Aspen, check. Whistler, check. Where to ski next? Alaska?

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2007

GIRDWOOD - As alpine enthusiasts contemplate how they'll be breaking in their equipment this season, the managers at Alaska's only ski resort hope powder lovers will bypass the classic slopes of Whistler, Deer Valley and Aspen and head to the far north.

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The Alyeska Resort, long considered a niche venue for locals and adventure skiers, is undergoing a $25 million expansion to lure larger groups of winter vacationers, families especially, to the peaks of south-central Alaska.

The resort's owner, a wealthy real estate investor and self-professed ski junkie from Utah, has stoked big changes at the Girdwood institution, from new conveyor-belt lifts for beginners and snowmaking machines, to refurbished guest rooms and healthier restaurant menus.

John Byrne III, who bought the resort last year, is also negotiating with the U.S. Forest Service to build a lift that would open hundreds of acres of raw terrain in the Chugach Mountains to highly skilled off-piste skiers and snow boarders.

But the top priority, Byrne said, is making steep and rugged Mount Alyeska less daunting for novices. Intermediate runs, most on the harder side, make up about half of the 1,400 acres of groomed trail. Another 10 percent are sculpted for beginners and 37 percent are black diamonds, the most difficult, according to the latest numbers.

"Alyeska has lots of great expert terrain, which I love, but what we really need now is more good beginner and intermediate terrain," Byrne said by phone from his home in Alta, Utah. "In the long run, we need to offer the complete package."

This season, the resort is offering new ski-school classes and has carved out some mellower runs to give skiers and snowboarders more options on the mountain. At the low end, group lessons start at $45 for young children. Adults signing up for a six-hour private lesson pay $330.

Alyeska shares a sparsely populated valley with the community of Girdwood, home to an eclectic mix of artists, mountaineers and commuters to Anchorage, 40 miles to the north. Alaska's U.S. senators, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans, also own homes in Girdwood.

The former gold mining town has 1,200 full-time residents and zero stoplights. There is no mail delivery, so everyone picks up their letters and packages at the post office. Downtown consists of that one post office, a health clinic, a few restaurants and several other buildings along a 200-yard dirt road.

The resort also faces the challenge of convincing people that the long, and often expensive, trip is worthwhile. From Seattle, the flight to nearby Anchorage takes upwards of three hours and bypasses Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada, a top ski destination with 8,100 acres of premium runs and the well-established shopping and nightlife that Girdwood lacks.

"Everyone thinks it's a good idea for Alaska skiing. It's an area that hasn't been completely harvested for its potential," said Kelly Davis, research manager at snowsports.org, a non-profit industry research group based in McLean, Va. "We're curious to see how they're going to get more people up there."



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