Alyeska: Not so far away
By Hilary Meyerson
Photo at right: The author’s family checking out an ice cave on frozen Spencer Lake. Photo by Hilary Meyerson
Last February, our family headed to the 49th state to enjoy some downhill, Nordic and the Fur Rondy festivities Anchorage, Alaska is known for.
Our flight left Seattle at 8 a.m. and just after lunch that day, we unloaded off Chair 6 at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska, 40 miles south of Anchorage. It felt good to be able to stretch our legs on some afternoon runs after our morning flight from Seattle.
The views and scenery were spectacular, but was Alyeska worth a trip for Northwest travelers, who usually head to British Columbia or eastward when looking for a winter vacation?
Our answer was an unqualified, “Yes.”
Vesna, our mountain host at Alyeska, guided us down to High Traverse, a challenging bowl on the south side of the mountain. There, we traversed single-file a long distance around a bowl with the Headwall, a steep cliff face above us. The Headwall is an avalanche zone, the snow marked with gray where the mortars have hit their mark and triggered slides before we boarded that plane out of Seattle.
It’s possible to bootpack it up the Headwall and ski down, but today we headed for Max’s Mountain, in search of deep powder and some glade skiing. The area had been closed for nearly two weeks, and the promise of untouched snow was irresistible. Vesna was on her radio and soon we got the all-clear from the ski patrol that Max’s was wide open.
As we came around the edge of the Headwall bowl, we found what we were looking for: thigh-deep powder, dotted with trees. Our early morning wake-up for the flight was worth it.
Alyeska is the rare ski resort sitting at a low elevation, making it great for Northwest skiers who grumble at the head-lightening altitudes of the Rockies. It’s not often you can see saltwater from a ski lift. At the base of the mountain, Turnagain Arm, a branch of the Cook Inlet, lies thick with ice and slush, all moving quickly on Alaska’s notorious extreme tides.
The skiing at Alyeska is varied; the snow incredible and plentiful. Last season, Alyeska seemed to receive all the snow that Colorado lacked—a total of 962 inches (over 80 feet!) including 96 inches of snow that fell in May.
We found the terrain ideal for the intermediate skier, while offering great challenges for the experts. With nine lifts, Aleyska doesn’t have the sheer acreage of terrain that larger resorts might offer; then again they don’t have the long lift lines either. The whole mountain might have a few hundred skiers on a weekday.
Most skiers take the aerial tram, necessary to reach Chair 6, from which we accessed the High Traverse.
But don’t worry about needing to rise early to catch first tram—it’s at 10:30 a.m. Although days are short around the winter solstice, in late February, when we went, the daylight hours are about the same as in Seattle. The locals laugh at the tourists lining up at 8:30.
You never have to leave the resort on a trip to Alyeska, as it has a variety of restaurants, amenities and an indoor pool that seems to be the hub of the community. However, it’s worth a trip into Girdwood to check out its funky small-town vibe. A free shuttle runs from the resort into town, making stops at a few restaurants and the day lodge, where the locals or day-trippers from Anchorage unload to head up the mountain.
While in Girdwood, don’t miss the Double Musky Inn, a storied Cajun restaurant that has drawn foodies from all over the world for some of the best steaks and éttouffée outside of New Orleans. For a casual meal or live music, hit the Sitzmark Bar and Grill, a classic ski bar where you’ll be sure to run into some ski patrollers or lifties having a beer after work.
After a couple of days of skiing, we decided to try a classic Alaskan pursuit: dogsledding.
Dario Martinez is the owner of Alaska’s oldest dogsled tour operator, Chugach Express Dog Sled Tours. He met us on the edge of Moose Meadows, the Nordic area just across from the Hotel Alyeska. There are 5 kilometers of groomed trails for skate or classic, or for snowshoeing. After days of skiing, we decided to let the dogs do the work. Dario has raced in nine Iditarods, and he’s been a musher for 25 years. We were in good hands.
Dario hooked up nine dogs to pull two sleds. The temperature was 20 degrees, and Dario explained there would be frequent stops so the dogs could cool themselves by flopping belly down in the snow or gulping down some of the powdery fluff. Optimal temperature for running the dogs is 20 degrees below zero.
“So today feels like 90 degrees does to you or I,” he said.
After a few brief instructions, we got settled on the sleds and took turns as mushers. When the dogs took off, the force yanked our heads back. These dogs can move! Soon we were racing across the snowy meadow, with the sun shining down and jagged mountain peaks in the distance. A perfect Alaskan experience.
The next day, we opted for more high-powered fun. We wanted to check out a glacier by snowmachine. (Don’t call it a snowmobile. That is so Lower 48).
Glacier City Snowmobile Tours picked us up at our hotel. (Yes, they cater to tourists). We were outfitted with full facemask helmets and special gloves and boots. Then we had a short van ride down the Seward Highway to a drop-off point, where we were each assigned a huge machine to take us to Spencer Lake formed from Spencer Glacier. In winter, the glacier isn’t accessible by road or trail—snowmachine is the only way to get there.
After fording rivers, weaving through trees, dropping down steep inclines and flying across stark, snowy expanses, we ended up on the frozen Spencer Lake. We spotted the improbable blue of Spencer Glacier long before we got there. We parked our machines outside of an ice cave and got another warning from our guide.
“There is nothing safe about glaciers,” he warned. Despite the risk, we all went inside the ice cave—a once in a lifetime experience.
Back on the frozen lake, we drank Russian Tea, a hot concoction of Tang, iced tea, lemonade, cinnamon and nutmeg. It was surprisingly delicious. We gobbled up some candy bars and then saddled up for the long ride back. Confident drivers by this time, we gunned our machines to new speeds as we sped away from the glacier.
Finally, exhausted but thrilled, we headed out of Girdwood, toward Anchorage and points south. We were already making plans for a return trip. Next time: summer. We started asking around about summer hikes and such, but time was short: our flight left in early afternoon.
We were home by dinner … and dreaming of Alaskan slopes.
Alyeska Resort: www.alyeskaresort.com
Anchorage Tourism: www.anchorage.net
Glacier City Snowmobile Tours: www.snowtours.net
Chugach Express Dog Sled Tours: www.chugachexpress.com
Double Musky Inn: www.doublemuskyinn.com
Hilary Meyerson is the editor of Outdoors NW and was surprised by how much she enjoyed driving a snow machine.