Alyeska Resort is on its way to the skiing big time

January 01, 1995|By William Aldrich | William Aldrich,Chicago Tribune

A recent Ski magazine survey of the top 64 ski resorts in North America doesn't mention the largest state's favorite slope. Does the Vail-Aspen-Snowmass crowd not know about Alyeska Resort, 40 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska?

Chances are they do, but as one skier phrased it, Alaska is gourmet skiing -- a place to go if you're tired of the more popular (and cheaper to get to) slopes.

If skiers knew of Alyeska before this year, a majority of Americans probably did not. Now, not only is the resort semifamous, but the tiny town where it is located, Girdwood (population: 1,350), was on the lips of breathless TV commentators during the 1994 Winter Olympics.

It was during a two-minute span on an Olympics show that this area gained its spotlight -- the length of time it took Tommy Moe to hurtle down a mountain in Kvitfjell, Norway, to become the '94 Olympics' gold medal winner in downhill skiing.

Mr. Moe went on to win silver in the Super G race, and any American who watched television was saturated not so much with Mr. Moe but with his father and stepmother and the contorted route the 23-year-old had taken to reach the top of this winter sport, learning his craft on the slopes of Alyeska.

Mr. Moe still lives in Girdwood when he is not on the ski competition circuit.

Mr. Moe's medals could not have come at a better time. Anchorage had been the American city bidding for those winter games and, had it won, Alyeska would have been the skiing site. The resort, established in 1959, is undergoing a $100 million upgrade, and the state of Alaska is realizing that it doesn't have to be a summer-only destination. Anchorage is a winter city that until now has barely promoted its many winter activities, which natives take for granted.

The centerpiece for the Alyeska complex is the Alyeska Prince Hotel, a 307-room chateau just 200 feet above sea level at the base of the mountain and commanding a view of the Turnagain Arm, one of the many inlets that make water sports so popular here.

Early visitors remarked on the European-style architecture and room features, even though the hotel was built by the Japanese-owned Seibu Alaska Inc.

But, back to the slopes: Despite its near-sea level base, most of the skiing terrain is above the tree line, said the hotel's Jeanette Anderson. Skiable terrain amounts to 470 acres, 70 percent in the intermediate and upper-intermediate range, she said. The newest chairlift (there are eight at the resort) opened in September and carries skiers to a new, 20-acre beginners' slope.

The Glacier Terminal offers a takeoff point for skiers, a lift to the upper slopes (to 3,300 feet), a deck to look out over the scenery and two restaurants -- a cafeteria-style eatery on the lower level and the gourmet Seven Glaciers Restaurant and Lounge above. (One magazine survey ranked the view of Glacier Valley on one side and the Turnagain Arm on the other as the best of any American ski resort.)

As for not being included in the Ski magazine survey, David Wilson, who is in charge of lift operations, said: "We haven't had enough people come here yet."

The resort relies much less on snowmaking equipment than resorts in the lower 48 states because of the amount they receive -- an averageof 560 inches at the top of the mountain.

"Our snow quality rivals the best in Colorado," Mr. Wilson said. "In spring, we have more than anybody and longer days and nice sunshine."

Indeed, the official closing date is May 7, and classes are taught at the top of the mountain until the second week of June. This season's first snowfall was Oct. 16, Ms. Anderson said.

Because of the moderating effect of the Turnagain Arm, the average daytime temperature is 28 degrees, about the same daytime temperature as at Colorado resorts.

The downhill slopes include more than 470 acres, but there's also room for cross-country ski enthusiasts: The 1,500-acre resort has more than 50 kilometers of trails, Ms. Anderson said. As far as winter events, Alyeska will hold a Winter Festival Jan. 14-15 (ski races, snow sculpturing) and the Masters National Alpine Championships March 26-April 2.

Once winter has ended, the resort will see how well its efforts have fared in landscaping the mountain. Below the tram's path is a landscape that appears not to have been touched during construction of the huge supports that hold up the cable, which holds the tram. On our trip, we saw a man-made pond where salmon had been introduced in an attempt to attract native wildlife. Clearly visible was a beaver's lodge, meaning at least one species had made peace with the steel technology above.

More than $1 million was spent on landscaping around the resort and along the mountain -- the largest commercial landscaping project undertaken in Alaska. Helicopters were used to move Mount Alyeska's native alpine vegetation from areas disturbed by construction to other sites.

Next year, Ms. Anderson said, a series of trails will be installed to allow visitors to walk down the mountain from the Glacier Terminal.

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