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Mar

27

a photographer’s journal

Lee Cohen and the man who saved Alyeska

 “I used to think it would be a no-brainer to put in a lift to the top of Alyeska Chute,” says JB. “But over time I came to appreciate that the hike itself is an appropriate natural filter, the terrain is too intense for most recreational skiers. … We could use more lodging and a new day lodge, but I ask myself every day if I have the patience and energy to pursue those projects. So far the answer is no, though I hope someday I can.”

“I used to think it would be a no-brainer to put in a lift to the top of Alyeska Chute,” says JB. “But over time I came to appreciate that the hike itself is an appropriate natural filter, the terrain is too intense for most recreational skiers. … We could use more lodging and a new day lodge, but I ask myself every day if I have the patience and energy to pursue those projects. So far the answer is no, though I hope someday I can.”

 

It’s been a tough few days for John Byrne, owner of Alyeska Resort. First, he pulled a calf muscle in flat light heli-skiing. The next morning, an electrical fire took out a lift storage barn. One day later, his General Manager quit.

But JB, as his friends call him, merely focuses on business as usual, in this case hosting an ebullient dinner at his gourmet restaurant, the Seven Glaciers. JB, 58, holds court over a group of 16—friends, employees, and business associates, plus his two daughters and granddaughter, who’ve flown up from Salt Lake to join him for the last few days of his 18-day trip.

I’m tagging along to document how this fellow ski bum from Alta—we’ve known each other for many years—resurrected and reinvented this jewel of a ski resort that’s so vital to Alaskan skiing.

When JB bought Alyeska Resort from Seibu Holdings in 2006, the resort that had been spinning chairs since 1959 was in trouble. Out of nine bidders, he was the only finalist who intended to keep the ski area alive, everyone else was planning to reduce it to a summer only operation. Meaning they’d use the hotel to house cruise ship patrons. Skiing would be out. It was a soulless, strictly business approach, that gave no regard to all the Anchorage area skiers who would have been left with nowhere to ski. Girdwood local Clint Butler told me, “If Alyeska wasn’t open in the winter it would be mind-boggling for our ski community—there would be only one tiny ski hill in the Anchorage area.”

We all know about AK heli-skiing from films and magazines, but heli-skiing is for the rich and famous from “outside,”—what Alaskans call the Lower 48. Alyeska is the biggest of the few ski areas in the state, with over 1,500 acres and 2,500 vertical feet, not counting hike-to terrain. A consistent 650 inches of snow falls annually at the summit. For race kids, recreational families, charging locals from Girdwood, and vacationing heli-skiers looking for chairlift and tram insurance against down days, it’s the only legit resort experience around Anchorage, the most populated part of Alaska.

Keeping Alyeska open was vital, but JB had bigger dreams. He planned to make Alyeska better—way better—for everyone. Over the past 10 years, millions have been spent—it’s a private company so they won’t say how much. In addition to extensive renovations in the hotel and upgrades of all the restaurants, a high-speed quad  replaced Chair Four  in 2012 and a second new lift replaced Chair Six in 2013. “I’ve always been the guy finishing someone else’s broken projects. With Alyeska, I wanted an opportunity to run the main attraction. We’ve grown the business dramatically. I can’t say skiing alone makes an adequate return on investment, but year-round the resort is working out financially. Even now, 10 years later, without our crazy busy summer there would be no winter.”

 

Heli-skiing is a drug minus the nasty side effects. Scratch that. The jones for something that makes you feel good, but doesn’t destroy you is more powerful than drugs—if you can afford it. Valdez, Haines, and Girdwood are the biggest spots, but only at Alyeska—Chugach Powder Guides (CPG) operates from the base—do you have a ski area for down days. That’s crucial knowledge for first time AK heli-skiers, who can sit for days in Alaska waiting for a weather window, or also absolutely kill it with consecutive bluebird days. | skier Jenn Berg

Heli-skiing is a drug minus the nasty side effects. Scratch that. The jones for something that makes you feel good, but doesn’t destroy you is more powerful than drugs—if you can afford it. Valdez, Haines, and Girdwood are the biggest spots, but only at Alyeska—Chugach Powder Guides (CPG) operates from the base—do you have a ski area for down days. That’s crucial knowledge for first time AK heli-skiers, who can sit for days in Alaska waiting for a weather window, or also absolutely kill it with consecutive bluebird days. | skier Jenn Berg

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Hardcore skiers love Alyeska’s powdery steeps like Christmas and New Years on the North Face (and the upper mountain when the Headwall is open), but there’s also great beginner terrain at the bottom, and solid intermediate cruisers off Ted’s Express. The Alyeska Ski Club sets up gates for race kids on Silver Tip before the resort is open. Tommy Moe lived and trained here as a teenager on his way to Olympic Gold.

Hardcore skiers love Alyeska’s powdery steeps like Christmas and New Years on the North Face (and the upper mountain when the Headwall is open), but there’s also great beginner terrain at the bottom, and solid intermediate cruisers off Ted’s Express. The Alyeska Ski Club sets up gates for race kids on Silver Tip before the resort is open. Tommy Moe lived and trained here as a teenager on his way to Olympic Gold.

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