Die-hard skiers will travel far and spend big for untracked powder and near-empty runs. Now the intrepid are looking to fresh terrain, in Alaska.
Alaska's winters have in abundance what the Southern Rockies and the Swiss Alps have lacked in some recent seasons: snow. Snowfall at Alyeska, the state's major ski resort, averages 630 inches a year, and reached about 1,000 inches last winter. Aspen, by comparison, averages about 300.
Devotees love Alyeska, located in this south-central Alaska town, for its unspoiled rustic charm, dramatic coastal views and sticky, highly skiable powder. A multimillion-dollar overhaul is bringing new amenities to the resort. And after disappointing ski seasons at several major resorts in Europe and the U.S. last year, some in the tourism industry are betting that the little-known ski town in the northernmost state may have a shot at becoming the next big ski destination.
There are drawbacks to Alaska in ski season. For one thing, there is little daylight at this time of year. On a recent visit, lifts at Alyeska didn't open until around sunrise -- at 10:30 a.m. -- and by 4:15 p.m. the sun had gone down. There's also the reputation for extreme cold, though in reality Alyeska, about two miles from the coast, generally isn't much colder than mountain towns in the Rockies. Getting there isn't always easy. Airlines cut daily trips to the closest airport, in Anchorage, by as much as a third in winter, which means flights are expensive and book up early.
Nine ski areas, mostly catering to locals, are spread out across Alaska, according to the National Ski Areas Association; Alyeska is the largest. The skiers and snowboarders who venture to the state in the winter tend to be of the adrenaline-rush set, coming to heli-ski in Valdez, a mountainous area also in south central Alaska, or to take on Alyeska's double black diamonds. Situated in the Chugach Mountain range about 40 miles south of Anchorage, Alyeska is known for its sharp drop-offs and the dauntingly steep slopes of its north face.
A new owner, John Byrne III, is hoping to soften that image. He has invested more than $10 million in a facelift for Alyeska, with plans for about $30 million more in upgrades to the hotel and mountain. There are new runs open for beginners and a new snowboarding school. Several million dollars have been spent upgrading snowmaking facilities for better-groomed trails. At the hotel, a new spa sells "glacial facials" and the rooms now have high-speed Internet service. The goal: to attract more families and put Alaska on the map for mainstream destination skiers.
Girdwood (pop. 2,000) is a 50-minute drive from Anchorage along an icy but scenic stretch of the Seward Highway. If visibility is good, the drive alone is almost worth the trip -- there are breathtaking views of snow-topped peaks in almost every direction along the Cook Inlet.
The town feels like a quaint throwback to U.S. ski resorts from the 1960s and '70s. Streets with names like Alpine Meadows and Davos are lined with A-frame houses covered in thick blankets of snow. There are no traffic lights and just one paved road. Downtown consists of a few wooden buildings, including a ski-gear shop and a couple bed and breakfasts. Locals bundled in puffy coats and thick mittens glide around on cross-country skis.