Almost every town in Alaska has some boom-bust element to its history, but none can match Valdez, located at the end of the Richardson Highway 306 miles by car from Anchorage, which, with not quite 300,000 residents, is still Alaska’s largest city. Founded by gold and copper miners in the late 1800s, Valdez’s population would look like a roller coaster if plotted on a graph. Much of that instability has been due to disasters, natural and otherwise.
On Good Friday, 1964, the town endured a horrifying five-minute earthquake that measured 9.2 on the Richter scale, killed 32 people and obliterated the town. It remains the most violent quake in North America’s history. Twenty-five years later another catastrophe struck, again on Good Friday. The infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, caused when the 987-foot tanker smashed into Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound at midnight, almost tripled the town’s population overnight with emergency responders and support staff. The sludge never actually touched any of Valdez’s shoreline, but it didn’t matter. The cleanup was headquartered there, and the name Valdez became forever associated with the remote wilderness sound we saw blanketed in oily black muck on our television screens.
Of course, this was the furthest possibility from Valdez residents’ minds when the pipeline was completed in 1977, providing jobs, stability, and dreamy small-town Alaskan life to people who would otherwise struggle to make a home in the Chugach. But despite the energy and hope it delivered, the pipeline’s opening came with a heavy warning: There would only be enough oil to last 20 years. After that, town residents would have to find a new solution.
There weren’t many skiers in Valdez back then—and there are still only about 200 in a town of about 4,000—but those who were around never had trouble finding time to make some turns. They called themselves the Ski to Die Club; Chet Simmons, a Vietnam War helicopter pilot who flew supplies to the Alaskan interior during the pipeline’s construction, was one of the leaders, as was John McCune, an Ohio transplant and pipeline worker with a “double-A-dominant wolverine personality” that Simmons admired, and who would become the father of Ryan McCune.
They popularized the now-famous Road Run on Thompson Pass and made dozens of first descents on the nearby peaks. (Simmons later acquired a helicopter to help with the oil-spill cleanup and used it to fly Doug Coombs, Dean Cummings, and the rest of the early renegades into their lines, thus launching the Alaskan heli-skiing movement. Cost: $25 a run.)
Realizing the potential for something bigger, Simmons, McCune, and the other long-haired hippie ski bums brought a proposal to the city government in the late ’70s to build a chairlift on Sugarloaf Mountain, across the bay near the pipeline terminal. The local officials at that time were in the midst of conjuring a way to avoid total collapse when the 20 years of oil ran out. They ordered a feasibility study, part of which involved installing a rope tow on Thompson Pass. It was later moved down to Salmonberry Ridge just outside town. Skiing’s popularity boomed in Valdez. The Road Run was jammed, kids hit the rope tow after school—it was happening.
In the end, although city officials seriously considered funding the Sugarloaf project, they instead used millions of public dollars to build a series of grain silos, which they believed they could rent out to farmers from up north and start building the framework for a revitalized local economy.
When asked if the silos had ever been used, then-five-term mayor Bert Cottle said, “Yeah, for radio towers and rappelling practice.”
The Sugarloaf Mountain chairlift plan never materialized after the city decided not to fund it, and in 1986, a 15-year-old girl who’d been drinking crashed off a jump at Salmonberry, paralyzing herself. She sued the city, which paid a large sum of money to the girl’s family. In the eyes of the majority of city leaders, that pretty much ended the mainstream skiing movement in Valdez.