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31 Dec 2005 20:00
Unbearable cold, stormy winds and never-ending darkness at the Arctic Circle: these are just a few of the clichés about the Alaskan winter.
But aside from a few particularly uninviting weeks in December and January, the largest American state offers impressive opportunities for recreational tourists, provided that they are athletic and have some patience.
Alaska first gets really comfortable in March and April. The sun shines for 14 hours straight while the temperature hovers around the freezing point, creating perfect conditions for all manner of outdoor winter activities.
Alaska’s sole alpine skiing area might be considered laughable by European standards—some slopes are only 80m high and the tallest are only 800m.
But Mount Alyeska is not about to suffer a case of size envy.
Girdwood—just about an hour’s drive from Anchorage, Alaska’s capital—is the ideal starting point for exploring the various winter sports offerings. Accessible by nine lifts, with 68 ways down, one enjoys a breathtaking view of the fjord-like Turnagain arm of the Pacific no matter which way one looks.
Nighttime skiing is a particular joy, especially when the sun bathes the summit in violet. There’s also a rich local tradition of post-skiing socialising, ranging from a bottle of beer and steaks on a grill to seats in a gourmet restaurant. You can hardly avoid salmon or a reindeer steak while in Alaska. And, while dining, you can enjoy the great view of the seven nearby glaciers.
When dressed and prepared correctly, a vacationer can also travel with a dogsled team. Eight dogs are guided by trained mushers, though the vacationer can sometimes take over the reins. A half-hour ride is not even a standard warm-up programme for the animals. The best of these teams only need 10 days to complete the Iditarod, a grueling 1Â 860km sled race running from Anchorage to Nome.
Conditioning and skill are also required for heli-skiing, for which Alaska offers unlimited options. After a lesson on the kinds of snows and avalanche risks, heli-skiers head off toward the Chugach Mountain in a helicopter, squeezed together with three other passengers and a ski guide. Even getting in the helicopter carries risks. That process requires everyone to crouch to protect themselves and their equipment while the helicopter lands.
Upon reaching the mountaintop, even the most optimistic person can get skittish during the landing on the narrow mountain ridge when the pilot has to put the helicopter through a series of wiggling manoeuvres to burrow the struts into the snow and provide stability for the chopper. More than one helicopter full of European tourists has found itself hoping that their guides really knew their mountaineering during that procedure.
But the heli-skiing guides are professionals, proudly pointing to an injury-free record. Buoyed by that hope, one listens attentively as Nigel, a former United States marine, give a speech peppered with the phrases “never” and “do not”. Up here in the mountains, it is always wise to listen to the guides. And, once the skiing starts, everyone is obliged to follow the guides’ tracks, otherwise an avalanche could start.
After a little time on a “fat boy”, a special wide ski that keeps one from sinking too far into the powder, even intermediate skiers can enjoy the thrill of swerving along untouched slopes.
If someone wants quiet time, then a ride in the mechanised Snowcat might be just right for them. The trembling monster can easily take tourists to untouched slopes beyond the tree line.
Surprisingly, environmentalists have no objections to this expansion of the skiing areas, something that would be unthinkable in Europe. In a region five time as big as Germany with thousands of unnamed peaks, there is more than enough space for its 550Â 000 inhabitants.
Easily half of Alaska’s residents live in Anchorage. Despite the cold nights, it can still get pretty hot here, especially in the pub called The Great Alaskan Bush Company, where rooms are still off-kilter and wall are slanted after a huge earthquake in the 60s.—Sapa-DPA
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