "guide" that has
been caught in 4 avalanches! He's an "experienced been in 4 avalanche
expert" all right! I'd call it stupid risk taking and extremely
lucky. I can't believe this guy still guides
and people pay to ski with him! Sooner or later Theo's stupid risk taking
will lead to disaster ... just hope he doesn't kill others along the way.