By Sarah Sekula, published on CNN.com
Anticipation builds as Joe and Francy Royer board the helicopter outside of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a luxury retreat about 60 miles west of Anchorage.
It’s not just that they are about to swoop over south-central Alaska, which is prime moose and grizzly territory. They’re also about to check Alaskan heli-biking off the bucket list.
Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: A chopper with bike racks attached to the sides flies you over wide open spaces and drops you and a guide off in a remote location.
Within minutes, the Royers land on the side of Mount Susitna at about 3,500 feet above sea level. Their guide removes several fat-tire bikes from the chopper’s racks and the group of four gears up with helmets, pads and gloves.
They start to pedal but find it’s hard to focus on important things such as dodging rocks and executing turns. Why? The scenery is so darn distracting. The Tordrillo Mountain range dominating the backdrop includes an 11,000-foot volcano. There’s open alpine tundra as far as the eye can see, wildflowers in full bloom and, of course, glaciers galore.
“Heli-mountain-biking with fat bikes opens up what was once completely inaccessible,” says Overcast.
“By eliminating brushy approaches and going straight for the alpine tundra and cinder ash, we can get guests straight to the prize. The views alone make the trip.”
Explore uncharted territory
Today the intrepid group is exploring miles of brushless terrain that has never been biked before, pedaling down smooth sections of firm tundra and alpine heather. It’s an area reachable only by helicopter, and there are no signs of other humans on their journey.
“My thoughts were: If we had an issue, we would be hard to find,” says Joe Royer.
Those concerns are quickly squashed. Mike Overcast, their guide and part-owner of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, reassures them that he’s invested heavily in communications. Tordrillo has radio repeaters that keep guides in touch with helicopters in the field and a microwave link that provides a dedicated data source faster than people enjoy in Anchorage.
The lodge also invested in a modern Aero Quick Design Release helicopter bike rack that transports bikes without having to disassemble them for flight.
In the summer of 2017, Tordrillo started offering the unusual excursion in Alaska. Fast forward to today, and it’s still one of only a handful of companies around the world that offers heli-biking tours to the public. The heli-biking season runs from July through September. Once the snow starts piling up, usually by October, they switch to fat-tire snow biking.
Not just for the pros
Although heli-biking may sound like a daring excursion, it doesn’t have to be.
Riders who want a challenge can be dropped at 11,000 feet for a day-long adventure of dicey downhill routes. If you’d rather bike for a few hours on easier pathways, though, you can.
Overcast says if you can ride a bike, you can do it.
“Riders can choose a descent or ascent of virtually any length or difficulty, making this experience perfect for anyone interested in mountain biking regardless of their level of skill or expertise,” he says.
No matter which path you choose, you definitely earn bragging rights. And there are plenty of routes to choose from. Overcast says they are adding new ones all the time.
“There is so much out there,” he says. “It will take decades to figure out.”
That’s because the amount of terrain still to be discovered and biked seems inexhaustible. The hotel has access to 70 miles by 40 miles of potential biking space.
“There are not enough days in the year to cover all this new ground,” he adds. “Every time we go out, we are pointing out potential rides that we should check out.”
“We are on the dawn of a whole new wave of bikers, both with the remote heli-bike operations and the advent of full suspension electric bikes,” Overcast says. “They are making what was once really difficult into a more mainstream sport.”
Many agree with him, including professional mountain biker Micayla Gatto.
“Heli-biking could definitely gain enough popularity to become as common as heli-skiing,” Gatto says.
She does, however, worry about the environmental impact of putting a bunch of humans into otherwise untouched areas just to go for a bike ride.
“I think if it is properly monitored, we respect the animals, and the terrain is kept as the number one priority, I think it could get quite popular as a luxury sport,” she adds.
Earn your own bragging rights
The heli-biking excursion at Tordillo Mountain Lodge ranges from $500 to $1,000 per person, and these bike rides can last from one hour up to day-long excursions. (That’s in addition to lodging rates starting at $1,280 per night.)
Heli-biking is offered July through September. Other summer excursions include ice climbing, wake surfing and heli-fishing. In the winter, there’s heli-skiing, hiking and sky trekking.
Tordillo Mountain Lodge, 3705 Arctic Blvd #429, Anchorage, AK 99503; +1 (907) 569-5588