There was an Alaska State Parks ranger with his lights on parked at the bottom of the switchback that leads up the hill to the trailhead and parking lot. The ranger had been turning cars around since the early morning because of a crime that was being investigated. The usual mischief of graffiti, shooting signs, or motorized vehicles in a non-motorized use area would not normally close the road, so I suspected something was afoot.
A few days later, the Alaska Dispatch News published an article titled, “Brothers Kidnapped, Shot, Left for Dead in Hatcher Pass; Anchorage Man Charged.” (Both brothers survived.) It is scary to think about this kind of violence happening in a place where healthy, peaceful people congregate to recreate, but what was really on my mind was the fact that the Mat-Su Ski Club had groomed the night before, and since the ranger had been turning people away all morning, there was untouched corduroy just waiting for the road to open and people to go ski it.
The corduroy was the result of a late-October snowstorm that blanketed southcentral Alaska with 4 to 24 inches of fresh snow. The skiers rejoiced as nearly every trail across the land was groomed and skiable. While most people were thoroughly enjoying this early season dump, some mountain travelers were caught unexpectedly on the far side of the mountain.
A distress call came from one such group of multi-fortunate mountaineers. Fortunate because of the improved glacier skiing they encountered, but unfortunate because of the extreme difficulty in traveling back home through snow-covered boulders, steep terrain, intermittent visibility, and the unexpected return of a long-dormant medical problem. The request for assistance was the excuse I needed to drop everything, call my most trusted, prepared, and physically fit friends, and hit the trail on skis at 1 a.m. By 5 a.m. we found them surviving but miserable in a snow cave. After some dry clothes and hot drinks we were all in much better spirits.
Snow in October is good, but how good? In Canada, Frozen Thunder officially opened Saturday, Oct. 22, after an estimated 400 truckloads of snow were distributed onto a 1.3-kilometer loop at the Canmore Nordic Centre in Alberta. The U.S. Ski Team wrapped up its final dryland training camp of the season in Park City, Utah, on Oct. 31.
On Oct. 22, a skier had posted about Anchorage on a local trails forum, “Good snow cover on all Hillside trails” and “Quite a few people out there breaking in the season.” While here in the Mat-Su Valley a post on the same website from a day earlier accurately depicted the situation: “The road up to Independence Mine has not been plowed – not passable. When DOT plows, we will move equipment up there and groom.” The grooming report posted the morning of Nov. 5, the day of my first race of the year, read as follows: “Better than expected. I scratched the ice in the skate lanes. My prediction is moderate to good skiing for the first 100 people.”
Saturday, Nov. 5, saw the Race to the Outhouse #1, hosted by the Mat-Su Ski Club. It is believed to be the first ski race of the 2016/2017 winter in this country, and the season’s first ski race on natural snow anywhere in North America.
The morning of race day was cold enough for me to want to wear long underwear. (In the official results, Race Director Ed Strabel described conditions as “18 Degrees, light snowfall on packed powder/ice.”) The trailhead parking lot was nearly full of Subarus and vans topped with Rocket Boxes. I recognized many faces, and there was no mistaking the sea of blue uniforms from the Alaska Pacific University (APU) ski team.
I signed the entry form with a lobster-mitted hand and received bib #9. The 6-7 k race course is an out-and-back loop on an old mining road that is wide enough for tracks on both sides and skaters to pass in between without inconvenience. There is a bit of an extended incline near the turnaround area that allows skiers to get their heart rates up, but most of the trail is fairly flat and good for gliding.
Scott Patterson and Maggie Meeds won the skate race. Ryan Brickford and Elizabeth Mars won the classic race.
Despite what the results show, I may have been the biggest winner of the day. I stood on the start line with World Cup contender Scott Patterson (APU), who incorporated this race into his three-hour workout and afterwards wrote that he “felt like [the race was] a good way to shake out some faster muscles and lay down the law on some juniors and masters.”
In an email to FasterSkier, Patterson explained that the low-key race was a spontaneous addition to his training schedule, and a welcome intermezzo to his scheduled OD. “Although it wasn’t on my training plan, the race up Archangel [Road] provided a fun opportunity to mix in some variety to a somewhat monotonous overdistance workout,” Patterson wrote. “I tried to convince a few of the other APU Elite Team guys to jump in with me, but lingering effects from a hard bounding interval set the day before kept them all away. … I took things relatively chill after pulling away as I enjoyed the time on snow with a little more pop in my skate then might otherwise be found in a 3-hour workout. It was nice to get some more early-season skiing after Anchorage’s snow had melted into ice.”
Patterson expressed confidence in his training and looked forward to the race season ahead.
“With regards to training and the upcoming season, I think my fall and summer have gone quite well. I put in large volume while having fun, avoiding injury, managing to stay healthy, and racing quite a few running races. Right now I am looking to sharpen up a bit and then move right into the SuperTours. I will be starting the year domestically but will be looking to try and get a SuperTour overall spot and a world championship berth with the idea to be racing world cups and world championships from nationals through Spring Series.”
I may be the biggest winner today because I only got beat by one girl (and a high-school girl at that). I often measure the success of my race by how many women ski faster than me, and one is a better than normal result.
When FasterSkier asked Maggie Meeds, 17, who attends South Anchorage High School and trains with APU, about her race, she responded, “It was really fun. I went out hard in the beginning, and I V2-ed basically the whole thing up to the top, and then the downhill was pretty easy; I just glided the whole way down. It was really fun.”
Meeds added that she had won running races before, but not a ski race, and that her big goals for the winter include winning a ski race in the Anchorage high-school race season.
All doubt was removed about my “winning it” status as I skied a cooldown lap first in front of and then behind the APU Women’s Elite Team, including Kikkan Randall, Sadie Bjornsen, Chelsea Holmes, and Becca Rorabaugh.
Depending on where you are when you read this article, Winter is coming? Or Winter is Here!
Racing continues in the Mat-Su Valley with the Icicle Double, a two-day ski race at Government Peak Recreation Area on Dec. 31, 2016, and Jan. 1, 2017. Cash prizes for the top three finishers in each gender from the two-day 30 k race (30 k classic and then 30 k skate, lowest combined time wins) will be $300, $200, and $100 for first through third places. Shorter distances are also available.
Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.