Cordova Chronicles: A bright spot in a COVID year

April 10 was another sunny day at the Mt. Eyak Ski area, as skiers enjoyed day No. 42 of this year’s operation. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

With sunny skies and snowy slopes, the Mt. Eyak Ski area was packed with skiers and snowboarders for one of the final openings of the season on April 10.

It has been a banner year for the popular recreational site, only blocks from downtown Cordova, and there couldn’t have been a better time for it to happen.

Outdoor recreation was recognized early on as one of the activities to be encouraged during this Year of COVID, and the snow gods were looking down on Cordova to provide ideal conditions for much of the winter and spring.

“It’s been a great season. Most of the days were really good, with fresh snow almost every time”, said Dave Branshaw, who has worked at the area since 1980, and been the manager since 2007. “We’ll end up operating for 42 days this year.”

Many days saw 250 or more enthusiasts taking advantage of prime conditions, with the chair lift and rope tow going full speed to satisfy veterans and also create a whole new generation of skiers and boarders.

Branshaw and his dynamic crew worked long hours to keep the chair lift operational, which is a demanding task. One of the first single chair lifts of its kind, it came to Cordova second-hand from Sun Valley, Idaho, back in 1973-74.

“We didn’t lose a single day to mechanical issues,” said Branshaw, regarding a lift that was built in 1939, and is one of the oldest working chairlifts in North America.

Evidently grease for the rollers through which the lift cable passes is an important part of keeping it operational, as Branshaw mentioned going through 42 pounds of it this year.

What he didn’t mention was all the early hours spent grooming the continually expanding runs, the countless hours spent shoveling snow to keep the off-ramps and other areas open, nor the labor involved in constantly greasing those rollers.

Yet despite all the great skiing, it was not a record year for days in operation.

In response to COVID protocols, the Mt. Eyak Ski Shack began providing take-out snacks, including pizza, for outdoor dining. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

“I remember the ski area being open for 72 days back in ’94-’95”, said Branshaw. “It had to have been an extraordinary snow year, with incredibly good weather for openings, and no breakdowns.”

This year Branshaw spearheaded several changes to accommodate COVID protocols and keep the area open. The Snack Shack was closed to inside dining, and a take-out widow was created to provide pizza and other treats.

Likewise, access to the Ski Rental Shack was restricted, with lift tickets available through a sales window. To further cut down on inside traffic, season-long rental of skis or snowboards was allowed.

Branshaw also praised Ski Patrol leader John Williams and his crew of volunteers. “They did a great job, and without them, the hill area doesn’t run.”

Not surprisingly, all these days of operation are starting to take their toll on the lift, and it turns out the lift cable will have to be replaced this summer.

“We go through safety inspections and load tests every year, but the existing cable is now over 30 years old”, said Branshaw. “When the chair lift was first brought here, it came with the cable from Sun Valley. That was replaced in 1986.”

A cable company from Missouri that specializes in such work will come up to install the new cable this summer.

And you can be sure, thanks to Dave Branshaw, his crew, the Sheridan Ski Club, the volunteer Ski Patrol, and countless other Cordovans, that when the snow flies next winter, Mt. Eyak Ski Area will be ready for Year 48 of operation.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at shorn@gci.net.