During a summer in which many Alaskans are basking in what seems to be an endless succession of sunny 70-degree days, a cadre of some of America's best cross-country skiers are riding helicopters to 6,000 feet above sea level, seeking out snow and the chill of winter.
And why not? Nobody will be handing out Olympic gold, bronze and silver medals six months from now when the Winter Games begin in Sochi, Russia, based on tan lines. Led by athletes and coaches from the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, skiers in the North American Women's Training Alliance Camp are using the remnants of Anchorage's longest winter to train at the Thomas Glacier Training Center on Eagle Glacier in the Chugach Mountains above Girdwood. The facility is named after former Alaska Lt. Gov. Lowell Thomas, who gave a $1 million endowment to APU to support the university's Nordic ski program.
"When we went to Sochi last year (for a World Cup race), we all said to each other, 'This looks just like Eagle Glacier snow,' said Anchorage's Kikkan Randall, America's best woman cross-country skier ever. "It may not be the nicest snow to ski in, but it's important to be proficient in this softer kind of snow."
Randall should know. The defending World Cup sprint champion and a World Championship medalist, Randall has raced in Sochi, where the ski venues are about a mile above sea level.
Skiers come to the Eagle Glacier training center for one-week stints, and the latest contingent included skiers from Vermont, Minnesota, Colorado and Norway in addition to APU. Most athletes only visit once a year, but Nordic skiers from APU, which manages the facility, come two or three times as often, given their proximity.
"You can walk out the door (of the training center) and ski. That means you can ski twice a day," said APU's Holly Brooks, a 2010 Olympian who last season notched a career-best fifth-place finish at a 10-kilometer World Cup race in Sweden enroute to an impressive top-30 finish among the skiers on the elite World Cup tour. "Every other glacier, including all the glaciers in Europe, you have to hike in, so you can only ski once a day."
"I've been coming up here for 15 summers," added Randall, who is headed toward her fourth Winter Olympics, tying her with Nina Kemppel for the most by an Alaskan. "It's been a big part of my success, getting to touch snow in the summer.
"This has been the foundation of (America's growing Nordic skiing) success up here at Eagle Glacier. Every two years, we get another whole winter worth of skiing in."
APU's head coach Erik Flora agrees.
"The best thing about the facility is that skiing is right out the door, and the environment enables a lot of technique work," he said. "Plus, by being in a remote facility, it is easy to have exceptional focus.
"Maybe the biggest challenge is that we're in a remote facility, so keeping costs affordable is tough. Our sponsor and supporters have been an incredible help."
The Winter Olympics begin Feb. 7.