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Can Skiing Save Valdez, Alaska?

What happens when an oil town runs out of oil? What if that town happens to access some of the best skiing in the world? We sent Devon O'Neil to Valdez, Alaska, to report on just that for a story in our November issue. This is what he saw.

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This is why everyone wants to come to Valdez: The mountains are simply better than almost anywhere else in the world, not to mention the powder. In…

This is why everyone wants to come to Valdez: The mountains are simply better than almost anywhere else in the world, not to mention the powder. In this photo, a heli guide drops into his first run of the morning while a client waits at the top, salivating. The steep ramps in the foreground get skied on occasion, too.

This is the problem with Valdez's current situation: the economy is suffering. Walk through downtown in the middle of winter, and you'll see a number…

This is the problem with Valdez’s current situation: the economy is suffering. Walk through downtown in the middle of winter, and you’ll see a number of buildings just like this one, boarded up and buried by snow.

Valdez native Ryan

Valdez native Ryan “Rydor” McCune, the town’s cable and telephone repairman (and winner of the big-mountain contest at New Zealand’s World Heli Challenge in 2009), hopes to build a lift-served ski resort just past the airport, on East Peak. Here, he kills some time on the guitar before heading out for a day of snowboarding in the Chugach mountains where he grew up.

Former extreme skiing world champion and heli guide Dean Cummings stands in downtown Valdez with the 5,000-foot

Former extreme skiing world champion and heli guide Dean Cummings stands in downtown Valdez with the 5,000-foot “Mile High” mountain looming above his right shoulder. Cummings wants to build a tram to access the high-alpine terrain off the top, which he compares to Chamonix.

Photographer Court Leve carves into a steep face called Acapulco while skiing with Alaska Backcountry Adventures, one of Valdez's most popular…

Photographer Court Leve carves into a steep face called Acapulco while skiing with Alaska Backcountry Adventures, one of Valdez’s most popular heli-ski operations. This run is a quick flight from ABA’s base on Thompson Pass, about 20 minutes from downtown Valdez. From the straight-line tomahawk track down the middle, you can guess what happened to one of our group mates before Leve dropped.

You've probably heard of Bro Bowl, which has hosted a number of freeride competitions over the years. This is what it looks like from across the…

You’ve probably heard of Bro Bowl, which has hosted a number of freeride competitions over the years. This is what it looks like from across the valley: a nice fluffy playground. Note the diagonal avalanche fracture on the upper left of the photo.

Helicopter pilot Chet Simmons, one of the original members of Valdez's

Helicopter pilot Chet Simmons, one of the original members of Valdez’s “Ski to Die Club,” played a critical role in bringing heli-skiing to Alaska. He was flying supplies to the interior during the oil pipeline’s construction when he started charging skiers $25 a drop. We caught up with him on Thompson Pass after a day of skiing and got to fire off a few rounds from his rifle.

The snow in the Chugach is different from anywhere else. As Doug Coombs said,

The snow in the Chugach is different from anywhere else. As Doug Coombs said, “Pure velvet.”

City council member Karen Ables is one of the biggest supporters of lift-served skiing in Valdez. She also owns the Landing Lights bar at the…

City council member Karen Ables is one of the biggest supporters of lift-served skiing in Valdez. She also owns the Landing Lights bar at the airport, which is where I met up with her for an interview and a few pints.

Court Leve follows a track laid by ABA guide Dave

Court Leve follows a track laid by ABA guide Dave “Happy” Rintala next to a pair of snowy fins off of Thompson Pass. We didn’t catch the conditions in any legendary state, but the snow was still pretty awesome thanks to the terrain it was covering.

This is the view from the top of what Rydor McCune calls

This is the view from the top of what Rydor McCune calls “Bowl Two” on East Peak, site of his proposed resort. We’re looking down on Prince William Sound and the city of Valdez, visible just above the airport landing strip in the middle of the photo. To give you a sense of scale, almost every mountain in this photo is at least 5,000 feet above sea level.

After touring his resort site and skiing in flat light up high, Rydor took me over to the ice caves at the foot of the Valdez Glacier. Enough snow…

After touring his resort site and skiing in flat light up high, Rydor took me over to the ice caves at the foot of the Valdez Glacier. Enough snow had made its way inside a couple of the caves, so we figured why not make some turns. He dropped in through the keyhole, slashed a turn off the snowy mound here, then caught some air into a different cave below where I took this photo.

McCune, Leve and Rydor's friend Donny Mills pick out their lines from atop the Bro Bowl cornice. If terrain as playful and fun as this, with easy…

McCune, Leve and Rydor’s friend Donny Mills pick out their lines from atop the Bro Bowl cornice. If terrain as playful and fun as this, with easy access off a highway 20 minutes outside a world-renowned mountain town, existed anywhere else, you can bet it’d be tracked out by midmorning. As it was, we were the only ones up there that day.

For many skiers, the name Valdez became synonymous with world-class terrain thanks to its role as host of the World Extreme Skiing Championships in…

For many skiers, the name Valdez became synonymous with world-class terrain thanks to its role as host of the World Extreme Skiing Championships in the 1990s. Karen McCune-Stewart, Rydor’s stepmother, served as president of WESC for years and still hopes to resurrect the event. Here, she holds a poster from the 1997 edition. She also hopes to work as a liftie if resort skiing ever becomes a reality in Valdez. Read more in our November issue, on newsstands November 1