Opinions

International dreams in Alaska: How Alyeska came to be

Alyeska ski area got its start in the late 1950s, when a group of local Girdwood residents had a dream to build a ski area on Mount Alyeska. They built a road to the base of the mountain and installed a couple of rope tows. But the local ski enthusiasts had little money to expand, so they decided to look for an investor in Alaska or the rest of the U.S.

They found a French man named Francois de Gunzburg in Colorado, who was an enthusiastic skier from Chamonix, France. He came to check out Mount Alyeska and liked what he saw.

In 1959 and 1960, he invested in a Poma platter lift and then Chairlift No. 1, a 5,500-foot double chairlift with a vertical rise of 2,200 feet and a roundhouse at the top terminal. At that time, it was one of the longest chairlifts built in the U.S.

In 1963, Alyeska built the first day lodge and also hosted the U.S. national alpine ski championships. Alyeska also hosted the annual International Airlines ski races. However, it was difficult to make a profit with the small Alaska population.

At that time, I was Alaska’s director of tourism, and in 1967, I persuaded Alaska Airlines CEO Charlie Willis to buy the ski area from Francois de Gundzburg. Since I was raised in a former Olympic ski town, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Bavaria, Germany, they agreed to the deal if I joined as general manager of the Alyeska ski area. So, as a young German ski bum, I had the opportunity to develop and expand the ski resort. Alaska Airlines at that time was also not profitable, so I knew it was going to be a big challenge.

However, slowly but surely over the next 13 years from 1967 to 1980, we made progress. We build the Alyeska Nugget Inn and Sitzmark Bar and Grill in 1969 and also later built the first condominiums at the base of the ski area. In the 70s we built Chairlifts 2, 3 and 4 on the upper and lower half of the mountain and added night lighting on the ski slopes, from the base to the top of Chair 1 and Chair 4.

In 1980, Alaska Airlines decided to sell Alyeska Resort, and this time I was fortunate to find a Japanese company, Seibu/Prince Hotels, to buy Alyeska Resort. The owner, Mr. Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, was at that time listed by Forbes magazine as the richest man in the world. The Japanese officials requested I sign a long-term management contract, which I gladly did.

Over the next 26 years, from 1980 to 2006, Seibu invested heavily. We built the super-deluxe 310 room Alyeska Prince Hotel, the Swiss 60-passenger tramway from the hotel to the top of the mountain ridge next to the Roundhouse. The top terminal included the AAA Four Diamond-rated Seven Glaciers restaurant.

Our company invested and upgraded with more chairlifts, ski trails, a new day lodge and many more projects. In total, Seibu invested more that $200 million, and Alyeska has developed into a fantastic year-round destination resort.

Unfortunately, Japan and Seibu/Prince hotels experienced a major downturn in the Japanese economy and decided to sell Alyeska in 2006. I had reached the ripe age of 66, and I decided after the sale was completed that it was time for me to retire after more than 40 years managing and developing Alyeska Resort.

This time, in 2006, we were able to find a solid U.S. investor: John Byrne, who was also a passionate skier. He also made substantial improvements on the mountain, including new high-speed chairlifts, improved ski trails and snow making. He also renovated the Hotel Alyeska and made other improvements at Alyeska.

In 2018, Byrne decided to sell, and this time Alyeska was lucky to get another international investor from Canada. Alyeska was purchased by a successful hotel company owned by Ryan Pomeroy from Alberta, Canada.

Now, another exciting new investment is just finishing construction next to the Hotel Alyeska. It will be the most elaborate and expensive Nordic spa in North America. The $15 million Spa and Wellness Center will open in fall 2021 and will make Alyeska one of the finest year-round resorts in North America.

Alyeska’s history includes many international investors and operators: the Frenchman Francois de Gunzburg, German Chris von Imhof, Alaska Airlines CEO Charlie Willis, Japanese investor Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, U.S. investor John Byrne and now Canadian owner Ryan Pomeroy. Alaska is lucky to have such a great tourist mecca and world-class destination resort.

Chris von Imhof is the former general manager of Alyeska Resort. He recently finished writing a book titled, “Today Alyeska, Tomorrow Zee World,“ about his life and times managing Alyeska Resort, available at his website,chrisvonimhof.com.

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