On Sunday, Jan. 29, Cordovans awoke to several inches of fresh powder and clearing skies. After a brutal week of sideways rain and roaring southeast winds, the top of Hawkins Island sparkled gold, and the upper reaches of Mt. Eyak soon followed.
It turned into one of those glorious Cordova days that quickly erases memories of moments that have us wondering just why in the heck we spend winters here.
While it has already been a successful season for skiers, after three years in which rarely were tracks visible on much of Mt. Eyak, one had to wonder what the lower part of the hill would look like after such a pounding of rain that erased almost all the snow around town, turning every flat surface into treacherous glaze.
Late Saturday afternoon, I drove up to the base of the ski area, and the Beginners Hill was a layer of ice with wet slushy snow on top. A few brave souls had been climbing for runs higher up, testing the waterproof promises of Goretex, but it looked rather grim. Runnels of water drained past the lower circular drum of the rope tow.
Amazingly, by noon the next day, the entire hill looked like something out of a ski magazine. That afternoon, the parking lots were jammed. Skiers, sledders, and snow boarders of every size, shape, and ability were enjoying all the slopes. Parents were giving babies their first ski lessons in front and back carriers; toddlers were gliding into the arms of grandparents. It was marvelous.
It was the 16th time the Mt. Eyak Area has been open so far this season. While the snow gods are to be praised, we should all step back and realize most ski days so far would not have happened without the foresight and dedication of the Sheridan Ski Club, including Dave Bradshaw, Paul Swartzbart, Steve Vican, and countless others.
This whole thing started back in 1974, when Don Chesney and a bunch of local bandits pirated a junked 1939 chair lift from Sun Valley to Cordova. With the help of Air National Guard helicopters, they installed a unique tower system that still scares the begeesus out of more than a few riders. For many years, being belayed off chairs 50 feet in the air after the motors that powered the lift broke down was included in the price of a lift ticket.
Stumps and narrow runs were part of the challenge of schussing down the hills, which went from beginner to advanced in a turn of the tips. Gradually, routes were added and widened. Eventually the motor and the chairs were replaced.
But many do not realize that without recent major changes made by the dynamic Sheridan Club, which manages the area, we likely would not have been skiing on Jan. 29, or many other days.
Few may have noticed that the runs that emerge from the north side of the area had almost zero tracks. Why? Because there wasn’t enough snow. Most skiers and boarders stuck to the areas that had been groomed by the Ski Club’s marvelous new Pisten Bully, which first went roaring up the slopes with Area Manager Branshaw at the helm in 2011. I rode along on one of those early safaris, and it is amazing what that machine can do, with its operator grinning from ear to ear at a set of controls that look like something off the Space Shuttle.
But perhaps the biggest change, and one of the main reasons everyone was squealing with snow-inspired delight, is the broad ski trail system that now reaches from the base all the way to the top of the lift. The first section, which went to the base of Mambo, was built in 2012.
The following year, this access system was extended all the way to the very top. John Baenen and his crew of skilled operators from Wilson Construction marched Excavators up the hills following Ski Club members who had cut down trees and blazed a path. Now the Pisten Bully can climb all the way to the top, grooming a wide swath in the process, and also zipping up and down Mambo and other runs to make them skiable, when adjacent slopes are not covered with adequate snow.
The trail system also seems to have achieved another goal: reducing lift lines at the base. The run straight down from Top Station to Midway features a challenging Expert level face. The new trail wraps around south of this face, providing an easier exit. Consequently more skiers are going all the way to the top, rather than off-loading at Midway Station. This stretches out their time on skis while also reducing lines at the bottom. Great idea, and it works just as Sheridan Ski club leaders hoped it would.
Then there’s that big mound of snow this side of the loading platform at the bottom. Daredevil beginners are using it to test skills that they will need in order to tackle the main hill. Guess where that came from? The Snow Maker, which has been much more successful in it’s second year, partly due to new power and water lines installed this summer.
It is amazing to see how much the skiing of countless youngsters has improved in such a short time. Several launched off the edge of the steep manmade hill.
A three-year-old that had to reach over his head to grab the rope tow was zipping up and down the hill. A toddler cruised by in skis that were less than two feet long.
On white slopes under blue skies, a whole new generation of skiers is being born. These are wonderful and rewarding moments, Cordova Style.
Thanks to the Snow Gods, the Sheridan Ski Club, and many more.