Born from community effort, Hilltop celebrates 30 years
Mountains and skiing go together like kids and snow. Hilltop Ski Area combines all four. Situated on the edge of Anchorage where the city meets the Chugach, Hilltop is a place for novice skiers to practice the downhill craft.
“We do a lot of after school programs — Kinder Ski, Hotdoggers, that sort of thing. We’re a beginner area,” Hilltop CEO Steve Remme said.
The Kinder Ski and Hotdoggers programs offer after school lessons for kids from ages 4 to 16 years old.
A lifelong skier himself, Remme said he never envisioned running a ski area as his career, but he said it has its own built-in rewards.
“There’s a certain amount of gratification standing out there and watching these little four and five year-olds coming down the hill for the first time just grinning ear to ear,” he said. “It’s such a pleasure to know that those kids probably are never going to stop doing that.”
A nonprofit, Hilltop is owned by Youth Exploring Adventure Inc. This winter marks 30 years for the ski area, but its origin goes back to the late 1960s, Remme said.
It was then that a group of parents from the Hillside neighborhood formed Hilltop Youth Inc.
“Mostly, along the Hillside here, it was all homesteads and they were all pretty far apart and there wasn’t really any organized activities for all the kids,” he said.
Hilltop Youth Inc. began with a donated milk truck that parents filled with books to make what Remme called a “roving library.” Shortly after, a neighborhood playground was constructed and a towrope was installed near the entrance to what is now the ski area.
Remme said the 160-acre parcel that makes up Hilltop Ski Area was originally a military tract, donated to the Anchorage Municipality in the late 1970s.
In 1982, with the state “flush with oil money,” Remme said Hilltop Youth Inc., the precursor to Youth Exploring Adventure Inc., received grant money to purchase the chair lift, which allowed Hilltop Ski Area to come into being. The following year another grant was awarded to complete construction and that’s when Remme joined the organization.
Installing the chair lift left Hilltop Youth Inc. at a crossroads, Remme explained. What had been a towrope overseen by volunteer parents on weekends was about to become a seven day-a-week operation.
“We wanted to have rentals so people could rent some gear, go out and get a lesson and learn a lifelong sport,” Remme said. “In addition to that, something unexpected, was we created all these jobs.”
Hilltop Ski Area employs more than 100 people every winter. Most are high school and college-aged; some have never worked before.
“For a lot of my employees — and I’ve been here 30 years — it’s their first job ever, but they love it. We try to create a pretty good atmosphere for people that have never worked before and instill good work habits from the very beginning,” he said.
Hilltop operates on an annual budget of about $1.2 million. Remme said roughly half of that goes out in employee compensation. The remainder goes into updating rental inventory, and when conditions require, making snow to cover 33 acres of runs.
Remme said years with little snow accumulation, such as this year so far, can be a challenge for Hilltop.
“The poor snow years do affect us even though we make our own snow because it’s top of mind. When (people) don’t go out to their driveway and shovel their walk they don’t think about all the snow and going skiing,” he said.
Hilltop’s youth oriented nature and its location on the edge of the city make it a perfect “babysitter,” Remme said. Parents often drop their kids off for a day of skiing and then head into Anchorage to run errands. Others stay and get some exercise themselves.
The Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage maintains a network of cross-country trails that begin right alongside Hilltop’s driveway.
“I see it all the time. Parents come in and drop off their kids, put them in a lesson, go back to the car and put on the cross country gear and take off and do like a 10K and come back and have hot chocolate with their kids and go,” Remme said.
Hilltop offers 12 different programs for parents who want to get their kids involved in downhill skiing, or who want to learn themselves. The programs are broken down by age and ability level.
Mark DeHertogh is the ski school director at Hilltop. He said the full-day ski camp, run on weekends and over the holidays, will usually include up to 100 kids learning how to ski. Hilltop also offers private lessons for children and adults every day of the week along with its after school programs.
For him, Hilltop is a way to get active during a long winter, DeHertogh said.
“The reason I like it is, living in Alaska, if you don’t get out and do something in the winter you’re going to go stir-crazy,” he said.
DeHertogh began his tenure there when Special Olympics Alaska moved its training program from Alyeska to Hilltop seven seasons ago. He was coaching Special Olympics skiers at the time.
“We do five days a week with Special Olympics,” he said.
Special Olympics Alaska holds its annual ski and snowboard competitions at Hilltop and in 2001 it was the site for the ski and snowboard events in the winter Special Olympics World Games.
Remme said hosting the World Games provided Hilltop an opportunity to update its facilities. The ski area received a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the efforts of Special Olympics to build its current pro shop.
“We hosted the snowboard venue for the first time that it was ever in the games,” Remme said. “It was a real exciting thing for us. We got a new building, we upgraded our lift from a double to a triple, and we had people from all over the world come here.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].