One potential solution is a gas line that would run alongside the 800-mile oil pipeline and terminate in Valdez, but that would just get the city back on the energy-economy boom-and-bust cycle. Another is lift-served skiing—a polarizing subject that has been debated among Valdez’s 4,353 residents since the mid-1980s.
For the past decade, Ryan McCune, a born-and-raised local snowboarder who’s charged the Chugach since he was a teenager, has been working toward installing a three-mile-long chairlift on East Peak, five miles from town. He’s exhausted his savings and, at times, his heart, trying to rescue his hometown.
But this wouldn’t be just any ski area. With up to 7,000 vertical feet and 5,500 acres of skiable terrain, the resort would boast twice the drop of Aspen and more acreage than Vail. Some of the runs would tilt in excess of 50 degrees, delivering Valdez’s pulse-racing adrenaline but for a fraction of heli-skiing’s high cost. If executed as envisioned, some skiers say McCune’s resort could offer an experience similar to the steep-skiing kingdom of La Grave, France.
To install the lift as well as all the infrastructure at the base, where he owns 100 acres adjacent to public land, McCune, 36, believes he’s going to need a massive amount of capital—money he, as the town’s cable repairman, doesn’t have. And despite widespread support from the locals, the city government, which comprises mainly nonskiers and balks at McCune’s sometimes abrasive demeanor, has yet to buy into his plan, financially or through a show of public support. “We’re talking a $100 million project,” McCune says. “Without the city saying they want to put in a ski resort, nobody’s going to put up that kind of money.”
The other recent development has been a shrewdly orchestrated plan by extreme skier and developer Dean Cummings, who wants to build a tram on the 5,300-foot Mile High Mountain that beanstalks straight from the heart of town. Cummings, 46, has spent 20 years in Valdez as a heli-guide and operator, during which he’s gained a reputation for cutthroat business dealings. Most of the locals would prefer to see McCune’s project happen before Cummings’s, but Cummings has already found a potential investor to back his tram, so some consider it to be the more realistic possibility.
And so it stands in Valdez: the blue-collar snowboarder and the world-champion skier, one a native and the other an import, rivals from way back, racing to prove that lift-served skiing, of all things, can deliver the salvation everyone has been seeking for decades. It’s a complex issue, one that evokes passion from everyone whether they ski 100 days a year or have never been off the highway. And with each passing day, the oil dries up a little more, drawing residents nearer to a time that will determine not just their town’s fate, but their way of life.