You know a trail's steep when you feel compelled to get on your hands and knees to peer down it. The ski run that's plummeting virtually 90 degrees from the tip of my chin fits that description. Not that such a detail should stop anyone from skiing it.
"Oh yeah, Heather's nailed that one," says Matt Szundy, our guide. Heather is his wife-and our other guide on today's glacier hike atop Mount Alyeska. The trail is Christmas Chute, but she won't be conquering it today. It's mid-July, and the gully is as bare as the moon, with tufts of grass visible from my perch. "It doesn't look as scary when there's snow," Heather offers, though I find it hard to believe that snow would actually stick to it.
"Despite its very formidable ski mountain, Alyeska's season in the sun (literally-there are 24 hours of daylight in June; 21 in July) is summer. The resort is located on the Kenai Peninsula, a 300-mile thumb of land extending from Anchorage to Homer that's a microcosm of Alaska, boasting forests, mountains and glaciers. Cruising on Prince William Sound is unforgettable, while moose and bear sightings are common in and around Girdwood, the rustic town at the base of Mount Alyeska. The toughest part of any visit is knowing when to slow down. Here's a tip: Don't wait for the sun to set.
"The Szundys, Girdwood locals and owners of the Ascending Path guide service, lead hikes on the Alyeska glacier daily from June through September. After a seven-minute ride up the tram, it's a 50-minute hike to get to the edge of the glacier, where we strap on crampons and set out across the blue-tinged ice. Matt and Heather, who spend winters studying the unforgiving Antarctic environment at McMurdo Air Force Base, point out hanging glaciers and lead us into an eight-foot-deep ice cave. From the crest of the glacier, Matt identifies the six others that compose Girdwood Bowl before we head back to the tram.
"Alyeska, Alaska's biggest ski resort, is at home in a state known for its large scale. Everything here is big, from the mountain's vertical rise (2,500 feet) and annual snowfall (630 inches) to the stilt-legged moose that saunter through town.
"But it's the central location that attracts summer adventurers to Girdwood. Using the town as a base camp, I set out to conquer the Kenai by way of the scenic Seward Highway, which winds out of Anchorage, hits Girdwood and heads south to Prince William Sound and the port town of Whittier.
Whittier, population 300, is run-down and gray-an unlikely attraction. Yet it plays a quirky part in Alaska's history. When Japan invaded the Aleutian Islands (off the west coast of Alaska) in World War II, Whittier was conjured as a top-secret base ensconced in the mountains. Crews blasted a two-and-a-half-mile tunnel through the rock-the only access to the base. And today, the sole passage to glacier-rimmed Prince William Sound.
The Sound opens up like a clearing sky as I pop out of the mouth of the tunnel. Ships are docked everywhere: fishing boats, cargo ships, sightseeing boats, cruise ships. One of those sightseeing boats is my front-row seat to calving glaciers, breaching whales and icebergs the size of houses.
"Plying the waters from Whittier's cove, we watch salmon boats gearing up for the day. Kayakers resemble toys bobbing in bathwater as they follow the coast south to Homer. Yet aside from the sea life and beautiful shoreline, nature's resiliency is the star of the show. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, sending 11 million gallons of oil in a blanket over 460 miles, killing thousands of animals and coating beaches in black goo.
There's little sign of that now, though oil lingers in about 20 acres of shoreline along Prince William Sound's coast. We chug closer to the glaciers, where ice cascades down like crystalline lava flows. At sea level, towers of blue ice shoot up out of the water like a skyscraper city. Every once in a while, a crackling sound echhoes over the water, a glacier calves, and another iceberg is sent out to roam the sea.
It's past 9 p.m. by the time I sit down to dinner at Seven Glaciers restaurant atop the Alyeska Tram. The sun still hasn't set-the sky is as pink as the salmon on my plate. From the restaurant's panoramic windows, I can make out Mount Denali's silhouette rising 20,000 feet over the Alaska Range to the west. When the sun finally slips behind it, there'll be only a couple hours of darkness before the cycle begins again. Sleep? Not on this vacation.