Warm, snow-free weather delays opening of Alyeska ski resort

GIRDWOOD -- Brian Burnett, mountain services manager at Alyeska Resort, had some "very sad news" for Southcentral Alaska skiers and snowboarders Monday afternoon.

"No one should plan on skiing" this week, he said. The mountain that makes up the state's most popular skiing destination is still too brown to shred from top to bottom.

Historically, Alyeska sees at least a partial opening to the general public on Thanksgiving Day, but with little snowfall at the base and temperatures too high this year to make snow nearer the top, an opening appears unlikely this week.

"We are prepared to open whatever we can, as soon as we can," Burnett said in an interview Monday in the Daylodge at the base of the mountain. "Right now there are 19 inches at the top of Glacier Bowl Express and 10 inches at midmountain."

In the Daylodge on Monday morning, metal doors over the rental gear were shut, ski racks were bare and the only people were a couple of employees and Olympic snowboarder Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, who sat staring intently at a laptop.

According to Burnett, the resort's 24 snowmaking guns are ready to go. When temperatures drop to the mid-20s and seem to be on a "cooling trend," snowmaking crews can "flip the switch" and start making what Mother Nature seems to be hoarding this year, or at least sending to the Lower 48.

"Man-made snow is more durable and it makes a good base layer, but what we really want is that fresh powder," said Matt Parisen, who's been making snow at the resort for 14 years.

Opening-day conditions vary from year to year. Burnett referenced 2011, when the mountain was open from top to bottom, and 2008, when conditions were so good the tram line was two hours long.

The view Monday from high on the mountain near the Roundhouse Museum, next to Glacier Bowl Express, showed drastic differences in the landscape. Glacier Bowl was blanketed with snow, while lower slopes were speckled brown and green from Girdwood to Turnagain Arm.

Bad conditions are bad for both riders and resort employees, Burnett said.

"We have our staff completely trained and waiting to go to work," he said. "I have a full lift crew of 70-some-odd people who've come into town, paid their first and last month's rent with a security deposit, and there is no paycheck for them."

Burnett said that during peak season, the resort employs about 700 people. Employees will have their last winter refresher course Tuesday, and then "it is just a waiting game."

The interview briefly stopped when snowboarder Chythlook-Sifsof stepped away from her seat nearby at the Java Haus.

"Where's the snow at, man?" she asked Burnett with a smile.

Burnett's answer was the same: "As soon as we can open, we will open."

Chythlook-Sifsof wasn't too worried about the opening of the mountain -- she's still recovering from a knee injury and won't be able to snowboard until February, at which point, she said, she will have to start out "pretty mellow." For an elite athlete, that means low-impact and no cliffs.

But she said the anticipation of the first snowfall is part of the reason she comes home from Utah -- she divides her time between that state and Alaska -- this time of year.

"I love Girdwood in the fall. I guess it is my beginning-of-winter ritual," she said. "I have basically spent the last 10 years on the World Cup tour and it is so interesting to see all of these resorts around the world, basically going through what (Alyeska) is going through now. You will go to one resort and it is just a winter wonderland and then head to another resort and it looks like this. But Girdwood has such a unique weather pattern that it could dump any time."

And a big dump of that wet, heavy snow -- which Chythlook-Sifsof claims makes Alaska riders hold a different stance and shred in a unique style -- is what resort officials, ski bums and snow bunnies are waiting for.

Burnett said he's seen locals making sacrifices to Ullr, the "snow god," by burning old ski and snowboard gear.

"Also, there probably isn't a stray pallet in Girdwood -- those fires are going basically every night," he said.

For now, the sacrifices don't seem to be having much of an effect. National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Kutz said a little snow might fall at Alyeska on Tuesday night, but after that "it is blue skies until next week."

But the resort will open the tram for free rides to the top Wednesday through Sunday. The Seven Glaciers restaurant above the upper tram terminal will open for lunch and dinner, and the Sitzmark, a popular bottom-of-the-mountain watering hole, will open Wednesday. A full list of events and daily snow condition reports are available online.