Dean Cummings still remembers competing at the inaugural WESC, in 1991. He had just secured his spot on the U.S. Ski Team. Coombs won; he took second. “My lines were so insane,” he says. “I was so happy.” We are sitting in the lobby of the latest hotel to house his business, H2O Guides; over the years, he’s used every hotel in town.
Cummings won the WESC in 1995, the same year he launched H2O, which he conceived at the McCunes’ dinner table while living with them. He has done well for himself in Valdez; he’s raising a family while developing a 50-acre plot of lakeside property at 6 Mile, and he spreads the snow-safety gospel throughout Alaska and the Lower 48.
But if you speak to enough people in town, you’ll start to hear stories of what an aggressive entrepreneur like Cummings will do to advance his ventures. “He’s burned a lot of bridges here,” says Mike Buck, Valdez’s snowmobile search-and-rescue guru, who has known Cummings since he moved to town.
Cummings, for his part, defends his reputation, particularly among other heli-operators—the ones “stuck in the wind corridors,” as he puts it. “If they’d be willing to work as hard as I do, I don’t think they’d have much to say about me.”
We walk outside and Cummings points up to East Peak. “That’s Rydor’s lift. It’s too low in elevation. It can rain up there. And if there’s more than a foot of snow, snowboarders can’t make it across that bench. It’d be better if we worked together and did something like this.” He pivots and points at his tram site on Mile High.
Cummings wants to install a 126-person tram and possibly another lift on the north side of the peak, where there is more moderate terrain than in the Chamonix-style, south-facing summit bowl. “Just in that bowl, you could fit two Steamboats,” he says.
Despite what he said about East Peak, Cummings regularly runs heli groups on Rydor’s proposed resort site. Rydor doesn’t care for Cummings. One day he was leading a snowcat tour when Cummings landed above them. “I was calling his office, saying, ‘Go someplace f***ing else,’” Rydor says. “We’re out there with a 10,000-pound vibrator in waist-deep snow, and he’s landing up on top of us running groups. And his response was, if anything happens, we’ll come save you. I don’t think I’ve talked to him since then.” (Cummings denies he put anyone at risk that day and maintains Rydor’s group was still at the base of the mountain.)
Says Cummings of Rydor, “I don’t have any description of him. I’ve always liked him and respected him. That’s all I can say about that.” A minute later he adds, “I knew Rydor a long time ago when he was a little boy. One time I took him moose hunting and was just like, wow, what a trippy guy.” Three weeks after my visit, Cummings called to request that he not be pitted against Rydor in the story. “I’m not out to compete with Rydor,” he said. “I don’t agree that there’s only room for one here.”
Chet Simmons, who knows both men well, puts it this way: “Rydor lives here, and Dean just got here. And Dean will always have just gotten here.”
It is a well-known fact in Valdez that the city has $130 million locked away in a “permanent” fund. “That is there for the future of Valdez,” says Dave Cobb, who is serving his second term as may or. It would take a public referendum for the city to commit any finances toward a ski resort, Cobb says, noting that people haven’t forgotten about past financial disasters. “The Salmonberry accident was definitely in the back of our minds when Rydor and Dean brought their projects to us,” he says. Nevertheless, this past spring the city council allocated $120,000 to build a new rope tow on the same Salmonberry site, after a group of locals led by Karen Cummings, Dean’s wife, pledged to help run it. The decision represented a small victory for lift-served skiing and was enabled by a change in liability laws that lessened the city’s risk, Cobb says.
The grander goal remains for McCune and Cummings. Perhaps their biggest ally on council is Karen Ables, owner of the Landing Lights airport bar. “This resort up here,” she says of the East Peak project over beers, “that’s what we need! I am so about supporting these two guys. That’s one of the reasons I got on council, so Valdez will survive after oil. We have to activate our winter tourism. I don’t want to go down in history as being stupid.”
Locals glimpsed the potential each of the past three years, when Tailgate Alaska, a spring free-riding festival based on Thompson Pass, brought dozens of the world’s best pros to town. Valdez was buzzing. Hotels were full. Bars and restaurants were jammed. In 2010, a handful of big-name riders even showed up at a city council meeting to encourage Valdez to support building a ski resort.
Yet the impending doom lingers like the foul smell of spilled crude. Lisa Von Bargen, the city’s economic development director, says, “I lay awake worrying. Valdez has had the luxury of knowing for 33 years that the mainstay of our economy was going to be gone after 20. And here we are 13 years past that, and we still have not come up with a strategic plan for our future.”
Ryan McCune is trying to form a nonprofit program titled “Go Valdez: The World’s Best Backcountry.” He hopes it will rally the community around his project, helping him pursue grant funding. Both his and Cummings’s sites have undergone successful feasibility studies. And yet the money needed to undertake either project remains out of reach.
True to their stubborn natures, the people who live at the end of the road in one of the world’s most radical mountain ranges continue to believe. “Valdez will become a big, badass resort town,” Cummings predicts. “The beauty doesn’t even compare.”
Some talk about opening restaurants near the
resort or finally having a ski shop in town. Others have more modest goals.
“I hope it happens in my lifetime, because I want to work there,” says Karen Stewart, 58, who grew up skiing in Colorado and works for the pipeline. “I want to be a liftie. I’ve got a bunch of old gal friends here. I’m like, ‘You guys! We could be lifties!’”