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.”