GeneralNewsRegional / LocalAlaskans Revel in October Skiing at Hatcher Pass, Birch Hill

Gavin Kentch Gavin KentchOctober 23, 2017
Alaska Pacific University’s Luke Jager strides it out at Hatcher Pass, above Palmer, Alaska, on Oct. 19, 2017. (Photo: Ophira Group)

Note: We’re seeking submissions for this year’s “Where The (Skiable) White Stuff Is” early snow report. If you know where there’s November or even October skiing in the U.S. or Canada, please write us with details (When does it open or how long has it been open? How many groomed kilometers are there? Is there snowmaking? Any special events planned, like American Thanksgiving camps? Anything else we should know?) and original photos at info@fasterskier.com with the subject line: “Fall Skiing”. Deadline for submissions is Nov. 3.

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HATCHER PASS, above Palmer, Alaska — Winter is in the eye of the beholder, but whatever you’re looking for to mark the skier’s favorite season, this spot at 3,500 feet in the Talkeetna Mountains probably has it.

Seven kilometers of groomed trails? Check. Literally Extra Blue conditions? Check. A nearby lodge with a fireplace serving up hot chocolate and sweeping mountain views? Check. Fresh snowfall, gorgeous alpine vistas, and a side dose of Alaskan mining history? All of the above. Judging by the cars in the parking lot this weekend, there are plenty of skiers in southcentral Alaska who are ready for winter to be upon us.

Skiing through the historic mine buildings at Hatcher Pass on Oct. 18. (Photo: Gavin Kentch)

Skiing at Hatcher Pass began in earnest roughly ten days ago, when the cold rains of October finally turned to snow up high. When the weekend of Oct. 14 dawned sunny and gorgeous, the pilgrimage was on, with skier-set classic tracks throughout the area by Saturday afternoon. Formal grooming followed on Monday morning, courtesy of the Mat-Su Ski Club. Alaska Pacific University (APU) skiers have been making the trek out to the Matanuska–Susitna Valley, roughly an 80-minute drive from Anchorage, most days since (including Sadie Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen, Reese Hanneman, and Eric Packer, among others). For the APU Elite Team, the #roadtopyeongchang runs through Hatcher Pass, whether skiing or getting a jump on ski testing.

The ca. 2 k, 200-meter-elevation-gain continuous climb (so, not exactly FIS-legal) from the lower parking lot to the highest point on the current course doesn’t hurt for training, either. No word if the climb popularly known for the last four years as “Sochi Hill” has been renamed for the current Olympic cycle, though.

Old mining equipment borders the ski trails at Hatcher Pass on Oct. 18. (Photo: Gavin Kentch)

But Hatcher Pass isn’t just a superb early-season training venue. It’s also a truly lovely place to spend time. John Updike famously wrote of Fenway Park that it was “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” a description that lends itself surprisingly well to the central-mine area that the ski trails wend through. In that vein, University of Alaska Anchorage English professor and local masters skier Shannon Gramse later set the scene by describing the historic mine buildings and detritus left over from the area’s early-20th-century mining heyday, then wrote, “Imagine skiing through an Old West ghost town turned collectible Christmas village.” By any standard, Hatcher Pass is a very special place.

Mountain views from the groomed trails at Hatcher Pass on Oct. 18. (Photo: Gavin Kentch)

This year’s Oct. 16 start to grooming at Hatcher Pass was “one day later than average,” Mat-Su Ski Club board member Ed Strabel told former FasterSkier reporter Nat Herz, now of the Alaska Dispatch News.

Three hundred miles to the north, winter is also right on schedule at Birch Hill Ski Area in Fairbanks. Longtime area race director John Estle (who was also chief of competition for some of the last FIS World Cup races held in this country, in 1984, as well as head coach of the U.S. Ski Team from 1990–1993, as well as having a role in pretty much anything involving skiing in interior Alaska in the last 35 years) wrote in an email on Thursday, “The ground is frozen, we’ve had 3″-4″ of snowfall, and the groomers have rolled a few k’s of trails.”

In a follow-up note to FasterSkier, Estle clarified that this date for the first grooming was “about average” for Fairbanks. “It’s on the early end of average for the past few years, but right in the long-term average which is October 15-25. But that is an anecdotal average with no scientific basis.”

The stadium at Birch Hill Ski Area in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Oct. 19, 2017. (Photo: John Estle)

(It should be noted that Estle’s sense of anecdata is close to unassailable, given his knowledge of Fairbanks skiing over the past four decades.)

Current trail conditions for Birch Hill should be available here soon. Current conditions for Hatcher Pass (and some other areas as well) may be found here.

The Mat-Su Ski Club plans to hold its season-opening race, the Race to the Outhouse #1, on Nov. 4. It would potentially be the first ski race in this country of winter 2017/2018… except that Fairbanks has set the first race of the Wednesday Night Race Series for Nov. 1. At least in Alaska, winter is upon us.

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Reminder: Send us the snow/grooming report and other relevant information concerning your favorite ski spot. If there’s skiing in November, we want to hear about it! Email info@fasterskier.com with the subject line “Fall Skiing” by Nov. 3.

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Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch

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.

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