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Been a tough, not-so-snowy winter at Alaska's largest ski resort

Craig Medred

Rain drizzled down at Alyeska Resort on Monday afternoon, putting a further damper on what has so far shaped up as the ski year from hell. Though it was Martin Luther King Day -- a national holiday -- the resort was far from crowded. There were none of the lift lines of busy days, even though lift capacity at the resort remains down with the 60-passenger Aerial Tram still of commission.

One of the tram cars was left impaled on a tower after a New Year's Eve accident. It had to be cut free and is still undergoing repairs. The accident, in which injuries were fortunately minor, was in keeping with what has been a tough winter for the state's biggest ski resort.

Coming off a year of record snowfall, Alyeska is witnessing a ski and snowboarding season in which the snow gods seem to be screaming, "We hate you!'' 

Consider this: Almost halfway through its Nov. 1-to-April 30 ski
season, with the snowiest part of winter already behind, Alyeska has
witnessed only 392 inches of snow -- and some of that has washed away. Historically, 62 percent of the winter precipitation in Girdwood falls by Jan. 30. If historical trends hold true, the resort is on track to end the year with 632 inches of snowfall. That's 346 inches, or about 29 feet, less than last year.

But then last winter was a gift of the gods to Alaska skiers with 978 inches. Average snowfall at the resort is 650 inches, though there have been four years since 2000 with fewer than 632 inches.

Longtime Alaska skiers may be hard pressed to remember a year like this one, when Mother Nature seemed intent on bringing the bad. Skiers faced bitter cold to start the season, only to see wind, rain and warm to come pouring in for the New Year's holiday -- with avalanche dangers keeping the fabled terrain of the North Face off limits.

Add in the tram accident, and it's all been a bit of a bummer. The snowfall record low for the last decade is 515 inches in the winter of 2010-11. A mind boggling 81 feet of snow fell last year. But that was then and this is now. The official Tuesday report on ski conditions at the resort: "Wet snow,'' with temperatures of 32 degrees at the top of the mountain rising to 38 degrees at the bottom.

Monday, in similar conditions, the new snow at the top of the mountain did little to soften the wet and heavy chop that, as temperatures dropped, turned solid and unforgiving. Fortunately it had stopped raining by Tuesday.

Still, if Alyeska is experiencing spring in January, what will be left for the real spring in March and April? 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com