An Engineering Tour of Alyeska
By John Pfeifer
Hidden from the view of guests and visitors at Alyeska Resort is a mysterious world of concrete, steel and machinery that keeps the hotel and ski resort running. Larry Daniels knows that world better than anyone. He is Director of Facilities and Security at Alyeska, has been there for 35 years and was in on the original design and construction.
On October 12th, Daniels shared his knowledge with a group of young civil engineers, all members of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). He took them on a behind-the-scenes tour of Alyeska and showed them features most people never see.
The tour began in the administrative offices, a nondescript, beige building near the Sitzmark. “This is actually a modular building that was put up over the top of the old swimming pool in 2008,” Daniels said. The outdoor pool was part of the Alyeska Nugget Inn, the first hotel built at the resort. The former hotel is now home to condos and other businesess like The Bake Shop and La Bodega.
Daniels showed the engineers historical photos of the resort dating back to the mid-1980s. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s come and gone over the years,” Daniels said. “I’ve built five chairlifts during my time here and only one is still standing.” The rest have been upgraded or replaced.
Daniels pulled out the original plans for what was then called the Prince Hotel. “We spent two years doing road and utility work before we started building the hotel,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges was the ground they were building on. “The dirt in Girdwood is terrible,” he said, referring to the glacial deposits and Grawacke shale.
They couldn’t build the hotel on a normal foundation. “There are 1,600 pilings driven 40-to-50 feet into the ground for the hotel and tram terminal,” Daniels said. Ranging in diameter from 8-inches to a foot, they support a large concrete slab.
The entire hotel, including all of its mechanical and electrical systems, are supported by this structure. “The gravel could actually fall away from the building and everything would still function,” he said.
After looking at the plans and hearing some of the history, the young engineers followed Daniels to the lower tram terminal for a ride to the upper mountain. Daniels explained, “we built the tram first because we used it to haul some of the material and a lot of the people up the mountain.”
They also transported construction materials using an articulated dump truck and a D-8 Caterpillar pulling at 40-foot trailer. “We also brought up a little bit of stuff using helicopters,” Daniels said.
The Upper Tram Terminal has a large concrete foundation and is anchored to the mountain with rock bolts driven deep into the shale. “We had to have enough mass in this building to resist overturning the tram,” he said.
The tram at Aleyska is what’s known as a reversible aerial tramway: two carriers or cabins travel back and forth between the lower and upper stations. They are propelled along two track ropes by means of a haul rope. “Rope” is short for wire rope, a type of large diameter steel cable.
“The haul rope is actually two ropes attached on either side of the cabins. The top rope is driven by the motor and the bottom rope is slack,” Daniels explained. In other words, the cabin going up the mountain is pulled up by a large motor at the upper terminal while the cabin going down is moved by gravity. “Tension is put on the haul rope by a counterweight,” Daniels said, pointing to a big yellow wheel.
The upper tram terminal, restaurants and bar are almost completely self-contained. They have their own water treatment system with a 200-foot well and a 30,000-gallon reservoir. “Half is for domestic water, the other half is reserved for firefighting,” Daniels said. The upper terminal also has a 225-kilowatt generator and “enough fuel to run the entire building for a couple of weeks,” he said.
Back down at the hotel, Daniels led the engineers through the lobby to a door by the concierge’s desk that provides access to the business end of the hotel. This hidden portion of the hotel covers almost the entire ground floor.
“This is where everything happens, “ Daniels said. “In the summertime we do a full turnover almost every day.” With 300 rooms, that’s a lot of laundry.
There are changing rooms for the housekeeping staff and a large shipping and receiving area. All of the supplies and food for the hotel are stored here. “We have six restaurants, so everything comes out from here in the morning” and is delivered to the rest of the hotel, Daniels said.
The facilities also include all of the mechanical systems: boilers, heat exchangers for heating and cooling, and electrical distribution. A separate building, next to the main service entrance houses the resort’s generating system.
“We have a co-generation system with Chugach Electric,” Daniels said. The resort’s gas-turbine generators normally supply half of the electricity but can provide 100-percent back-up in the event of a power failure,” he explained.
As the tour ended, the young engineers thanked Daniels for sharing his knowledge and for showing them parts of the resort most people don’t get to see. Dylan Baffrey, who is an Engineer-in-Training and organized the tour for ASCE said, “It’s great when you can see it’s more than just a nice looking building. There’s a lot of good engineering that went into this, and it’s been well maintained.”