Alaska yes you can: Alyeska

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photo simon evans

 

Story Greg Cansdale

Who am I kidding? There on the big screen are legends on skis and boards who are ripping up near vertical slopes. They are so out of my league that I quiver with mediocrity just thinking about doing what they seem to do so effortlessly.

The Chugach Mountains look magnificent and inspire me to forget my mediocrity, to swallow a cup of concrete and toughen up (easily done in the confines of a cinema), to dream of one day leaving the fear behind, to venture to the last frontier and test my capability in what is renowned as some of the best skiing in the world. The movie finishes and I leave feeling pumped. Skiing amongst the Gods of the Alaskan Frontier remains a dream.

I’m really in denial, pushing the fear away knowing deep down that sanity and the rational primeval desire to choose life over death prevails. Then there’s this little voice inside my head saying “Pussy, bloody big PUSSY!”. This does not make me happy.

I’ve been doing the same thing every year since Warren Miller first featured Alaska as a destination. Too steep! Too deep! Too chicken! Always an excuse. The fear of a mere mortal. How would I get there? It’s too far. It’s too expensive. Too hard. Moving on. Next?

Well, not this year! This year I decided to do something about it and figured I wasn’t going to die by getting online and checking it out. So a little bit of research and woo-hoo, I discovered a ski-in/ski-out five star resort at the base of Mount Alyeska, just 40 miles south of Anchorage in the town of Girdwood. The resort looked good and the mountain awesome. As I navigated around the website I came across the specials section. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Without hesitation I contacted them to find out if there was an error, and if not, if the package was still available.

Within 24 hours I had a response. Surprised me really because I didn’t relate frontier living with modern technology. I had this perception of redneck hill-billies still using the telegraph. I wasn’t expecting a prompt reply or the level of service and helpful advice I got. I booked straight away. No consultation with my better half, no consideration as to how we would manage to do this, simply the possibility of making a dream come true. Funny how you can forget all your trepidation when you’re sitting cosy at home excited about a deal too good to be true. Four nights accommodation with breakfast and a 3-day lift pass for about the same as it costs the two of us to go skiing for one day in Australia. No joke, just $USD 399. So sweet considering the strong Aussie dollar.

The love of my life (really skiing) being very understanding is happy to venture to the unknown with me in support of making my dream come true. The Spa at Alyeska resort was a big selling point, as was the indoor heated salt-water pool (quarter Olympic size) and the limo transfer from Anchorage. I’m lucky she has a sense of adventure.

Getting to Alyeska Resort is easy. It’s not much further than flying to Vancouver and just as easy to get to as Whistler. You fly to Hawaii and transfer to an Alaskan Airlines flight direct to Anchorage. It was quickly pointed out that a stopover in Hawaii on the way home was close to being mandatory.

Anchorage is a hoot. Surrounded by mountains and frozen ocean its coastline was mapped by our old mate Jimmy Cook. Lots of good breweries and fabulous seafood. World’s Deadliest Catch (the reality TV fishing series) is right at home here, the Bering Straights not being far away. You order crab by the quarter pound and get these massive legs. I had an Alaskan Amber Ale with a pound of crab on the side (8 legs). Leg meat the size of sausages!

Anchorage is worth a look. Good restaurants, cheap shopping, but it’s the people that make the place. Lots of them seem to be from somewhere else and all have a good story to tell. They’re not shy and love that you’ve come to visit. Our Alaskan guidebook tells us that political correctness hasn’t yet reached this part of the planet and for me this is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

The Limo picks us up and we’re off to Alyeska resort in luxury. Travelling down the Seward Highway following the Turnagain Arm you are amazed at mountains that come right down to the ocean. In fact the highway seems cut out of the mountains on one side, with frozen ocean on the other and snow everywhere. Really spectacular, and only about an hour.

Alyeska Resort sits at the base of Mt Alyeska, surrounded by mountain peaks and hanging glaciers. It was originally built by the Japanese and has recently been refurbished. It has everything us mere mortals need on a ski holiday. Good sized rooms, bars, restaurants, indoor heated pool with massive spa and a Spa Centre. It is also ski-in/ski-out. The Aerial Tram leaves from level 2 and whisks you straight up the mountain.

Now it’s the skiing you really want to know about. This place has something for everyone. Tree-lined groomed runs at the bottom of the mountain for beginners, a great terrain park and the Alyeska Pipeline Super Pipe. The Super Pipe rocks and even the love of my life got into the terrain park. Mid-mountain provides wide-open bowls and long top-to-bottom runs. There are challenging steeps and cruiser trails to just open the throttle and fang around. All of this is lift accessible.

A hike will get you to the top of the mountain and access to a massive amount of steep and deep, including North America’s longest continuous double black run, The North Face. It’s not the biggest mountain (1400 acres & 73 named trails) but hell we had some fun. Sure, spring break was over, but with the facilities and snow on offer we couldn’t understand why there were no crowds? Hey, our tired old legs could have used that additional rest but we weren’t complaining at jumping straight on lifts.

The culinary experience is out of this world in Girdwood. The Sakura Japanese restaurant in the Alyeska resort itself was sublime. We’ve been to Japan several times and what was served in Sakura was as good as it gets. We went two nights in a row. Then there is the Seven Glaciers AAA Four Diamond award winning mountain top restaurant. Take the Aerial Tram to an elegant dining experience not to be missed. Very cool.

For a real Alaskan experience though, The Double Musky in Girdwood can’t be beat. Its eclectic décor and debonair young owner create a really warm, friendly atmosphere, but it’s the food that is the big attraction. Alaskan seafood and steak with a Cajun accent and a phenomenal wine list means you better turn up with an appetite. Their Pepper Steak was named the best steak in the USA. People fly from all over the States just to try it. It didn’t disappoint.

My partner, having only ever skied about fifty days in her entire life, thinks she has found her riding Mecca. She has fallen in love with this place because she can walk straight into the tram when she wants, cruise around on wide open groomed slopes, enjoy the unparalleled ocean views, luxuriate at the Spa or in the pool, and dine in some of the most amazing restaurants on the planet. I have been skiing for over 30 years and have never been anywhere like Mt Alyeska and Alaska. They got 760 inches (you figure out how many metres that is) of snow this year, we didn’t see a lift line during our entire stay, the snow conditions remained unbelievable all day long, and if you so desire Chugach Powder Guides are on your doorstep (see following story for more on that).

You’ve got to give it a go – The Last Frontier isn’t just for insane snow Gods with unlimited budgets and a death wish, Alaska is fine for mere mortals too.

[the ticket] alyeska, alaska

info the season runs from November to end April with the latitude dictating a big difference in daylight hours – from 7:22 in December to 16:20 in April Packages are great value, eg from $AUD 1050pp 2 share for 7 nights/6 day pass incl local taxes, details travelplan.com.au 

resort info contact alyeskaresort.com

snowfall 642”/16m  summit 3939’ / 1200m top lift 2750’ / 838m

base 250’ / 76m vert 2500’ / 762m terrain 1500ac / 607ha • 37% adv/exp • 52% int • 11% beg

lifts Tram, 1 express quad, 3 quads, 2 doubles, 2 carpets pac

day pass $USD 60 (2011 – 2012)

airport  Just 1 hour from Anchorage, Alyeska is readily accessible on Alaska Airlines alaskaair.com