HATCHER PASS, above Palmer, Alaska — Thank you Ullr for the early-season weather and snow!
The 2017/2018 ski season started for me on Sept. 30 with an overnight trip to the Snowbird Glacier in the Talkeetna Mountains above Palmer. The Mat-Su Ski Club (MSSC) started grooming the trails around Independence Mine in Hatcher Pass State Park in mid-October.
The current Hatcher Pass scene
Since then there have been two distinct categories of weather and skiers. The weather at the mine has been either dumping snow (there is presently one to three feet of base in the mine area) or out of the fog and into the sun temperature inversion (I can see Russia from here). The skiers up there show up in sticker-clad rocket boxes and matching uniforms, or have a decade’s worth of state park parking passes on their cracked windshield and dog hair matted to their ski jackets. Early season in Hatcher Pass is the story of two drastically different worlds, depending on if you go there midweek or on the weekend.
On a typical early season weekend in Hatcher Pass, the approximately 75-car parking lot will be overflowing with a confirmed 90-plus vehicles. Team vans, Suburbans and an impressive display of rocket box-topped Subarus with ski-themed vanity license plates all compete for spots to park.
Once on the trail, the distinctive colors of the team uniforms are seen in the blues of APU (Alaska Pacific University), the green and gold of UAA (University of Alaska Anchorage), the red of AWS (Alaska Winter Stars), yellow of ANR (Alaska Nordic Racing), and the light purple of the USST (U.S. Ski Team).
If you want a free lesson on how to be a better skier, just look around. You will see the best technique, the hardest training, and some of the finer nuances of being a skier. Lines of no-poled skiers are doing drills. Elite racers are zipping past you doing intervals. Elite racers are zipping past you doing over-distance. Junior club skiers are building jumps. Sometimes the weather up there on the weekend requires you to shed layers and think about UV protection in November in Alaska. Sometimes the weather up there on the weekend requires emergency midday grooming and specialized vision enhancers to let you see the trail. Let it be known that the who’s who of competitive skiing commutes from Anchorage to Hatcher Pass on the weekend for good early-season skiing. The vibe on the trails at Independence Mine is that you are part of a rich ski community and leaves no doubt that you are in the right place at the right time.
On a typical early season weekday in Hatcher Pass I can show up at a leisurely mid-morning time and likely get the best and closest parking spot just a few meters away from where I can put my skis on. The only other person out there drives an older minivan that surprisingly made the climb up the mountain. This guy wears jeans when he skis, which are a good match to his equipment. The flashiest part of anyone’s uniform is the brightly colored cotton bandana tied loosely around his wrist.
If you want a free lesson in what it means to be a skier, just look around. The vacancy of the mountain allows you to internalize your motivations and identify your biomechanics. Making another trip to the high point of the trail makes you feel as mighty as the mountain peaks that surround you.
On a midweek day in Hatcher Pass, you may find yourself talking out loud to the dog about kick wax and then laughing when you agree with her that it’s not the wax but the operator. Oftentimes over the last week or two the lower elevations have been entombed in a dense fog that you can drive up and out of into a sunny winter wonderland and think, “WOW! Does anybody else know how nice it is up here?” Almost as often the drive up has been so perilous due to fresh snowfall you have genuine concern if you will be able to make it back down the hill safely.
The midweek vibe on the trails is that you are grateful and lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
The 2017/2018 American race season begins
The Race to the Outhouse #1 was held at Independence Mine State Historical Park this past Saturday morning, Nov. 4. Once again, it is believed to be the first cross-country ski race in the U.S. this winter, and the first ski race on natural snow anywhere on the continent.
The race was held under partly cloudy skis and temperatures in the mid-20 degrees Fahrenheit. The one-lap, 5-kilometer mass start course featured an excellent base of natural snow, with nearly 200 meters of elevation gain through the scenic and historic gold mine area now overseen by the Alaska State Parks system.
Of the estimated 150-200 skiers enjoying the trail Saturday morning, it was the Mat-Su Valley residents who made up the bulk of the start list. A total of 13 people participated in the Race to the Outhouse #1 in a mass start skate event followed by a mass start classic event.
Peter Brewer, 25, of Chugiak, Alaska, won the skate race in a time of 13:08. Aubrey LeClair, a student at West Anchorage High School who skis with APU, was the fastest overall woman despite competing in classic technique, with a time of 17:54. My ego was boosted by placing third overall, but I very easily could have gotten 23rd had some of the competitive spectators entered the event.
Scott Horn, a recently retired Jackson Hole Resort employee, traveled all the way from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and raced in the event, “chasing early season snow to Alaska,” he said.
Brewer, the race winner, was asked about his favorite trail, about the contrast between Hatcher Pass midweek and on the weekends, and about what he wants to do next month. He said his favorite trail is “Beach Lake Trails at Chugiak because that is where I went to high school.” As for midweek versus weekends, he observed, “For now I am a weekend warrior and only get to ski Hatcher Pass on the weekend.” And looking ahead, Brewer said, “Next month my twin brother Kenny and I are going to focus on speed by doing three- to four-minute Level 4 workouts in preparation for Besh Cups.”
LeClair, meanwhile, says that her “favorite trails are Independence Mine because this place is so pretty, and Eagle Glacier because I can ski in the summer.” And, “I remember the last two weekends being very sunny and pretty up here, but when I came up here on a Wednesday it was a blizzard.” And finally, “Next month I want to be able to ski in Anchorage.” (Less than 24 hours after LeClair’s comment, Anchorage saw four inches of snow at Kincaid Park on the western edge of town.)
If you are in the figurative or literal ice fog of the lowlands, go up. What you find when you get there could be a ski race, might be a community of nordic ski racers, or perhaps a private ski resort. One thing for certain is that if you go Hatcher Pass during the early season, you will know what day of the week it is.
— Gavin Kentch contributed
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Author Jeff Kase is a devoted volunteer member of the Mat-Su Ski Club and a frequent groomer. He was up late Friday night grooming the trails for Saturday morning’s race. Ski racing in the Mat-Su Valley continues later this month with the Alaska Nordic Cup series between UAA and University of Alaska Fairbanks, and next month with the Mat-Su Ski Club’s flagship event, the Icicle Double on Dec. 30-31.