The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Egyptian style: ski rope backers go retro

City planned to scrap ski hill project until summer building season


Valdez Star photo

Snow Authority members Chris Moulton, left, and Karen Cummings, right, talk turkey with the city council and offer suggested ways the Salmonberry Ski Hill project could be opened this winter.

The Salmonberry Ski Hill project – and its resurrected towrope – was going downhill Monday night before backers – under the name Snow Authority – filled council chambers for a special meeting with city officials to offer alternatives to scrapping the project until summer.

Project officials with the city had thrown in the proverbial towel for the winter after battling several feet of watery muck that could go waste-high to a man, frozen ground that prevented installation of electricity and nearly losing a loader trying to fix the problems. The electricity would not be finished in time and officials felt it was too dangerous to continue with the project that had solid ice at the bottom of the bullwheel – one of the two mechanisms that rotate the towrope – and muddy slush several feet deep at the top.

The city was ready to quit for two reasons according to consultant Ray Walker.

“We didn’t want to injure anybody or damage any equipment,” Walker told the council during the meeting.

But where officials saw a brick wall, the Snow Authority – made up mostly of stalwart winter sports enthusiasts from Valdez – just saw a lot of snow.

Member Chris Moulton, who is also a member of the city’s Parks & Rec Commission, presented “Plan B,” which he said had not yet been thoroughly approved by the Snow Authority so was his responsibility, and was “just basically ideas.”

The group was ready to strip the project of luxuries – such as electricity in the state mandated warming hut at the top of the hill – and move the second bullwheel and hut up the hill by hand if need be in order to be able to use the lift this season. The finishing touches could be added this coming summer.

We can do it “ pretty much Egyptian style” Moulton told the council, using pullies, levers and other simple machines. Or even using 40 volunteers to simply pull the bullwheel and hut up the hill manually.

After all, the group said it never asked for what proved to be expensive installation of electrical service in the top warming hut and had been prepared to run the towrope with generators and propane heaters for the warming huts.

“The majority of the hill you can get up quite easily,” he said.

Other Parks and Rec commissioners agreed.

“This isn’t an insurmountable task,” Matt Smelcer testified during the meeting.

In the end, council agreed and came to a unanimous consensus to allow volunteers the chance to bring the area up to snuff for use this year, though many of the luxuries – such as the electrical service at the top of the hill – would likely not be ready for this season.

The project seemed simple enough when first pitched to the city by the Snow Authority, led by Karen Cummings.

The project to rebuild a towrope for skiing at the Salmonberry Hill site made sense and enjoyed widespread support from both the public and city officials. The land was already city owned, and the basics for a municipal ski area – namely a slope – was already there. It could be done cheaply too – for less than $80,000 - including the ski lift itself. Volunteer labor and many donated services would keep costs down.

What the Snow Authority – nor city officials – didn’t count on, were what city manager John Hozey called “geotechnicalities” that had to be overcome before the state would issue a permit.

Walker told council every time they turned around they had to hire a certified engineer to overcome issues with permitting requirements and problems with grading, that included tons of rock removal.

Adding hardwired electricity to the project caused additional costs – and numerous other headaches - to ensue.

The weather did not cooperate. What Walker called Monsoons caused graded areas along the top of the slope and the road – actually the state mandated trail under and around the path of the tow rope – to basically create mudslides once trenches were dug for the electricity. The grading at the top of the slope basically washed away.

At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Hozey said that in hindsight the city had been too optimistic in the timeline set for the project which turned out to be “way more work and effort than we anticipated.”

But in the end, volunteers who first pitched the idea to the city are stepping up to the plate to get the project off the ground for this winter’s season.

Valdez Star photo

The bottom wheel of the tow-rope machinery sits lonely at the bottom of the incomplete ski hill Monday.

So when will the towrope open to the public you ask?

“Let’s not promise a specific opening date yet,” Hozey cautioned when organizers began to speculate when the project would debut.

No one balked at the suggestion.

After all, Moulton noted there is no Plan C if Plan B doesn’t work.

But they certainly appear ready to try.


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