Winter Rain

By John Gallup
Special to the Glacier City Gazette

N.B. – The events described herein are a mélange of events which took place on Dec. 31st, 1979 or perhaps Jan 1st 1980. Some may recall this storm in better detail than I do, and they are welcome to straighten the chronology out. I would also note that I was absent from Girdwood during the non-winter of 1976-1977, when it did nothing but rain.

It seems hard to believe today, but there was a time in Girdwood when it never rained in the winter, including my first 7 years here. It was far more common for it to get bloody cold and stay that way for a long time, or for it to snow blue blazes, then go back to being cold. All that changed suddenly as we approached New Year’s 1980.

It had been cold through the holidays, enough so that our skier trade had been down. The usual challenges of getting and keeping equipment running at these temperatures kept us busy, but I remember a conversation between Chris Von Imhof and John Samuelson in front of the Business Office after lunch on, I believe, Dec. 30, 1979.

The cold snap had broken, and it was in the 20s. Chris was hopeful that warming temperatures would bring out more skiers for the New Year. John, as I recall, was skeptical, and stated something to the effect that Chris might not like what was coming.

In the middle of the night I was awakened by the snow falling off the trees, howling wind, and what sounded like drips from the eaves. I discounted it as a bad dream and went back to sleep.

Morning, such as it was, was pitch black and wet. I normally drove to work, but the collection of vehicles in the ditch in my neighborhood convinced me to walk, which I did.

I was able to navigate the edges of the road until I got up to Vail and Timberline, where I would have to cross Timberline to go up Vail towards the Daylodge. As I slipped and slid across, I wound up getting into what had been a pothole, but was now about a 6-foot diameter lake a few inches deep, entirely lined with ice. As I attempted to find my way out of this little depression, I finally slipped and fell, and wound up sitting in the pond, my raingear filling up with water.

After several attempts, I finally managed to crawl out, but couldn’t make any headway up Vail, so I got the radio out and called the aid room for someone to come get me. Soon I heard the familiar clatter of tire chains and the company pickup, “Dead Red,” pulled up next to me, and hauled me off to the Aid Room.

Up at the Aid Room I wrung most of the water out of my clothes and the mountain staff that had been able to make it assembled. Reid Bahnson showed up in his Helly Hansons and hockey skates, having just skated the Alyeska Highway from Crow Creek Road. Larry Daniels had rounded up his golf shoes, and was the most mobile of us. Dave Hamre had recently purchased one of the first 4-wheel drive Subarus, and had put studded tires on it, so he took off to round up the rest of the patrol.

Our first challenge was to make ourselves mobile in some fashion – you couldn’t take two steps outside. Brett Johnson got the idea to run sheet screws through old Tucker track belt pieces and tie wire them to our feet, and after an hour of work or so in the base of Chair #1, we all had some form of homemade creepers on our feet. Outside it rained hard and the wind howled.

As bizarre as it may seem today, the Resort hadn’t purchased any sand at all for this eventuality. We found a couple of bags and spread them around, but it had been so cold that new ice formed immediately from the rain, burying the sand. Now it was about 9:00 AM and it started to get light and the first few skiers began to arrive.

In those days we parked most of our skiers on the hill below the Daylodge where the Magic Carpet is today. The main driveway came into the lot approximately where the big Alyeska Resort sign is now, and there was another driveway at the low corner, by the Jade Shop. We parked cars across the fall line in long double rows, and snow we had cleared from this area formed a large berm along Arlberg Ave. The first arrivals were in for a big surprise.

As they came off the highway and onto this freshly hot-mopped slope, they ceased being controlled motor vehicles and became projectiles with passengers. Each car made a perfectly parabolic arc across the lot and came to rest against the berm at the bottom. Fifteen minutes of this resulted in a collection of maybe 12 almost-undamaged cars which had settled into each other like large pick-up-sticks.

We finally were able to get the driveway blocked and examined our car pile critically. If we could, we pulled each car off in succession and minimized the damage, something that seemed right considering the temperament of our customers at this stage. I crept up to the employee parking lot to grab the D7, which we could use to extract the cars, one by one.

I was still relatively green on this particular piece of equipment, our largest and heaviest.

As I entered the parking lot from the upper corner and advanced onto the slope, it took off immediately down the hill sideways. I turned uphill instinctively, but on the ice it responded like a hippo dancing ballet. The D7 swung through the fall line, and I took off sideways facing the other way. As people scrambled up the berm to avoid compaction, I finally got it stopped on the fall line facing uphill and sat there hyperventilating. Larry came up and suggested that I return it to where I got it from and stop scaring people.

The next attempt involved our little Thiokol Spryte, which was Alyeska’s original snow cat. It proved to be much more controllable, and we spent a couple of hours examining each car, rigging them up to avoid further damage, and pulling them off the pile with the Spryte. The problem was that there was really no place to take them where they wouldn’t just slide away and become immediately stuck again, so we just unhooked them next to the Jade Shop and wished them good luck. They responded with the mono-digital “Spenard Salute” as they slipped and slid away into rainy, windy oblivion.

In the course of all of this mayhem, it was decided that we couldn’t open, which was a double heartbreak for us withNew Year’s being one of the very best days of the year. I believe the New Year’s party was canceled as well.

Subsequent ski seasons (up to today) have found the Resort with plenty of sand and gravel, and storms like this one common enough that the staff just deals with it and opens right on time. Much more businesslike, for sure, but not nearly as exciting!