Freezing rain splattered Southcentral Monday morning, dousing a ski season that looked promising days ago.
With the opening of Alyeska Resort set for Wednesday, officials there were comforted by the fact they’ve been making snow for weeks.
“I suppose this is why we have snow cats and groomed runs,” said Sandy Chio, Alyeska’s director of marketing.
Alyeska will open its Tram, Chair 6, Chair 4, Bear Cub Quad and both Magic Carpets 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The bottom of the mountain is icy, Chio warned: “It will change the ski experience, especially on the lower mountain. Skiers and riders will want/need to stay on the groomers.”
The Lower Bowl and all outer areas will remain closed and limited runs will be open below the base of Chair 6.
Meanwhile, nordic skiers, who had been giddy about the magic that groomers performed with just a few inches of snow this season, were sidelined by the meltdown and skating-rink conditions on every trail in town.
“Very icy and unskiable at this point,” said Jan Buron, coach of the Alaska Winter Stars cross-country program.
While nordic skiers pray snow arrives later this week, Alyeska can fight back against the whims of nature with 26 fan guns and 18 air water guns designed to produce winter when snowfall is scarce.
The guns were silent this week because temperatures must stay consistently colder than 26 degrees before Alyeska operates them. But before the late November meltdown, an extended stretch of cold weather provided ideal snowmaking conditions.
“It helps tremendously,” Chio said. “At these cold and dry temperatures, our snow-making capacity actually improves as the quality of snow goes up (less moisture content).”
Alyeska makes as much snow as it can while early season conditions cooperate, either storing it or moving it to snow-starved areas at lower elevations or off-ramp areas near the lifts.
But when Alyeska opens Wednesday, the crown jewel of some $500,000 in mountain improvements over the last four years will remain closed. Alaska’s first halfpipe, called the Alyeska Superpipe, opened in January to give snowboarders and freestyle skiers a place to hone their skills but needs more snow before it can open this season. The in-ground halfpipe is 300 feet long and 55 feet wide with 18-foot walls and is groomed by a huge Zaugg pipe monster machine.
“I think it’s gonna build in popularity,” Paul Kelly, head coach of the Big Alaska Snowboard Team, said of the halfpipe. “People were a little hesitant last year because they weren’t used to it. I think it’ll be a lot more popular this year.”
Once the halfpipe opens, the Zaugg will recut the pipe daily — or even twice a day — to ensure optimal conditions.
“A halfpipe by its nature is a lot of work, a lot maintenance,” Kelly said.
At Hilltop, efforts to expand the Ptarmigan Terrain Park continue. Upgrades costing about $20,000 expanded the terrain park to about two dozen features last winter.
“The terrain park guys have some pretty cool ideas this year,” said Rick Cramer, Hilltop’s general operations manager. “But right now we need snow to do them.
On Monday afternoon, Cramer said, groomers were on the hill and the parking lot had been sanded.
Could the weekend-only ski area just north of town finally emerge from cauldron of financial woes that have swirled around it for years? Early signs look promising — once, that is, enough snow falls:
• A new four-lane park for inner tubes will be served by a 500-foot rope, Arctic Valley’s first new lift in decades. Separate lift tickets for two-hour sessions will be offered and 50 tubes in a variety of sizes will be available.
• All of Arctic Valley’s lifts — the 2,216-foot-long Chair 1, the 4,544-foot Chair 2, the 984-foot rope tow and the new tow — are expected to run this winter. That’s a rarity.
• Beer, wine and food again will be available after a successful debut last winter. “It went really well,” Anchorage Ski Club president Alan Heckart said. “It drew people together and felt like it really built on the community that was there. We’re always looking for new revenue, because skiing alone doesn’t pay any more.”
The ski club, which owns and operates Arctic Valley with volunteers, is a weekend-only operation that’s typically open 30-40 days a season. But without snowmaking, it’s totally dependent on nature.
Typically, 100-400 tickets are sold each day, and lift lines are rare when all the lifts are running.
“The critical factor is volunteers,” he said. “We need close to 20 trained volunteers to operate all of the lifts for an entire day.”
Heckart hopes Arctic Valley will open within a month. But even if that happens, there will be one big thing missing he wishes the area offered: Cheeseburgers. Arctic Valley’s fire suppression system needs to be upgraded before the kitchen can offer them.
Heckart isn’t the only one dealing with disappointment.
Chris Tomsen, an organizer of Sunday’s eighth-annual Wooden Ski Classic at Russian Jack, said the event may be cancelled. Or turned into a clinic on applying pine tar to skis.
Traditional pine-tar dress is optional.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.