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.
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 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 (hectares) 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 (567 hectares) of groomed trail. Another 10 percent are sculpted for beginners and 37 percent are black diamonds, the most difficult.
"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 (64 kilometers) to the north. Alaska's U.S. senators, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, own homes in Girdwood.
The former gold mining town has 1,200 full-time residents, zero stoplights and no mail delivery. Downtown consists of that the post office where everyone picks up their letters and packages, a health clinic, a few restaurants and several other buildings along a 200-yard dirt road.
Pat Ronan, who helps run the Girdwood Guesthouse, said most residents depend on the resort for employment. He hopes the expansion will attract more winter visitors to the roughly 25 lodges and bed-and-breakfasts in the valley.
"We don't get many tourists in winter. That's going to be a big change for us," Ronan said. "Hopefully, they will fill the hotel and there will be overflow into the B&Bs."
Byrne said guests want great skiing paired with great food and accommodations. He has spent $3.5 million so far on the 23-year-old hotel.
"Sometimes dad or mom doesn't ski and they just want a comfortable place to relax," Byrne said.
Each of the more than 300 cherry-trimmed rooms have brand-new beds, comforters, shower curtains and artwork. Black-and-white photo prints of indigenous Americans, by early-20th-century photographer Edward Curtis, now hang in each suite as homages to Alaska's native culture, resort spokesman Jason Lott said during a recent tour.
Winter room prices start at $149 and top out at $1,500 for a Royal Suite, although last-minute deals can drop the cost to $79 a night. Tourist season in Alaska peaks during the summer, and rates are generally higher from mid-May to the end of September.
The resort's Seven Glaciers restaurant, 2,300 feet (701 meters) above sea level and only accessible by tram, boasts an expanded wine list and $40-and-up entrees of Alaskan king crab and beef tenderloin with white truffle bearnaise. Byrne, a die-hard Grateful Dead fan, installed a new sound system in the Sitzmark, a bar that serves up big helpings of grilled food and live music.
A bright new coffee and sandwich shop with hardwood floors opened recently in the corridor between the hotel mezzanine and the high-speed tram. Next door, a sports shop is stocked with gleaming, new rental gear. The resort spa offers massages, manicures and "glacial facials" using "creamy Arctic mud." Byrne is also planning to build condos for rental and purchase near the hulking main building.
But some things, so far, remain the same.
High above the lobby, Alyeska's signature stuffed polar bear bares its teeth, as always, beneath a faux sky lit by stars and the Northern Lights. The indoor saltwater swimming pool will remain a popular fixture. And the resort will continue hosting international events, such as the Telepalooza World Telemark Free-skiing Competition in March 2008. It hosted the U.S. Alpine Championships in 2004 and 2007.
Ski industry experts are keeping tabs on the overhaul. They will be gauging Alyeska's success at bringing visitors to Alaska during the winter, when most tourist attractions close up shop and daylight peters out after just a few hours. (The slopes are lit when it's dark.)
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 the Northwest already has a top ski destination: Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada, with 8,100 acres (3,278 hectares) 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, Virginia. "We're curious to see how they're going to get more people up there."
Lott said other improvements will attract year-round visitors to the resort. Alyeska has built new hiking and mountain bike trails and offers summer activities through local tour companies, such as paragliding, rafting and sled dog rides on a glacier. Winter visitors can ice skate at Portage Lake or view Alaska wildlife — moose, grizzlies and musk oxen — at the wildlife conservation center off the Seward Highway.
"If this expansion is significant enough, it's not a stretch to think that people will put it on their list of must-dos," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, based in Lakewood, Colorado. "What resonates is the vista and locale and how close you are to spectacular terrain."
Byrne said he is aware that much work remains.
"Letting people in the lower 48 know about Alyeska has not been the burning priority so far," he said. "The priority is getting the product right, and then you'll start to see the ads. The trick isn't to get people to come to Alyeska once, but to turn it into a regular ski trip for the rest of their lives."