Mountainwatch | Words and photos Tony Harrington
Before I get into this story I have to make a confession. I love Alaska. I’m all in and it’s been a love affair that’s been going on for quite a while now. For me, my annual Alaskan pilgrimage is my Christmas and New Year all tied up in a bow. I work year-round with the goal of getting to Alaska in March to early April for my yearly dose.
It’s my time to be immersed into its wild landscape, the pure and rugged beauty, the remoteness of its lands, the authentic ‘no bullsh*t’ culture and straightforward friendships of the people who live there. It really is unlike anywhere else in the world I’ve experienced; certainly a last frontier that any adventurous and competent skier should try at least once. Although a warning, once you experience Alaska you may measure all other ski experiences against it and they could come up wanting.
My first visit to Juneau was in 1995. I was shooting for RAP films with Trevor Peterson and Eric Pehota at the time, flying out of Adlersheim Lodge and up around the Mendenhall Glacier just north of town. In the 27 AK visits I’ve made since then I’d certainly heard of the ‘Eaglecrest ski hill’ but interpreted the word ‘hill’ to mean ‘insignificant’ and (incorrectly) assumed it didn’t warrant a visit. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing.? I’ve got a few bruises from kicking myself for not taking the time and checking out this spot earlier.
Eaglecrest sits just 20 minutes out of Juneau down in south-east Alaska. It is not your average community ski area. It’s a serious mountain. There are 350 acres of big mountain terrain, and up to 800 acres if you consider the side and back country it accesses. It’s vast, varied and legitimately rad. The number of skiers-per-acre would make any big resort cry. There’s probably a local support group called ‘I’m lonely and need friends on a powder day’. The authenticity of Alaskan culture and the no-frills ambience you find here is the cherry on top.
Dave Scanlon is Eaglecrest’s General Manager and he’s been at the helm for the last six years. He’s a hard-core skier, a visionary, he’s authentic, grounded and a go getter – the perfect person for a mountain like this. He gets it. And he loves the place.
Dave is no stranger to small community ski areas and is a co-founder of the industry advocacy group called the Mountain Rider’s Alliance who over the past decade has worked to improve small ski areas nationwide. Dave has spent his professional life working within, improving and advocating for the ‘little guy’ in the increasingly corporatised ski industry. He actually is a ‘David’ to the growing Goliath we’re seeing globally in alpine resorts.
I caught up with Dave on the mountain for a chat. “Eaglecrest has so many elements that are just so perfectly situated. The town is close to the ski area, there’s enough of the main necessities like shopping, bars and restaurants here in Juneau and yet it retains that small town feel to it, even though it is the Alaskan state capital. You see the same faces at the store and you get to know just about everyone here. There’s never a traffic issue, there’s rarely a lift a queue and it’s just a 10 to 15-minute drive to the heli ski zones to fly with Alaska Powder Descents.”
“Take for example just about any resort in the lower 48 states. The lift lines can be horrendous, just to get to a resort usually means battling through some kind of traffic snarl, paying for exorbitant daily lift prices that hover around the US$200 mark, or more. When skiing Eaglecrest, you can fly from Seattle to Juneau in 2 ½ hours, a day ticket is US$68 and its unlikely you’ll see more than a handful of people skiing mid-week, even on a powder day. What we call a “crowd” on a weekend would be laughed at anywhere else, lift lines are seldomly an issue, if at all.”
“Eagelcrest’s target market are folk in their mid- ‘30s to mid- ‘40s, they tend to be life-long expert skiers, often now with 10-15-year-old kids who are also rippers. People who want to ski a mountain with little crowding and show their kids what the old ski days were like, people who want to experience the small-town Alaskan lifestyle with no lift lines, the quietness, the ability to explore beyond boundaries, to ski lots of consistent soft snow and to immerse themselves in a different way of life.”
“These skiers are going to get it. They’ll connect with what we are offering here. They are going to get the culture, get the lifestyle, get the no frills, that’s what they are looking for, and there’s a lot of people in this small niche. If we had just 200 people come up for a weekend, that would make a hugely positive economic impact for the local businesses downtown, without impacting the experience for any of the people on the mountain as it will never get crowded, particularly with what’s planned for the mountain in the future.”
What Dave is alluding to here is that the ski hill, which is owned by the community of Juneau, has recently purchased a ‘gently used’ gondola from Europe that will be operational in just two years. The majority of the funding for the gondola comes from summer visitation which is the big business in this part of the world. So Eaglecrest is in an unusual position where they aren’t under pressure to drive a big push on skier visitation to pay the bill.
The mountain sits on city-owned land. The periphery land is owned by the state and is zoned for future Eaglecrest ski area expansion with a master plan for utilising up to 2000 acres. The visionaries way back when city and state were selecting federal lands for their entitlement allowance had this vision, they knew what was needed to serve the ski area right now, but in some point in time in the future the ski area was most likely going to want to use the terrain next to it. In a world that has limited options for new or expanding ski areas this makes Eaglecrest pretty unique.
Dave explains, “We don’t need massive numbers of skiers because the summer visitors underwrite the costs for winter operations and that’s what makes it possible for us grow the ski area. It’s the ultimate win. We can be patient and wait for the right skiers to find us. We don’t have the pressure to needing to blow-up or over-sell the experience. The people we want to find us here at Eaglecrest are fun people to be around because they are our kind of people. They don’t want giant froo froo base lodges, they just want the skiing, they just want the adventure, and that’s what Alaskans like.”
Check out Alaska Powder Descents here