Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chasing Bears and Powder in Alaska

Alaska. My friend TJ was surprised that I would fly as far as Alaska to do a side tour on my round the world business trip. I told him that from my perspective, Alaska is close by if I'm already stopping in California. But as I was sitting for sixth hour in the Alaska Airlines plane bound for Anchorage it started to dawn on my that TJ may have had a point. Alaska is far away.

But the moment I stepped out from the airplane I felt like home. The air outside tasted frosty, snow made everything beautiful, the cars were making the same noise as they traveled over frozen ice contours in the road. And the same dark emptiness, not many people around. All this is like Finland. No, I take it back. This is how Finland should be. Better than home! None of those global warming signs. Realiable snow for Christmas. Reliable snow for November. The Christmas part seems exceptionally important, as I am writing this blog couple of days before Christmas and its noon, it is dark, and it is raining heavily in Kauniainen, Finland.

An evening view to the valley from Alyeska mountain

No, Alaska is better. I did not change my mind about this even when another friend told me that Alaska is the redneck capital of the world. I felt I fit in nicely. What was his problem? The state is known for intelligent educators who can simply complex topics such as history or the Internet ("series of tubes") for the common man.

I was not going to feed myself the bears

Night skiing in Alyeska


But back to skiing. I was destined for Alyeska, the top ski resort in the state. No, make that the only ski resort in the state, at least if you only count large ones. There are a few small ski areas, but Alyeska is the only large commercial operation. Then there are of course countless mountains to take on your own or with the assistance of helicopters, snow cats, snow mobiles, or dog sleds. My long business trip had made me too tired to even consider such extreme activities so I was headed to Alyeska instead. Actually, to be honest, I did ask but all such operations were still closed at that time of the year.

Ski area entrance at night

Alyeska sits on the famous Chugach mountain range, an hour's drive from the Anchorage airport. The village is close to sea level but next to Mount Alyeska. It has 760 meters of lift-served vertical. A kilometer if you are ready to hike to the Headwall. Alyeska gets over 16 meters of snow on the average, per year. 

This snowfall was very visible on my visit. It was the opening day for the ski area, and I was worried they might delay the opening. But there was plenty of snow, including half a meter of powder that had just arrived. On subsequent days we got a daily dose 20 centimeters of fresh, dry powder snow.

Gondola at Alyeska

Alyeska has one gondola from the base on the Alyeska hotel side to almost to the top of the mountain, only Chair 6 runs higher. This is a good for the first-lift-of-the-powder-day or for bad weather days, but otherwise the chair lifts are a faster way to get up the mountain. There are altogether only six chair lifts and two magic carpets, but the lifts still lead to over 70 different runs.

My love for Alaska took a big hit when I saw one of the lifts, the "Finnland" magic carpet. They named the kids lift according to my country, and with two n's to boot. You could argue that the small lift was roughly the size of the biggest ski hills in Finland, but still. I'm expecting the diplomatic ties between Finland and Alaska to be broken any day now for this. Or maybe a quick military invasion? Alaska is kind of disconnected from the rest of the US anyway, and together Finland and Alaska could form the strongest nation of rednecks in the world. And be much smarter about naming our ski lifts.

The root cause of the diplomatic incident between Finland and Alaska
Traveling up the "Finnland"

The ski area consists of the upper and lower bowl areas where a majority of the ski runs are, and the headwall and north face areas where most of the interesting extreme skiing is at. Unfortunately, the latter two areas were not yet open on the early days of the season. The direct runs on the north face seemed skiable and I did consider skiing them on my last day, just to limit the damage from that eventual pulling of my lift ticket if the snow patrol would catch me. But I decided against it, mostly because I was alone, and because route finding through the woods seemed challenging. And because of the bears. The sign at the base warned against skiing closer than 300 meters to bears. I did not want to hit a bumb on that run and wake up a bear sleeping underneath.

Even so, the open areas provided some excellent skiing as well. The lower bowl is mostly traditional ski slopes cut through the woods, although there are a couple of areas where you can ski through the wooded areas as well. Good skiing, excellent snow, but nothing special. The upper bowl, on the other hand, offered very interesting skiing through the cliffs and steep bush areas around Chair 6. Oddly enough, there are plenty of short, marked couloir black diamond runs in the area that is marked as blue in the ski area map. This is an area where the powder stayed on for the longest time. But it also challenges both your skiing and route finding abilities.

One of the many black diamond runs in the upper bowl
Route finding was made more difficult due to the sometimes cloudy weather. Strangely, the area was easiest to ski in the evening, when artificial lightning lit up the slopes. Skiing in Alyeska reminded me of skiing high up north in Finland. It is very cold and dark. The first lift runs at 10 AM when it is becoming lighter and warmer, but they run all the way to 6 PM on artificial light. 

This is as high as the sun gets in Alaska

A view from the North Face side of the mountain

Ski patrol hut in the dusk (2PM)
Chilly ski lifts

Evening ski lift ride

My kind of ski area

I skied through this slope on the next run

Important Parameters

The base elevation at Alyeska is only 76 meters. The highest ski lift, Chair 6, takes you to 840 meters.

There are only a few accommodation options in the village. For convenience and to relax after arduous meetings, I chose to stay at the main hotel, Hotel Alyeska. This is a great location, as you can walk straight to the gondola from the hotel and the main restaurants and bars are inside. However, it is also very expensive. But it is a five star facility, my room was better than almost any other hotel room I've been at in the western world. Maybe from that perspective 140$ per night was not that excessive. Luckily I stayed only a couple of nights. For comparison, I am going soon to Les 3 Vallees with friends from work, and we are paying roughly the same sum for the accommodation per week as I was paying here per night.

It is comfortable at Alyeska hotel, even sitting outside
Transport from the airport to the ski area is not very convenient, because of the long way and because the only available options are rental cars and taxis. One way taxi fare to Alyeska is 90$.

There seemed to be an excessive number of accidents in the ski area. Almost every time I got out of the ski lift, the patrol was taking yet another rescue sled into use. This seemed to be mostly some people who did not know to ski at all, perhaps the opening days and the thanksgiving weekend had something to do with. And despite a relatively small number of people on the mountain, there were a few bottlenecks where reckless speeding had caused accidents. Hopefully no one was seriously injured, however. And the patrol was taking their job very seriously, one one of the bottlenecks they had several people checking skier speeds and warning the ones that were skiing too fast. I wish more ski areas did that.

Yet another ambulance
In the winter months Chugach Powder Guides runs a heliskiing service around Alyeska. Similarly, there are organized snowcat tours. These services can be week-long dedicated trips, or day trips where you stay at the resort otherwise. As is usual in North America, the prices for these services are exorbitant. You have to be rich to afford to pay 5 000$ to 10 000$ for a week of heliskiing, or 1000+$ for a day trip. Read my future blog entry to find out where to go in the world to do the same at a fraction of this cost.


Alcohol freezes beyond this point?

I rate Alyeska as one of the great ski destinations in North America. Not at the same level as Whistler-Blackcomb or Jackson Hole, but certainly comparable to Snowbird, Squaw Valley, Breckendridge and many other well known places. The long travel is an obvious downside. And Alyeska is only one lone area. If you get bored in Snowbird (but why would you?) you could drop by neighboring Alta. There is no such option in Alyeska. And based on my experience with skiing in Northern Finland, it is probably similarly cold in the middle of winter in the Alyeska.

It is cold and dark in Alaska. Very cold.
But the good things about Alyeska are:
  • Plenty of snow, through three seasons.
  • Enough challenging terrain, and easy access to double black runs.
  • Also plenty of intermediate and beginner ski runs.
  • The best snow cat, ski touring, and heliskiing options in Northern America.
  • Lifts, hotels and other facilities that are of excellent quality, second to no one else on this continent.
  • The weather, nature, and feeling in this place is different from most other places in North America. You really feel you are far in the north.
Still, as I was visiting Alyeska I only met Alaska locals. I did not even meet anyone out of state, let alone anyone from some other country. Alyeska is the undiscovered gem of North American skiing. Do visit it some day.

Sarah Palin paper dolls. Recommended souvenir from the Anchorage airport.

Alaska. They have humor, too.
Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko


  1. This place is the best to stay while spending holiday seasons.

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