Pre Skiing Stardom (1984-1985)
The Thompson Pass “car lift” skiing started in the 70s and played an important role to the Tsaina being discovered by the world. The Thompson Pass Car Ski Run provided a 1200 foot vertical ski run for free had been a Valdez resident activity for years. It was a common activity beginning in the 80s for Valdez skiers to brush cut the Thompson Pass Ski during the summers and fall. Brush cutting meant skiers could ski with less snowfall on the ground. Without the brush cutting of the Pass meant skiing won’t take place until after Christmas. holiday.
Beginning in the early 1980s Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston would hold avalanche classes in the deep snow of the Tsaina valley and Thompson Pass. They knew more about the snow in the area than anyone and probably are the first true ski professionals to use the area for business.
In 1983, we met Don and Josephine who were in their late 60s at the lodge. To operate the Tsaina in an environment of 500 inches of annual snow fall is work for young folks as we would find out all too well in years to come.
Michael became a frequent visitor to Tsaina in the early 80s. Michael and Dion Teague would cut firewood on the Richardson Highway between Mile Post 45 and 52.
The Tsaina was the perfect place to warm up after a great day of collecting firewood. One of us would put on our ski gear and get a run in down Thompson Pass while the other drove the load of wood down the road. Over the years many of the same Alaskans where seated at the Tsaina. One patron was Chester Johnson. May he rest in peace.
Chester was a classic, crusty old Alaskan and a terrific person. Chester lived alone at Mile Post 49 on the “Old” Richardson Highway. Dion and Michael got to know Chester and would stop by his Alaskan cabin while cutting wood, fishing and hunting. His beautiful cabin was perched 25 feet above the old road next to a creek for water and he even had a small hydro power wheel(link to Chester PDF). We were amazed how resourceful this man was. Chester was a hermit to some degree but still like to socialize. He lived “off the grid”. Cooking and heat was wood, his food was collected from the land and furs were his currency. Chester was a nice man and he lived exactly where he wanted to. He was a good guy.
Of all people in 1984 to buy the Tsaina Roadhouse was Chester Johnson. It was a watering hole for Chester just down the road from his homestead. Chester knew the lodge well. He didn’t realize how much work the Johnsons were doing behind the scenes. Dishes, cooking, cleaning, snow removal, generators and state regulators like liquor and sanitation. For one year Chester had help from a woman named Mary. It was this purchase by Chester of the Tsaina that was an influential event to why Tsaina become the most publicized ski destination in the world from 1991 and for years to come.
Doug and Jill were still holding Avalanche school at the lodge during Chester’s ownership. In 1985 Chester walked away from the Tsaina. It was too bad. The lodge would remain abandoned for 3 years sitting empty.
If Chuck McMahon and Michael Cozad did not purchase the Tsaina lodge in 1988 from Chester Johnson there probably would be no skiing in the Chugach, Extreme Skiing and Snowboarding (make links) (now Free skiing) or the many ski operations operating in the Valdez area today.