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Countdown under way to Alaska ski resort openers

Ben Anderson
Skiers and snowboarders load the bus for a ride to the top of Moose Mountain ski area in Fairbanks.
Courtesy Roger Evans
Snowmaking at Alyeska Resort, in preparation for their 2012-2013 season.
Courtesy Alyeska Resort
Snow is falling at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood.
Courtesy Alyeska Resort
The new Ted lift at Alyeska Resort.
Courtesy Alyeska Resort
The lift at Hilltop ski area has been operational almost as long as the ski area itself, which is celebrating its 30th season this year. November 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Manmade snow dusts the slopes of Hilltop Ski Area in advance of its 30th ski season. November 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The rental shop at Hilltop ski area is ready for its 30th season. November 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Bryce Ehmann attaches a seat to one of the chairlifts at Hilltop Ski Area, in advance of it's 30th ski season. November 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Bryce Ehmann works the slopes at Hilltop Ski Area, prepping the mountain for it's 30th ski season. November 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A snowboarder enjoys the slopes at Moose Mountain in Fairbanks.
Courtesy Roger Evans
The snowy slopes of Moose Mountain ski area in Fairbanks.
Courtesy Roger Evans

To the delight of many and the disdain of others, winter is upon us. On Thursday, the Yukon River froze over near Eagle in the Interior, and an ice storm earlier this week in the Bristol Bay region briefly delayed some local schools.

But with winter in Alaska comes winter sports, and that means snow, which means alpine skiing and snowboarding. For Alaska’s brigade of downhill enthusiasts, the opening can’t come soon enough. A couple of ski spots are looking to open this weekend, despite the relatively light snowfall around the state. Here’s a roundup of when you might expect your local lifts to open.

Southcentral  Alaska

Location: Girdwood
Opens: Nov. 21
Cost (adult, all-day ticket): $60-$65

Alyeska, the largest and most popular ski destination in the state, is gearing up for its opening and has been making snow like mad in addition to what's fallen recently. As of Wednesday, there were 18 inches at the top of the mountain, and about half that at the base. Compare that to the 978 inches that fell at the top of Chair 6 last winter, the most since 2000.

While Alyeska offers a diverse set of 76 runs for skiers and snowboarders looking for challenges ranging from easy, bunny slopes to double-black diamond limit pushers, it’s also a pricey option. Full-day adult lift tickets will set you back $65 on the weekends, $60 during off days. Want a season pass? You’ll have to shell out $1,375, not exactly chump change to an aspiring ski bum.

Still, it’s tough to beat Alyeska for sheer variety of runs, though with the limited snow cover, skiers should check the resort website before heading to Girdwood to see what's open. New this year is Ted's Express, which replaces the old and crochety Chair 4, cutting skiers' lift time up to seven minutes. That's key on frigid days when you want to get moving as fast as possible from the Daylodge to the upper mountain. Alyeska has also done trail widening and grading at the bottom of Chair 6 so skiers flow and faster and safer to that lift. 

At the base of the mountain, enjoy a drink and some live music at the Sitzmark bar, or go downstairs to the bake shop and enjoy a bottomless bowl of hot soup. Is there a better way to spend a day?

Location: Anchorage
Opens: Nov. 17
Cost (adult, all-day ticket): $32

Hilltop, located in Alaska’s largest city of Anchorage, doesn’t have the most diverse set of runs, but is a convenient hop up the Hillside for many of the city’s residents hesitant to make the longer excursion to Alyeska 45 minutes south. Hilltop is a bit of an institution, too -- it’s preparing to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

Hilltop features only one proper lift, but has a variety of short runs to work with, including a couple rated with the more challenging black diamond designation. Plus, it’ll cost you about half as much as Alyeska, and you can enjoy it as early as this Saturday. Despite a light snowfall in Anchorage so far this year, Hilltop has also been making snow of its own, and a couple of runs will open beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday.

Location: Cordova
Opens: Likely mid-December
Cost (adult, all-day ticket): $50

One thing you can count on at Mount Eyak: snow, and lots of it. Located in the always-snowy town of Cordova on the Prince William Sound, Mount Eyak has no snow-making capabilities, but sees an average of 350 inches of annual snowfall thanks to its location in one of the snowiest places in Alaska.

According to Paul Swartzbart, who heads the ski patrol, among other hats he wears at Mount Eyak, last year’s season was even more awash in fresh powder than usual. But he couldn’t say exactly how much, thanks to a snowstorm in January that buried the community and led to an emergency declaration.

“Last year…oh man,” Swartzbart said. “I don’t know how many inches we got, we were too busy shoveling to measure.”

That should be enough to make any skier or snowboarder salivate, but traveling to Cordova in winter will likely deter most. Swartzbart said that they’re never sure exactly when they’ll be able to open the slopes, but there were 18 inches at the top of the mountain’s single lift as of Thursday -- identical to Alyeska.

Thompson Pass
Location: Near Valdez
Open: March-April
Cost: Ooh, boy

If you really want to get deep into some gnar pow (that’s short for “Gnarly Powder” for the layperson), there’s always Thompson Pass, one of the snowiest places in North America and a popular heli-skiing and snowboarding destination. In 1953, Thompson Pass saw a snowfall of 974 inches, which puts even the snow-laden Mount Eyak to shame.

Such adventure doesn’t come cheap, though. One of the best ways to get to the prime peaks in the area, which can mean mile-long runs in pristine powder, is via guided helicopter trips, which can run thousands of dollars for you and your friends. The other downside is that the only real season when heliskiing operators in the area can conduct business is a narrow window every spring, when the weather cooperates enough to allow for some runs. So save up and plan ahead if you're hoping to take the mile-long plunge.

Location: Arctic Valley, between Anchorage and Eagle River
Open: Mid-December
Cost (adult, all-day ticket): $19-32 (prices vary for members and non-members)

Arctic Valley is another popular skiing and snowboarding hotspot close to Anchorage, this time a little north of the city off of the Glenn Highway. Arctic Valley features three lifts, but anyone anxious to hit the slopes there will have to wait a little longer -- since there’s no artificial snow-making equipment, Arctic Valley has to rely on good ol’-fashioned Mother Nature.

A call to Arctic Valley wasn’t returned Thursday, but a Facebook post Thursday morning said that “we are shooting for the second weekend in December,” as a target for opening day. Stay tuned.

Southeast Alaska

Location: Juneau
Open: Dec. 1 (tentative)
Cost (adult, all-day ticket): $44

Eaglecrest, located in Juneau, is a four-chair resort that features the milder climate of Juneau, Alaska’s capital city. Unfortunately, that same warm weather is holding up the opening of the resort at the moment.

According Jake Quarstad, marketing coordinator for Eaglecrest, the mountain has about 2 feet of snow at the top, but warm weather over the last few days in Juneau has left the base a bit on the soggy side, with only about 6 inches left. Snow makers are working in preparation for a hoped-for opening day of Dec. 1.

“For the first time in a few years, we’re making our own snow,” Quarstad said. “We haven’t had the equipment (in recent years). It just hasn’t been up and running.”

Those willing to wait will likely be rewarded with a new terrain park to play in.

“This was about the week last year when we got dumped on and we were able to open pretty soon after,” Quarstad said Thursday. “We ended up with well over 600 inches by the end of the season.”

Interior Alaska

Location: Fairbanks
Open: Nov. 30 (tentative)
Cost (adult, all-day ticket): $39

Moose Mountain is a unique situation for a ski resort, but an appropriate one given how cold Interior Alaska can be in the depths of winter. Instead of chairlifts, buses ferry riders to the top of the slopes. After a brief debate about the availability of bus service this winter, Tim Mowry up at the News-Miner reports that a tour bus operator has stepped in to fill the gap, so the ride to the top could be pretty sweet.

The resort already has 13 inches of snow, after receiving about three inches over the weekend. At the moment, the hoped-for opening date is Nov. 30, though that could be earlier or later depending on what the snow situation looks like.

Roger Evans, president of Moose Mountain, said that Fairbanks’ more moderate snowfall totals make skiing in the Interior a different experience.

“It snows less here so we manage our ski area for thin base,” Evans wrote in an email. “We have no stumps or rocks and mow every year so we can ski on inches of packed snow. Our annual average is only 6 feet and it packs down to one foot.  Luckily it never melts until April.”

Location: Fairbanks
Open: TBD
Cost (adult, all-day ticket): $30

Skiland, a single-lift resort about 10 miles from Fairbanks, is also waiting on enough snow for the season to get under way, and is experiencing much the same conditions as Moose Mountain. Unlike Moose Mountain, though, Skiland has yet to determine an opening day.

“Recent snow has gotten us all invigorated for the season to come, It’s not enough to open yet, but we’re on our way,” according to a Nov. 11 update left at the contact number for Skiland.

Location: Fort Wainwright
Open: Nov. 17
Cost: $17-$35 (Depends on military status)

Even though Birch Hill is located at Fairbanks’ Fort Wainwright, the public is welcome, though it’ll cost you a bit more to get in as a civilian. If you’ve never bothered to learn to ski or snowboard, you can also ride an inner tube on an 800-foot run and take a lift back to the top.

Birch Hill appears that it will be the first Fairbanks skiing location to open, but better take advantage while you can. It’s only open Friday through Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

Location: Several
Open: Now
Cost: Free
Snow cover is awfully thin for most nordic skiers, but the Cross Country Alaska website posters have been testing their rock skis. Among the locations mentioned in the last day -- Russian Jack ("good diagonal skiing on paved trails and fairways"), Tony Knowles Coastal Trail ("good snow coverage in most places, but quite a few divets where the pavement is showing"), Kincaid ("4 inches of light fluffy stuff that is not bonded to the ground at all at Kincaid -- so rock skis on the trails that are grassy: not too bad. Mize, Roller Coaster the soccer fields are ... OK for classic skiing.") 

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com