Alyeska offers convenient, big-mountain skiing without the threat of altitude sickness. It also boasts an average of more than 700 inches of snow.
It’s easy to miss the turn off Seward Highway to Alyeska. Chances are you’ll be mesmerized by the jaw-dropping views over fjord-like Turnagain Arm, a tidal basin where the mountains literally plunge to the sea.
What makes it even more unusual is that at this low elevation, the summits— and often much more—of these mountains are above treeline. If you cast your eyes eastward at just the right moment, you can detect a lift on Alyeska, looking like a neat surgical scar on the treeless peak. From the mountain, the view is even more spectacular, perhaps even hazardous, from a vertigo point of view.
Just 40 miles southeast of Anchorage, Alyeska offers convenient, big-mountain skiing without the threat of altitude sickness. A 60-passenger tram and the high-speed quad that services the summit mean lift lines are short on weekends, nonexistent midweek. At a time when fluky weather is wreaking havoc at winter destinations in the Lower 48, Alyeska gladly suffers an embarrassment of riches: It averages more than 700 inches of snow each season, and had a high of 1,116 inches a couple years back.
The riches extend to the resort itself, where the Hotel Alyeska provides luxurious accommodations at the tram base and is launching a multi-million dollar renovation for the 2007-08 season. The tram zips up 2,028 feet of Alyeska’s 2,500-foot rise in just three-and-a-half minutes, rising over the forested lower half to the glaciers and open bowls near the summit and providing a birds-eye view of the mountain’s two faces, the original main face and the newer North Face.
Contrary to popular opinion, the weather in this part of Alaska is quite tolerable in winter, with temperatures an average of 10 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. What can make it seem colder here is the darkness that prevails during the heart of winter. By mid-February, however, Alyeska boasts more daylight hours than any other ski area in North America. And here’s a real bonus for late-night revelers: Lifts don’t even open until 10:30 a.m., meaning you can sleep in, have breakfast and get first tracks. Normal closing time is 5:30 p.m., but on Friday and Saturday nights from mid-December until mid-March, the lifts remain open to 9:30 p.m.
When Alyeska’s skies are clear, the skiing is great. But the slopes sometimes are blanketed with severe whiteout or flat light conditions (we’ve checked with several ski journalists on this, and every one said this happened during part of their visit). Such conditions can be unnerving, especially above treeline, and can cause vertigo in susceptible skiers. Locals advise skiing at night (or late in the day) when visibility is better.
One of Alyeska’s big pluses is its proximity to Anchorage, a bustling city with plenty to keep residents entertained through the long winter nights. Alaskans are particularly good at winter celebrations. We recommend visiting in late February during Fur Rendezvous, Anchorage’s winter festival (see Other Activities), or early March, to coincide with the Anchorage start of The Iditarod dogsled race. By that time of year, the temperatures start to rise (average high is 30 degrees Fahrenheit; -1 degrees Centigrade) and daylight hours increase (almost 13 hours).
Alaska is one of the most spectacularly beautiful spots on Earth, winter or summer. The incentives for a winter visit are it is low season, so the price is right; crowds are light; and you can ski. Just keep in mind that Anchorage and Alyeska are one time zone beyond the West Coast of the United States. So if it’s 9 a.m. in Los Angeles and noon in New York City, it’s 8 a.m. at Alyeska.