“Anywhere besides Alaska, this would be a national park,” said Tommy Moe, the Olympic gold medalist who I was following up the face of a glacier.
He was eyeing the outline of the Tordrillo Mountains, a series of 11,000-foot-high peaks bordering the Chigmit Mountains and Alaska Range in south-central Alaska, some 90 miles from Anchorage.
Moe and I had come from Tordrillo Mountain Lodge (TML), which he co-founded with heli-skiing trailblazer Mike Overcast in 2005. I had just arrived and been dazzled by a customized vegetarian lunch by Adam Lassiter, TML’s private chef, when Moe suggested we hop into his new powder-blue helicopter and land on an otherwise inaccessible glacier.
Anywhere besides Alaska, this would be a national park.
I stole glances at the mountains when I could, but, mainly, my eyes were glued to the ground, scavenging for sun cups (snow holes), black ice, crevasses and, especially, moulins (ice caves).
Moe dropped a rock in a moulin, and we waited for a thud.
“If you fall in, you’re on your own,” Moe said, flashing a mischievous grin and charging ahead.
Days later, while rafting down nearby Talachulitna Creek, I found out this was a lie: Guides are equipped with crevasse kits and high-tech communication capabilities — but it’s hardly surprising that Moe keeps it playful even on such remote, rugged terrain. He and his buddies have mapped more ski runs and heli-biking routes in the area than any other entity.
Adventurers from all over the world — who range from athletic royalty to actual royalty — come to TML year-round to share the mountains with Moe and numerous other elite guides. TML offers a riverside hot tub, a private chef, an on-site masseuse and stylish digs, sure, but the thrill of skiing down a steep volcano, while being coached via walkie-talkie by a TML guide, is the lodge’s main draw. There’s also the fact that these mountains are only accessible by helicopter, and there’s rarely anyone else in sight but a few TML guests.
In fact, nearly everything at TML required a pair of wings. A private 30-minute floatplane flight with Sportsman’s Air Service from Anchorage’s Lake Hood to TML set the tone. The view quickly turned from city buildings to Susitna Valley’s patchwork of floodplain and spruce and alder trees. As we neared the lodge, our pilot pointed out Denali rising through the clouds.
But it was our glacier flight by helicopter that made TML “vacation goals” for me.
After we had ice-trekked for a few miles, pilot Ryan Skoreki transported us over silt-colored glacier lakes; shimmering ice that resembled sheets of Styrofoam; and patches of earth pockmarked by retreating glaciers. We oohed and aahed as though we were landscape painters mining for our next subject — and then we landed. High above Triumvirate Glacier, we could better inspect the green foothills, blue mountain peaks and dynamic alpine tundra floor.
On foot, the mysteries of the sky were revealed to me: The white stripes lining the mountains were unique patches of snow, which I excitedly trudged through. The mountain ridges were now less homogenous, revealing their DNA through the bounce of mossy cushion plants and the texture of non-flowering lichen.
The next morning, I joined Moe and Skip Mullen, a fly fisherman and guide, onto Judd Lake, the placid body of water that juts up to the lodge. Clad in a mustard-colored, full-body dry suit, I boarded TML’s prized Bluetooth-enabled boat and watched as the two athletes carved waves in the boat-produced swell.
Along with the new chopper and boat, TML recently added a sauna and chic standalone cabins that were prefabricated in Scandinavia. These suites are perfect for couples but also great for families with small children thanks to a sofa bed in the living room, which can be separated by a door for privacy. The accommodations — which include newly renovated guestrooms in the main lodge and a second modern lodge — are perhaps the most stylish in Alaska.
In the newly extended main lodge, guests can retreat into multiple riverfront nooks or hang out at the well-stocked bar, which serves cocktails featuring glacial ice or corn snow. Skiing grainy corn snow — the product of melt-freeze cycles — and fishing for Chinook (king) salmon distinguish the lodge’s “Kings and Corn” season, which runs from Feb. 26 to July 5 and follows the winter heli-skiing season.
Fly-fishing, however, is one of the summer season’s main draws. With Mullen as my guide, I cast my line back and forth, willing my mind and arm to stay stable. Wading into the water, I released my first-ever catch, a Dolly Varden trout, and squealed at the feeling of its slimy body. To be honest though, I didn’t much care about catching fish. Lulled by the babbling water and towering Tordrillos, I was clearly the one who was hooked.
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge