Arctic Valley plans big bash
On a bluebird Saturday afternoon, two young Army officers sat sharing cold drinks in a parking lot bathed in Alpine sun. Around them, the Chugach Mountains shot into the sky, framing the scene in snowcapped peaks.
“Everybody always told me, ‘You’ve got to go to Arctic Valley,’” said Wes Reuter, a captain in the U.S. Army from Denver, Colorado.
Reuter lives just over the mountains in Eagle River, and said he always wanted to make the 7.5-mile drive up Arctic Valley Road to find out if the rumors of a hidden gem of a ski area were true.
“Kind of like a best kept secret kind of thing,” he said.
So last Saturday, Reuter and 2nd lt. Emmett Hawkes drove up to find out for themselves. Mission accomplished.
“Everything they said was true,” Reuter said as he and Hawkes recalled their first trip to the tiny ski resort with the big reputation.
Hawkes said he’s been itching to ski Arctic Valley since trudging through ruck marches on the area’s trails last summer. After a day’s worth of playing in the snow, Hawkes proclaimed the ski area even better than he’d hoped.
“It’s great,” said Hawkes, who’s originally from Rochester, New York. “For the size and the cost you get so much for your money, it’s amazing.”
The duo was the latest to discover the backcountry playground that is Arctic Valley, a ski resort that’s a throwback to a simpler era of downhill skiing.
“It’s a classic mom and pop ski area,” Hawkes said.
Up at the ski area’s day lodge, moms and pops wrangling mobs of fluorescent-clad kids stood in line waiting to buy tickets. A single cashier worked the counter, while another employee manned the nearby grill, above which a dry erase board advertised the day’s apres ski fare: bbq chicken sandwiches, nachos, Polish dogs, quesidillas, chili.
Though the parking lot below the lodge was full, the day lodge had plenty of room for children and adults alike to strip off layers deemed unnecessary with a temperature inversion bringing 41-degree weather to the top of the mountain. In a corner, a boom box sat with its antenna wrapped in tinfoil beneath a pair of crossed antique skis and poles.
Arctic Valley owes much of its folksy charm to the fact that unlike most ski areas, it’s run by a nonprofit. The Anchorage Ski Club operates the mountain, which is within Chugach State Park. The ASC is one of the oldest institutions in the Anchorage area, and on Saturday, Feb. 11 will hold its 80th anniversary party at Arctic Valley.
“There aren’t a whole lot of clubs or organizations in Anchorage that are 80- years old,” said Arctic Valley board member Rich Todd during an interview in the wide-open lobby of the club’s two-story day lodge.
Todd said he’s expecting a big turnout for this week’s anniversary bash. There will be “a giant” fireworks show, a torchlight parade, free night tubing, food and beverages and live music upstairs in the lounge. Attending the party is free, although there’s also $15 tickets for dinner (a taco bar catered by Peppercini’s) available on the club’s website.
According to a history posted on the club’s website, ASC formed in 1937, and in its early years worked with the U.S. Army on the Army’s ski area just south of where the current Arctic Valley is today. In the 1940s, volunteers helped build up the area, which was initially serviced by rope tows installed in the 1940s. Those were replaced with a T-bar lift in 1961. In 1968, Arctic Valley’s Chair 1 opened and in 1979 Chair 2 opened up more terrain.
Todd said the ski area provides a backcountry style ski experience that doesn’t require arduous climbing.
“This is a great place for skiers to really kind of get into skiing if you want to become a backcountry skier,” he said.
Because the terrain rises so sharply from the day lodge, Todd said some people might feel intimidated about skiing the mountain.
“But once they get up here and once they see what other people are doing and what the snow conditions are, then they want to give it a try,” he said.
With all of its terrain in the Alpine reaches of the Chugach, Arctic Valley isn’t the easiest hill to ski. The highest lift, Chair 2, goes from about 2,600 feet to around 4,000, and there are no groomed runs. But there are easier ways to access the mountain, Todd said, including the T-bar and Poma lifts, which riders can get off at any time.
“You don’t have to go all the way up,” he said.
The club also recently purchased a groomer, and plans to offer limited groomed runs alongside the T-bar. It won’t be a bunny hill by any stretch, but Todd said the groomed runs (which they’re hoping to start this weekend) will allow beginners and intermediates a more comfortable way to access the mountain.
“We’re not going to groom the entire mountain, but we’re going to groom a couple fantastic stripes so kids and beginners can get down the mountain easier,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Arctic Valley will ever be easy. Todd said many of the area’s regulars are backcountry skiers who flock to the slopes when there’s a powder day. When that happens, he said, Arctic Valley is as good as it gets.
To illustrate his point, Todd whipped out his phone and dialed up a video from the Arctic Valley Facebook page. Taken two weeks ago after a big snowstorm, the video shows skiers and snowboarders carving through boot-deep snow as the mountains roll off in the distance like whitecaps on an ocean of powder.
“Powder days are huge up here,” Todd said.
In addition to posting videos, Arctic Valley also posts updates on its Facebook page about snow conditions and tube availability. People can also visit them online at skiarctic.net.
Although Arctic Valley will always attract skiers looking for backcountry style lift skiing, the idea of grooming select runs is just one way the club has tried to make the area more attractive to visitors in recent years. Another is the wildly popular tube park, which Todd said has brought in a big influx of visitors each weekend.
“We’re opening up more to the community and bringing in a good group of folks that wouldn’t normally be up here,” he said.
The tube park offers four 90-minute sessions on Saturdays and Sundays. Todd said tickets can — and should — be purchased online. They go fast, so he recommended people buy them during the week.
“Plan ahead,” he said.
The 200-yard ride takes tubers (who can ride singly or in giant rafts of riders) sledding down a groomed, sun-soaked run. Todd said the fastest he’s tracked himself down the hill was just over 29 MPH.
“We’re having a great time,” he said.
Tubers Ralph and Abbey Gamet, along with Katarina Navarro and Renz Cajimat, made the trip down the tube run in a group of four. Laughing the whole way down, the four said the $15 tickets were well worth the price.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Ralph Gamet.
The group heard about the tube park through friends and wanted to give it a try Saturday.
“We just discovered this place,” he said.
Todd said he’s hopeful more people continue to discover Arctic Valley, including this weekend for the anniversary bash. The last time the club held an anniversary party — for its 75th birthday in 2012 — more than 300 people showed up. With a massive fireworks show and lots of festivities planned, he’s expecting at least that many this year.
“It’s going to be spectacular.”
Wes Reuter said he’ll definitely return to Arctic Valley — and not just for the fireworks. With the ski resort much closer to home than Alyeska in Girdwood, the Army captain said there’s no doubt he’ll make the drive up the winding road that leads to the hidden Alpine playground.
“The next time it snows we’re coming here,” he said.