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Adventure, Alpine, Board, Travel / February 19, 2017

How to Ski Alaska (without selling a kidney)

Written by: Renee Howard

If you’ve watched a ski movie lately, odds are good that you’ve watched some footage from south-central Alaska.

The region is a sort of Shangri-La for big mountain skiers—the Chugach mountains get high energy storms that bring in a heavy snowpack that sticks to impossibly steep slopes. As temps cool, the snow dries out and to assume an explosive, bouncy texture. It forms into spines and wide powder fields that make for thousands of feet of steep, deep, turns. 

The quality of the Alaska’s skiing is no secret. But most people don’t know that it can be enjoyed without a helicopter and/or Donald Trump’s vacation budget. With the right beta (which I’m about to give you), you can shred Alaska’s best with little more than a rental car and your regular backcountry touring setup.

 

First stop: Anchorage

Anchorage sits in the middle of everywhere you want to be; the Chugach, Kenai and Talkeetna mountain ranges. Book a ticket there between February and mid-April. Any earlier and it’ll be getting dark every day before you even get your ski boots on.

If you’re on a budget and want to get your bearings in Anchorage, Base Camp Alaska and Spenard Hostel International are decent options (starting at $30). For a more “meet the locals” experience, I’d recommend looking on AirB&B or VRBO.

Last minute gear can be purchased on pretty much one stretch of road; Spenard. There, you’ll find REI, SkiAK, Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking, and The Hoarding Marmot withing walking distance of one another. 

Pizza at Chair 5 is a tradition in Girdwood after a hard day of charging. Photo by Renee Howard.

Girdwood offers a chance to ski Alaska powder in-bounds. Photo by Renee Howard.

The resort: Girdwood

Girdwood is a ski town east of Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm, the drive to which features some one the most awe-inspiring scenery you’ll ever see. The dramatic juxtaposition of wildlife, ocean, and steep mountains is jaw dropping.

Girdwood is home to the Alyeska Ski Resort, where precip averages over 600” per year. The ski area is nestled below a vast network of glacial peaks towering 4000 feet above sea level. Skiing Alyeska is a great way to warm up to Alaskan terrain. The mountain has everything from the headwall and steep chutes for extreme skiers to plenty of intermediate runs for the less daring.

A ski pass runs $80 at the resort, but you can often get discounted tickets from REI and the Blue and Gold Board Shop in Anchorage for around $60 for any day of the week. On select weekdays, the Stay and Ski for Free deal gets you two free ski passes and one night at the hotel for $139. Call the resort for details on those specials.

A day of life-changing Cat skiing with Chugach Powder Guides is always an option if you’re greedy for fresh lines. Rates start at $375 per day.

 

For a day trip: Turnagain Pass

A dawn patrol at Hatcher Pass yields a beautiful view of alpenglow on the mountains. Photo by Renee Howard.

Steep, beautiful lines are easily reached from the road at Hatcher Pass. Photo by Renee Howard.

Chad Saetre drops pillows in the Tin Can trees at Turnagain Pass. Photo by Patrick McCormick.

Once you’ve warmed up your legs at Alyeska, it’s time to drive another hour south to the Kenai Mountains to test your chops in Turnagain Pass.

Turnagain’s world-class terrain is surprisingly accessible. Everything from trees and pillow drops, to steep spines can be reached with just a short skin. The easiest and most popular routes are on the east side the pass at Tincan and Sunburst. From those starting points you can get as rowdy as you want.  

There’s no place to stay in Turnagain, so your best bet is to head back to Girdwood at the end of the day for the longtime tradition of pizza and beer at the Chair 5 Restaurant.

 

For overnights: Hatcher Pass

Hatcher pass is part of the Talkeetna mountain range an hour north of Anchorage. It offers one of the most scenic hut systems in Alaska with light, dry snow conditions more akin to those found in Montana.

Huts are free for public use and maintained by the American Alpine Club. The snowbird hut is an especially beautiful trip to make with friends. You can fit six-12 people inside and spend a glorious week in what feels like the Swiss alps skiing your heart out.

Other touring options in Hatcher Pass are easily found from the road to the top of the pass in every direction.

Hitching a ride on a snow machine can get you deep into Valdez. Photo by Renee Howard.

On the drive to Girdwood from Anchorage, the Turnagain Arm isn't short on awe inspiring view. Photo by Renee Howard.

For the real deal: Valdez

Thompson Pass in the Chugach Range is located just outside the isolated coastal town of Valdez (Val-DEEZ). It is home to some of the world’s most prestigious extreme skiing, a deep snowpack and multiple heli-ski operations. It’s about a five-six hour drive from Anchorage, or a day-long ferry ride out of Whittier.

Valdez terrain is HUGE, and almost all of it can be accessed by the road, your own two legs, or a snow machine (that’s snowmobile to non-Alaskans. But, don’t make that rookie mistake in the North or you’ll be hanging out with other lonely gapers who didn’t say Valdez correctly).

Ski bums often camp in parking lots along the road in Thompson Pass. Jump in and join the party! You might make friends and catch a sled ride to the best line of your life (it happens often). If that’s not your scene, pick a direction and camp. If you prefer the high life, the Tsaina lodge is available at the top of the pass starting at $279—otherwise head into Valdez with the plebians.

Valdez is a salty fishing community and the final destination for the Alaska Pipeline. Local bars tend to have live music and a mix of free-range characters spicing things up. Make sure to get out and socialize while you’re there—you’ll definitely hear some memorable Alaska tales.

The beta

Join online ski forums like Facebook’s Alaska Backcountry Ski Addiction. Locals welcome travelers asking for advice, ski partners and even rides. Avalanche experts regularly post updates about snow conditions here.

Find crucial backcountry resources, maps and information on the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

Get your hands on a copy of The Alaska Factor 2, by Joe Stock. Joe also runs a ski-guiding outfit that can take you on an incredible southcentral AK ski road-trip.

You’ll also want an Alaska Gazetteer  for the lay of the land and road system. We all keep one on hand, so you’ll fit right in.

Need any more info on skiing in Alaska? Email [email protected] to ask us.

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about the author

Renee Howard

Renee is a photographer and writer based out of South-central Alaska. Her interest in bridging gaps between all manner of outdoor sports, philosophy, folk culture and backwoods artistry is a significant motivation for her work.

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