Valdez, Alaska, was meant to be a ski town. This realization hits as I crest Thompson Pass, surrounded by mountains that look like Roman cathedrals and are buried in more snow than I have seen in my life. Just above my car, floating amid the bleached landscape of saddles and spines and foreboding faces, a bald eagle scans the river for lunch. As I near Valdez a few miles later, I see a man hitchhiking on the side of the highway and pick him up. He is a heli-ski guide walking back toward town, climbing harness and all. The afternoon sun is glowing. He tells me that Meteorite—one of the most committing lines in the Chugach range, a sustained 50-degree ramp wedged in the middle of a sheer face—just got skied for the first time this year. My heart starts beating faster.
It’s mid-March, prime season in Valdez, when the maritime snowpack has cemented to the steep rock and skiers from around the world convene for the most electric rush of their lives. The previous week saw seven feet of fresh snow, right on par with the 2010 winter, which some are calling the deepest in 20 years. My first night in town, a local guide tells me there are 30 to 80 feet of settled velvet on most north aspects. “Even for Alaska, it’s incredible,” he says.
But you would never know any of this driving through downtown Valdez. Boarded-up buildings buried in snowbanks, dark, empty streets, and the tightly guarded Alyeska oil terminal across the bay tell the other side of this town’s story. Lest a gaping outsider forget, Valdez is not a ski town. It is what longtime resident and former city councilman Gay Dunham calls “a one-business town,” based on a three-letter word: oil.
And Valdez is not booming, as the powder and scenery might make you expect. On the contrary, one of the most iconic adventure meccas on earth is in danger of drying up. Not now, but soon. The Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which terminates in Valdez and contributes tens of millions of tax dollars to the city’s economy, has seen its output slow to less than a third of what it once was—from 2.1 million barrels a day in 1988 to 600,000 today. The ownership conglomerate of BP, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips, among others, has automated much of the pipeline to increase profits. People are losing their jobs or, if they’re lucky enough to be employed, their monthly cost-of-living stipends that were covered by the pipeline company. Prices have skyrocketed in the local grocery store, where two plums cost five dollars. Summer cruise-ship traffic has plummeted from a high of 96 ports of call several years ago to a lonely one in 2010. Perhaps most telling, four bars have gone out of business in less than a decade.
“We’re dying on the vine here,” says Paula McCann, an ex–oil worker turned tourism promoter. “We can be so much more. The oil might stop flowing, but the snow’s not going to stop falling.”
She shrugs and says what everyone says. “Something’s got to be done.”