Alyeska's slopes welcome eager opening-week crowds

JUBILANT: Campouts, long lines don't bother those first to take run down mountain.

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 23, 2011 

GIRDWOOD -- Jubilant skiers and snowboarders flocked to Girdwood this week for the opening of Alyeska Ski Resort, which has benefited from cold, early-winter temperatures and a good amount of snow so far this year.

The mountain opened for season-pass holders on Tuesday. Wednesday was the opening for everyone else, and saw at least a foot of fluffy powder in some spots and, by all accounts, much better visibility.

Several high-school-age kids camped out at the tram house and cooked eggs and bacon on a camp stove Tuesday so they could be first to the top. Some die-hard skiers waited at Alyeska's tram house for more than two hours Wednesday, starting at 8 a.m., to get the first tram.

How important is it to make opening day? Just ask West High School teacher and football coach Tim Davis, who put in for a personal day back in August in the hopes of riding powder Wednesday.

"It's huge," Davis said while standing in the tram terminal.

The early wake-up calls and anticipation were all for one thing: first tracks in more than 135 inches of snow that's fallen on the mountain since the beginning of October. Nearly half of that has come in November, the resort says.

For the first 60 skiers and snowboarders Wednesday, the chance to ride it came a little after 10:30 a.m.

"Now it's time to shred!" shouted Garrett Balen as the tram's doors opened for its first offload of the day's snow riders.

The skiers and boarders clambered up a set of stairs and outside to strap on their gear before pointing downhill, whooping and hollering.

That moment was the culmination of months of planning and work for staff in all areas of the resort's operations, according to the ski area's general manager, Di Hiibner. That includes snowmaking crews, groomers, lift operators, tram operators, vehicle maintenance, ticket office workers, rental shop workers, the Mountain Learning Center, mountain hosts, events and terrain park crews, grounds keepers, housekeepers, food and beverage workers, and lift maintenance, Hiibner said in an email.

"They all impact each other and it has to be one cohesive unit as every department has a specific duty to perform and accomplish," Hiibner said.

One major accomplishment, Hiibner said, was replacing Chair 6's bullwheel, the massive disc inside the lift's terminal that holds the cable, to which chairs are attached. Hiibner said Alyeska spent about $100,000 this year to replace the old bullwheel.

"It's a relief to have it in and the lift back up and running for winter operations," Hiibner said.

To get ready for the new season, the mountain's 30 paid ski patrollers and 80 volunteers also conducted CPR and medical training, disaster preparedness drills, lift and tram evacuation practice, avalanche beacon drills and other avalanche training, Hiibner said.

It's all to keep visitors safe on the mountain and to deal with unforeseen circumstances that might arise, said Jim Kennedy, Alyeska's snow safety director, in an e-mail. But the word "safe" is a relative term, Kennedy said.

"Folks need to remember that we can't eliminate all the hazards," he said. "We do the best we can, but all we can do is reduce the hazards and try and educate folks to the hazards. The rest is up to them to use good judgment and ski within their ability."

Those skiers and snowboarders can now put their ability to the test on more gladed tree runs, said Amy Quesenberry, Alyeska's marketing manager.

Over the summer, crews working on mountain bike trails thinned trees in a couple areas of the mountain, opening treed areas that had previously been more difficult to get to, she said.

"A lot of people have been skiing Alyeska for a long time, so any new terrain is really exciting," Quesenberry said.

But the first thing Quesenberry says she still tells potential winter visitors has been Alyeska's mainstay since the beginning: excellent snow.

"We average 650 inches, which is a great amount of snowfall. Some seasons we've had over a thousand. Some seasons we've had close to 300 in one month," Quesenberry said. "So that's huge."

Man-made snow is also used to fill-in bare spots on the lower mountain, Quesenberry said, and ahead of the Tuesday-Wednesday openings, weeks of temperatures below 26 degrees made it possible for crews to run snow-makers around the clock on the lower mountain, Quesenberry said. That also allowed jump- and halfpipe-builders to get an early start this year, she said.

Though the mountain's terrain park was still closed Wednesday, people were still hucking themselves off small, natural jumps and cliffs. The howling and laughter that followed the earlier tram loads could be heard well into midday across the mountain, as sun peeked over Max's Mountain and lit up the top of Alyeska.

Nathan Anderson said it was well worth waking about 5 a.m. to work a couple hours in Anchorage before driving down to Girdwood with his friends.

"Nothing to do tomorrow but rest and eat turkey," Anderson said.

Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.

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