MRA plans new ski area in Alaska

This pow could be lift accessed. Joe Turner on Alaska's Manitoba Mountain. Tom Winter

Fifty or so people packed Alaska's Girdwood Library last week for the first public presentation of plans for a new ski area on Alaska's Manitoba Mountain, located on the Seward Highway about 90 minutes from Anchorage.

Spearheaded by the Mountain Rider's Alliance, a group whose mission it is to develop environmentally-friendly, rider-owned ski areas throughout the world, the plan is to build a community-owned and operated ski area that offers 2,596-vertical-feet served by three energy-efficient surface lifts.

The resort's rather modest in-bounds stats and gentle frontside grade are dwarfed by the terrain outside the ropes: Access to more than 10,000 acres will start at a backcountry gate atop 3,702-foot Manitoba Mountain. From there, you can choose from committed, steep lines off the north and south sides of the ridge. Or hike farther out to find the high-stake spines and sinuous couloirs that Alaska is famous for.

Dave Scanlan, a resident of Hope, Alaska, a historic town roughly 20 miles from Manitoba Mountain, is in charge of organizing the Manitoba Mountain Ski Area Restoration project. Almost a year ago, Scanlan started corresponding with Jamie Schectman, the founder of MRA. The plans for Manitoba quickly started to materialize. "I really liked [MRA's] focus on the community and sustainability," says Scanlon. "We have a real need on the Kenai Peninsula for economic opportunities for the people who live here."

"Very quickly it became obvious that the MRA should be working with Dave," adds Schectman. "He is an ideal partner."

Schectman and Scanlan say that the ski area will be basic and operate with a small staff. Guide companies will be able to operate out of the ski area, as will private concessionaires like food service companies. "We don't need to run everything, and we want to create opportunities for the locals to have their own businesses," says Schectman. "One of the biggest costs for resorts is labor, so we want to minimize that cost."

The plan is to make the ski area community owned. Scanlon admits he's still working with the MRA to sort out the details but initial reports suggest that ownership shares will cost approximately $500. "If we sell 1,000 of these," says Scanlan, "we'll raise $500,000, which will make a big difference."

Still, issues remain. While Manitoba Mountain used to host skiing -- a rope tow and lodge operated on the site from 1941 to 1960 -- any new ski area on the site will have to undergo formal permitting and environmental impact processes with the relevant government authorities. And some local residents are opposed to developed skiing on Manitoba. Finally, one of MRA's missions is to have ski resorts generate their own power. Proposals for Manitoba range from wind to micro-hydro, but the funding needed to develop these opportunities is substantial.

Currently, Alaska only has seven operating ski areas, so if the Manitoba project succeeds, it would bring the state's count to eight.