Alone on a ridge in the Chugach Mountains of southern Alaska, I struggled to see. The wind was blowing upslope from the south, pelting my face with snow. Around me, all was white – or purple, as after a few hours of trying to rise in the sky, the sun had given up, leaving me alone in the dark. There was no shelter from the cutting wind as trees didn’t even try to grow at this extreme elevation. I had already had an exhausting day of climbing and descending the ridges, and I wasn’t sure how much more I could handle. Far below, the sea ice boulders strewn across the low tide line of the Turnagain Arm pointed the way back toward Anchorage, and civilization. But right about then, I didn’t know what I was going to do.
So what did I do? I followed the well-groomed, well-lit track down to the ski lift and rode it back up for another go around. After all, I was at Alyeska, one of Alaska’s largest winter resorts. And I was there to ski.
In fact, far from presenting a challenge to survival, Anchorage locals told me, skiing at Alyeska is one of the few things that makes the winter bearable.
“Three ways to survive the winter up here,” Josh Stream, an anesthesiologist who had recently moved to Anchorage with his wife and child, told me: “coffee, beer and winter sports.”
Alyeska is in the town of Girdwood, about 36 miles southeast of Anchorage along the scenic Seward Highway. Girdwood lies in one of the many valleys of the Kenai Peninsula pressed between the Chugach and the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. It was once called Glacier City for the seven icy monoliths that surround the valley. Like many modern ski towns, it was first settled as a miner’s camp, but unlike, say, Park City, Utah, Girdwood still retains something of a frontier quality, at least in terms of the log cabin architecture and the length of the beards of the men who live there.
If you ever have the opportunity to ski above the tree line – as in parts of Big Sky, Whistler and many resorts in Europe – I highly recommend it. If there are no trees, then there are no trails. Sure, the resort may put lines on the map above the tree line, giving each couloir and face a name and a difficulty level, but those aren’t trails. They’re natural features of the mountain.
I spent the morning in Alyeska’s Upper Bowl exploring gullies, jumping ridges and trying to find that elusive line of 20 or more perfectly linked turns. Slowly, I became increasingly aware of snow. The Upper Bowl went from dazzling white to flat white to a sort of are-my-eyes-still-working gray. Still, I stuck with it until sunset closed the high lifts. Luckily, one of the lifts serviced by light towers rose above the tree line; these runs I savored, running the lip of a ridge with the Turnagain Arm stretching out below in the dark until the trees again claimed me, and Alyeska felt like just another ski mountain once more.
IF YOU GO
For a ski-in/ski-out experience, stay at the Hotel Alyeska in Girdwood (alyeskaresort.com), an Alps-style chalet that is in fact the only hotel in Girdwood. Rooms start at around $150 a night.
Dinner at the Double Musky Inn, (Mile .3 Crow Creek Road, Girdwood, doublemuskyinn.com) should not be missed. Expect to pay about $50 a person for a two- or three-course meal with a Cajun heat surprising for the far north.
For a listing of festivals in Anchorage coinciding with your trip, go to anchorage.net/festivals-fairs.