December 2000   
Alaska’s Alyeska
far north, far out...
Alaskan skiing: a sawtooth symmetry of snowy peaks reflected in the sea, the glassy blue mirror of Prince William sound or the braided tidal twists of the Turnagain Arm; Cook inlet wrapping Anchorage in its twin arms; the cold norhthern year turning ever so slowly toward summer, toward round-the-clock daylight; a band of moose stopping traffic just outside town, any town; and skiers looking for powder and often finding it. Alaskan skiing.

From mid-December on, every day gets longer, and in Alaska everyone notices. Every extra minute of sunshine is appreciated, treasured, this far north. This is the northern edge of the damn near everything, of the digital revolution, of post-modern, post-cold-war America - the northern edge of the ski world for sure. Frontier funk, a side eddy in the straight-ahead prepackaged world of ski vacations and ski destinations. Alaska. Alaskan daydreams. Alaskan myths. Alaskan realities.

Alaskan skiing is good, and tough, sometimes good and tough. At first glance, Alaskan ski terrain seems endless, the mountain scenery, the snowfields and glaciers, bigger and wider and longer than common sense tells you they ought to be. But the quick and casual visitor can’t ski very much of it. At least not without ‘going native.” And in Alaska that means quitting your job, selling your return ticket to the lower 48, settling in for the season, putting skins on your skis and heading for the heights, making friends with the heli-schemers and heli-scamers, figuring out deals for cheap ski-plane rides, learning which highway passes offer the big ski runs in spring, and driving up to Alyeska in lousy weather so you can be there when it stops snowing and the patrol opens the mountain, lift by lift, run by run, face by face....

Skiing Alyeska with the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet down below. This giant fjord experiences the second largest tidal bores in North America. Water rushes in and out several times a day. Compare this image with the photo below, taken only a few hours later, after the tide had come in.
photo © Linde Waidhofer
Alyeska Resort is THE ski area in Alaska. Not the only one. But the biggest and the slickest, which isn’t very slick - and in my book that’s a plus. From Anchorage, an easy, and dramatic one-hour drive gets you to Alyeska - an Aleut word for “great land” and the name of both a 3939-foot peak and the ski resort at its base. The road twists and turns around massive forested buttresses plunging into the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. Now and then you pass highway department recoilless rifles, ready to shoot down avalanches. Across the inlet, forests and glaciers stretch up into low clouds. Eventually there’s a crossroads in the middle of nowhere: a tiny town, Girdwood, and acres of dead tree snags leaning crazily in tidal grasslands (drowned when the land sank 20 feet in the 1960 earthquake that changed just about everything in southern Alaska) and wonderful, low-key ski mountain - Alyeska.

A Lake-Tahoe skier would feel right at home in this maritime snow. Only here skiers look out over a Pacific-ocean bay, not a Sierra lake. The second largest tides in North America rush up and down the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, and this wide bay thousands of feet beneath our skis was constantly changing. Sometimes a glassy gunmetal grey-blue; sometimes alive with whitecaps as the wind drove charcoal clouds inland. When the tide was out, the great Arm tuned into a giant mud flat, only a few deeper channels twisting through glistening shadow like lost rivers. As we skied, banking down Lolo’s and Gear Jammer, after an afternoon of cut-up powder, we could see a tidal bore, a wall of water - but from this distance only a line, a horizontal wrinkle in the water’s surface - creeping slowly up the Arm, miles away and far below us.

Total transformation: the Turnagain Arm suddenly filled with water.
photo © Linde Waidhofer
We wake up under swirling mist and clearing clouds. And it turns out there really is a pretty fair sized ski mountain looming overhead. White-plastered trees rush upwards, but don’t get very far. Most of the mountain is white, pure white, treeless and tempting, “alpine” in a word. And it skis just as “alpine” as it looks.

Till noon there are lots of untracked lines in the thick fresh snow. When you want to work a little harder, you can dive off the side of any run into a crisscross minefield of cut-up powder. Dive over the edge with no second thoughts because there is so much space here that you always have enough room, enough time, to finesse your turns, even in the toughest snow. No rush, no obstacles, no crises—that you can’t solve. Only a big, empty, white-on-white playing field.

A series of loosely defined bowls trends leftward across the giant basin linking Mt. Alyeska with neighboring Max’s Mountain. And like all the other gung-ho, powder-pumped skiers we too drift further and further left, run by run, until we run into the ropes. If the slopes of Alyeska have few natural barriers, they have their share of man-made ones: closure ropes and signs promising the most dire consequences if you ignore them. But this is high alpine terrain with all that implies. The upper bowls at Alyeska aren’t that steep, but they are overhung by much steeper slopes, cliffsides plastered with what looks like thick white shaving cream. Terrain that makes you tilt your head back, and whistle, and think twice. So we wait patiently till the patrol has hiked out, radioed back their okay, opened the gates. And then we sidestep out and up, past Ptarmigan Gully and across the High Traverse.

This is good skiing, bordering on great skiing. Roughneck skiing. Deep, quickly cut-up powder that demands as much energy as subtlety. And the locals have it - energy I mean. I loved the energy of Alyeska skiers. Good skiers. Serious skiers. Not, it seemed to me, serious ski consumers, or ski fashion victims. I saw very few fancy ski outfits, but a lot of basic blue and black, and even a little duct tape here and there. I noticed that insulated leather work gloves seemed more popular at Alyeska than $100 Reusch ski gloves. I saw little fear of falling, or of the fall line. These Alaskan skiers didn’t waste much snow by zig-zagging. They dived in and tore it up. When in Rome.… We joined right in.

With the abundance of great skiing in the lower 48, the promise of Alyeska’s slopes might not be enough to draw one up here; but the larger-than-life-size Alaskan scenery probably would. And Alyeska is just the beginning. There's more, and bigger, and wilder country to come. Alaska is the heliski frontier of North America. Over half the great action ski pictures you have enjoyed in ski magazines in the last decade have been shot on the steep stable snow of Alaska's Chugach Mountains, above Prince William Sound. And for good reason

But that's another story, for another day....



    December 2000  
photo at top of page:
the upper slopes at Alyeska after two feet of snow.
photo © Linde Waidhofer
All contents of this web site
© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.