Resort's story shows surprising depth

Posted: Thursday, November 04, 2004

Alaska is turning white again, and it is time to bring out the skis. If you like downhill skiing, "Alaska's Perfect Mountain" might be the perfect book for you while you wait for the base to accumulate.

This handsome book, written by Lana Johnson and photographed by Randy Brandon, tells the intertwined stories of Girdwood and the ski resort that has become its central enterprise.

The story of Girdwood and of the Alyeska Resort is one of unwavering optimism in a stunningly beautiful setting, Johnson writes. It's a story best told through portraits of the natural surroundings and the people who made it so special.

The story's main plot is intriguing. It tells how a mountain saved one of Alaska's fading little gold rush towns from extinction, and how an unlikely alliance of rustic sourdoughs and international jetsetters created one of the state's most impressive tourism businesses. Passions for skiing and for the beautiful place inspired them all and runs through the book as a unifying theme.

The town's beginnings date to 1896. Prospector Chris Spillum staked a claim in Glacier Valley north of Turnagain Arm that became the Crow Creek Mine, parts of which remain today as a historic site and visitor destination. Another miner, gregarious Irishman James Girdwood, invested in the valley and garnered so much popularity that residents bestowed his name on the little town growing at the valley's mouth. The settlement sometimes waxed and waned with the area's fortunes, getting a boost from railroad construction around World War I and a second gold rush, focused on hard-rock mining, in the 1920s. But after a flicker of construction funding associated with building the Seward Highway, the economy sputtered.

Oddly, it was Europeans who rescued Girdwood from oblivion.

German-born pilot and ski entrepreneur Ernie Baumann wanted to start a resort in Alaska and spent months scouting sites. His top pick was an unnamed mountain on the east wall of Glacier Valley.

The mountain fit his criteria perfectly: the right orientation, varied terrain, good snow and ready access from Anchorage, less than 40 miles away, Johnson says.

Baumann arranged to purchase 160 acres at the mountain's base through a public land sale. But when his financing fell through, a committee of 11 local families formed Alyeska Ski Corp., passed the hat and paid $3,325 for the land. They put in a rope tow before running out of resources.

Just when it seemed Girdwood's dream had stalled again, the corporation's chief fund-raiser, Frances Clark, met a man at Aspen who took an interest in the project. Despite his easy-going, modest manner, Francois de Gunzburg was a genuine baron with a mansion in Paris, a hefty bank account and a love for fast slopes. Johnson calls him the catch of a lifetime for the valley residents.

In the years since, the resort has changed hands several times. Gunzburg sold it to Alaska Airlines, which sold it in 1980 to the Japanese-owned international recreational conglomerate Seibu and its energetic chief, Yoshiaki Tsutsumi. Through the efforts of many people within and without the resort, headed by the talented management of Chris von Imhof, the Girdwood facility has grown into a world-class, year-round destination.

The book makes it clear that boosters of this perfect mountain care about more than the bottom line. It emphasizes a community synergy, with restaurants, inns, real estate and nonprofit activities coming together to grow a successful resort community. Among the more pertinent and unusual ventures described are the Mighty Mites program, to foster children's skiing, and Challenge Alaska, providing outdoor activities for the physically challenged.

The book celebrates major landmarks, such as the filming of two movies in the area, the Olympic medals of athletes trained on its slopes, and sporting events including the National Alpine Championship, World Cup Giant Slalom and Special Olympics.

The book's cheery tone plays down difficulties. Bad weather at awkward times is fodder for amusing anecdotes; avalanche hazards are noted but casualties are not; and finances are treated only in a most general way.

For example, the author mentions that environmental concerns have blocked construction of a planned golf course but never describes those concerns.

A book like this could have been just an elaborated bit of boosterism, a 100-page glossy brochure. To the credit of those who created "The Perfect Mountain," it is far more complex, satisfying and interesting.

Despite its slant, it highlights some subtle and vital points. By focusing on portraits of individuals, it demonstrates how motivated and energetic citizens can make huge differences in their communities. By showing how Alyeska has survived hard times and evolved over many decades, it demonstrates how a long-term approach can breed success.

Well written and beautifully illustrated, "The Perfect Mountain" will be a fun read for people who enjoy skiing at Alyeska or spending time in Girdwood. But it is also an interesting small-town history and a case study in building a viable visitor industry.

In a state where so many ventures rise as politicized pork projects and fall as embarrassing boondoggles, this little tale of Girdwood and its skiers is a valuable and inspiring lesson in how to make things work.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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