Lack of snow steals early-season recreation glory from Hatcher Pass

PALMER -- Hatcher Pass is eerily brown right now.

The bubble of warm air parked over Southcentral Alaska has left the early-winter recreation destination high in the Talkeetna Mountains bare-sloped and brutally lacking in white.

Avid skier and Anchorage attorney Gavin Kentch summed up the situation when "desperate anchorage skier" asked about conditions there on a popular outdoors web forum recently.

"Google 'Hatcher Pass webcam,'" Kentch suggested Wednesday on Alaska Outdoor Reports. "But only if you want to be disappointed, and cry sad tears into your waxbench."

That bench-drenching webcam? On Friday, the view toward Marmot Mountain included some gravel trails with small, sad patches of white, an expanse of tundra and mostly brown mountains topped with scant snow.

Many years, Hatcher Pass has more snow, sooner, than other Southcentral destinations. Anchorage snowmachiners and ski teams often make the roughly 90-minute trip from Anchorage for some early-season runs.

Nordic skier and two-time Olympian Holly Brooks is chafing to prepare for a mid-December ski marathon in Italy.

"Ideally, we would be training there," Brooks said of Hatcher Pass on Thursday. "It's really weird because it's kind of an annual tradition, skiing Hatcher's Pass in October."

This year, as Brooks noted, the parade of skiers last month went south instead of north because Anchorage and Girdwood got a mid-October snow the Valley didn't. Until a week or so ago, skiers could still make use of Hillside trails or a new 5-kilometer loop in Girdwood.

"I can't remember a single year where we've skied in town and not at Hatcher Pass," she said.

This is the lowest measurable snow at this time in the Independence Mine area since at least 2006, when a gauge started recording snow depths there.

The gauge registered 3 inches of snow as of Thursday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Wegman. That's lower than the 5 inches recorded on Nov. 13, 2012, and 6 inches on the same date in 2009. Last year at this time the gauge measured 4 feet.

Realistically, there's not much snow anywhere in Southcentral thanks to an upper-level ridge parked over the region, bringing temperatures about 10 degrees above normal and little precipitation, Wegman said. Part of the region's late winter is indirectly related to Nuri, the former super typhoon that blustered down to the Lower 48, bringing wintry weather to the Midwest and other regions. The storm was so strong it amplified the pattern already in place over Southcentral, Wegman said.

Until a strong storm system comes along to shake it up, that pattern is expected to remain, he said. "There is no expectation on our end of anything, any type of precipitation, any time soon, anywhere over Southcentral."

Eric Strabel, an Alaska Pacific University coach with roots in the Valley, said ski teams that typically would have headed for Hatcher Pass last month are preparing for a competitive season scheduled to start in early December -- "knock on wood" -- with the mix of roller-skiing and other conditioning like running that they do in the offseason.

Snow-free lower elevations aren't that unusual this time of year but it's bizarre for the mountains, especially the Talkeetnas, to be this bare, said Strabel, whose parents live at the base of the Palmer side of the pass.

"For Hatcher's it's definitely a weird year," he said.

The missing snow isn't all bad in the pass area that sits between Palmer and Willow, connected by a sinuous summer road.

As of last week, people were ice skating at Gold Cord Lake, an alpine gem tucked above the ruined cabins across the bowl from Independence Mine proper. Hiking trails are dry but not slick with snow.

Four-wheelers can cruise trails without bogging down in mud, said Randy Bedard, manager of the Willow location of Hatcher Pass Polaris. "And there's no grizzly bears."

"Hey, it is Alaska. It will come," Bedard said of the snow. "It's just not coming soon enough for some winter enthusiasts."

It's also strangely easy to drive the Hatcher Pass road up into the mine bowl, where the A-frame main building and cabins of Hatcher Pass Lodge perch on a high bench.

Lodge owner Hap Wurlitzer said the last few weekends have been "pretty dead" for cabin rentals "because people wanted some snow up here to get skiing early," though he's full up for the holidays.

Wurlitzer remembers years when huge storms dumped so much snow that unless he put a bamboo pole next to his snowmachine at night he couldn't find it the next morning. The road stayed closed for days.

This year, Wurlitzer looks out on a daily reminder of winter's late arrival.

Cross-country ski groomer Ed Strabel, Eric's father, left a snowmachine near the lodge for the trail work sure to come after about 6 inches of snow fell -- and then quickly vanished -- at the beginning of October.

"He was ready to roll. We all thought, hey, it's going to be a normal winter," Wurlitzer said. "All of a sudden we got some rain, it melted all the snow. And his snowmachine sits out there in the gravel."

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.