Cleary Summit Ski Lodge Burns Down
The oldest piece of downhill skiing history in Fairbanks went up in flames on Tuesday morning.
The deserted A-frame lodge at the old Cleary Summit Ski Area at 21 Mile Steese Highway burned to the ground around 10 a.m., destroying the final piece of Fairbanks’ oldest alpine ski area. The lodge had been closed for the past 15 years after Cleary Summit shut down in 1993.
News of the fire has yet to spread through the Fairbanks ski community, but those who have heard about it were bummed.
“It’s sad to hear,” said Scott Grundy, who spent more than 30 years skiing at Cleary Summit as part of the Maverick Ski Patrol. “It’s the end of an era.”
The three-story, 7,000-square-foot lodge was built in the early 1960s to replace another lodge that had burned down in the late ’50s. It was the fourth of four lodges that were built at Cleary Summit, all of which were destroyed by fires. The other three lodges were built on the opposite side of the Steese Highway.
“It was a pretty big landmark,” said Roger Evans, who owns and operates Moose Mountain Ski Resort in the Goldstream Valley, one of three downhill areas in Fairbanks.
Growing up in Fairbanks, Evans started skiing at Cleary Summit in the mid-1950s when he was 5 years old and the lodge was located on the opposite side of the Steese Highway.
“I learned how to ski at Cleary Summit,” said Evans, reached by cell phone at Snowbasin, Utah, where he had just finished a day of skiing on 2 feet of fresh powder. “When we were kids, the Steese Highway was closed at Cleary Summit so you could ski across the road.”
Steve and Brenda Birdsall, who own and operate Mount Aurora Skiland less than a mile up the road from the old Cleary Summit ski area, owned the old lodge.
While the building had fallen into disrepair as a result of age, lack of maintenance and vandalism, the Birdsalls were still hoping to develop it into some kind of enterprise. Steve Birdsall said he had recently talked with some Japanese tourist companies that expressed interest in the building.
The building was not insured, Steve Birdsall said.
Ed Plumb, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, spotted a trickle of smoke coming from under the lodge’s eves as he drove by at 9:35 a.m. on his way back to Fairbanks after taking ice measurements on the Chatanika River.
“It’s just like what you would see coming out of a chimney, but there was no chimney,” Plumb said.
Within a few minutes, the smoke intensified and the lodge was engulfed in flames, he said. Plumb and other passers-by who had stopped when they saw the smoke yelled to see if anyone was in the lodge before calling 911 to alert Alaska State Troopers.
Troopers and the state fire marshal are investigating the cause of the fire, according to Sgt. Rodney Johnson.
According to Plumb, there was an orange pickup truck stuck in a ditch in front of the lodge with the keys in it and the door open. The truck had been there an hour earlier when they went by but the door wasn’t open, Plumb said.
One of the rumors that Brenda Birdsall heard is that someone’s car had broken down Monday night and the driver attempted to start a fire in the lodge to say warm, she said. The Birdsalls have had problems with vandalism at the old lodge for several years, she said.
“It’s not the first time someone has stayed there,” she said.
Started in 1949 by Bob and Sylvia McCann, along with partner Link Imeson, Cleary Summit Ski Area was the first downhill ski area in Fairbanks. The area boasted ski hills on both sides of the Steese Highway and had a total of 900 vertical feet.
It was a mom-and-pop effort that featured rope tows on both sides of the highway until they were replaced by more modern T-bar lifts, first on the lower part of the mountain in the late ’50s and early ’60s and then on the upper mountain in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Homemade snowmaking equipment was added in the ’80s.
“The whole place was a bevy of activity during its heyday in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” said Bevine McCann Morse, daughter of Bob McCann, who died in 1996.
She remembers selling lift tickets and food in the lodge as a young girl and playing on the slopes every weekend.
“It was lots of fun,” said McCann Morse, who now lives in the Seattle area.
Her father built the lodge by hand and took great pride in it, McCann Morse said. He added a kitchen, dining area and other rooms over the years.
“It was a magnificent building,” she said.
Logan Ricketts, 40, started skiing at Cleary Summit when he was only 5 years old and described himself as a “lodge rat” at the old lodge.
“All my fondest memories of growing up in Fairbanks are from Cleary Summit,” said Ricketts, who now works in the ski shop at Beaver Sports and helps coach the Moose Mountain Alpine Ski Team.
He recalled the lines of cars parked along the Steese Highway in the spring when the upper hill would open.
“In the spring, they would open up on Wednesdays and my mom would take me out of school and we’d go skiing on Wednesdays,” said Ricketts, who grew up as a good friend of Megan McCann, another one of Bob’s daughters.
He would spend weekends at the lodge, too, playing and skiing with Megan.
“It was the best environment you could ask for growing up as a kid,” Ricketts said.
The last time he walked through it a few years ago, the lodge had been “demolished” by vandals, he said.
“It was depressing to see the state of the lodge after having so many great times there,” Ricketts said.
Likewise, Grundy, 68, said he has “a lot of good memories” about Cleary Summit Ski Area. He remembers talk of putting a ramp over the highway to connect the two ski hills and recalled Imeson spending his weekends in the lift tower knocking sheaves into place so the T-bar lift and rope tow would work properly. The ski patrol’s aid room was attached to the lodge and was barely big enough to get a stretcher in, he said.
Just recently, Grundy said he recalled a sign on the wall in the aid room that illustrated the ski area’s different runs.
“I was just thinking a week or so ago of trying to get that picture to preserve it,” he said. “I guess I was too late.”