MATANUSKA-SUSTINA VALLEY, Alaska (April 2) — The debris pile from the avalanche is tall enough to make you feel insignificant and the jumbled texture of the massive pile removes any thoughts you may have had about your invincibility.
This act of Mother Nature that looms a mere 20 to 40 feet from the race course is a few days old, and there is no danger today. Saturday, April 2 was just another day of skiing… and inspiration.
This article is about how Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley has the season of winter that starts in the fall and ends in the spring. This article is about one man’s ski journey from utter disparity of defeat to exhilaration and super-stardom. This article is about the drama and suspense of the Race to the Outhouse #2, a freestyle ski race hosted by the Mat-Su Ski Club (MSSC) on April 2, 2016.
On Oct. 22, 2015, I was trail/mountain running out to the Lane Hut. I should have turned around just above the Fern Mine because that is where the rain-snow line was, and now I was marching/wallowing through snow in tennis shoes and ankle socks. Both my heart rate and core temperature were dropping, but “oh well, a few more hours for the training log.” High-school ski team (I’m the coach) starts on Oct. 28.
I classic skied up in the mountains starting Nov. 8, and after two weeks of dryland with the team, they were on snow Nov. 11 down in the Valley at Government Peak Recreation Area (GPRA). Today is April 2, 2016, and it was snowing during the Outhouse #2 Ski Race, and like many years, we will be training on snow into May.
Alaska has produced numerous successful ski racers such as past greats Adam Verrier and Nina Kemppel, recent stars Holly Brooks and Kikkan Randall; and future champions Hunter Wonders and Molly Gellert. There are so many fast people around here that chances are, you will get beat by someone.
Getting beat has never been so apparent to skier Gavin Kentch after his last-place result in the University Alaska Fairbanks (UAF)/University Alaska Anchorage (UAA) time trial held at GPRA, on Nov. 21-22. Gavin is a skier who lives in Anchorage, works as an attorney, is a member of the Alaska Pacific University (APU) Masters Team, but is “most famous” for occasionally contributing articles to FasterSkier.com. Gavin has a busy racing schedule that includes, but is not limited to the Anchorage Cup Series, Oosik Classic, Sonot Khaazoot, Tour of Anchorage, Icicle Double, and Outhouse #2. When one examines the locations of this comprehensive race schedule, a clear and unique pattern emerges. The Mat-Su Valley has nordic ski races All Winter Long!
This is good for everyone, especially Gavin Kentch who had the time and the venues to recover from his embarrassing last place flogging at the season opener APU/UAA time trial to winning the end-of-season Outhouse #2.
I thought to myself, “More people keep showing up?” and, “Surprise! They have bibs for this race and there are fast people here.” A few days ago, one to two feet of snow mixed with rain fell in certain parts of the Mat-Su Valley. A wet avalanche almost took out the road, which is closed in the winter and groomed by the MSSC. Two avalanches did go across the road back around Thanksgiving. Yesterday I was up here skiing and the snow was super saturated with water and my poles and skies where punching through the trail. During this week’s storm, the MSSC packed the trails, then the PistenBully packed the trails, then the temperatures dropped to below freezing and the MSSC groomed again. This chain of events let to excellent trail conditions not seen in many days.
The Outhouse #2 freestyle race (the second of the season after Outhouse #1 in November) is 7.5 kilometers long with 900 feet of total elevation gain. The first half of the race course takes place on the non-motorized section of trail and is mostly wide and flat with the exception of two small hills where early season avalanches went across the road. The second half is on the multi-use section of trail and is all UPHILL!
The finish line is adjacent to the State Parks outhouse that gets used in the summer. The actual end of the hill is about 500 meters farther up the hill at a gate.
At the start of the race the skies were gray and lightly snowing, and the temperature was around freezing. “Go!” says the starter and two of us ski off the front while a chase group forms close behind followed by a string of citizen racers and youths. At about 2.5 k, Gavin gaps me, and by the start of the multi-use section of trail (3.5 k) he has about a minute lead on me. At this point the chase group is about another minute back. When the climbing starts at about 4 k, small gaps begin to form among the chasers at the front while others further back form small groups in an effort to help each other up the extensive climb. At about 6 k, I realize I will not be able to catch first and start worrying about holding off third. In the last kilometers of the race, Gavin surges to win by about two minutes. Third place also surges in the last kilometer of the race to gain back about a minute on a flagging second-place finisher.
Some of the days inspiration are: the third-place finisher is a pillar of the Valley ski community, fourth is my backcountry ski partner, fifth — some old geezers (I hope to be able to ski like them someday), my mom made it all the way up the hill, my neighbor is here, and an up-and-coming middle school girl, her mom, and my co-coach at the high school all finished in a group.
If you didn’t find what you are looking for in life as a skier at the finish line of the Outhouse #2 , then you sure did by the time you made it back to the your car. On the way back to the start line all the participants of the Outhouse #2 skied past skiers who also love to ski. We passed a line of high school kids one-kilometer long going up the hill. There were college elite racers doing laps. People were touring with fat skis to the Bomber Traverse Route with camping gear. The excellent grooming on the non-motorized section of trail made me want to keep on skiing all day because of how fun the trail was.
Today was just another day of skiing… and inspiration. This article is not about global warming, snowmachines, Jesus, or top coats. The Mat-Su Valley in Alaska still has the season of winter and ski races all winter long that attract good people of all ability levels. The Race to the Outhouse #2 is a funny name for an excuse to ski up a big hill. “Skiers are made in the summer!” but we really like the winter also.
About the Author: Jeff Kase is a backcountry and nordic skier who works seasonally as a high-school ski coach in the winter and mining geologist in the summer.
Do you have a race experience or unique skiing-related tale you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.