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HEADLAMP: Skinny ski Hatcher Pass

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HEADLAMP Nordic skiing Hatcher Pass

Looking over the Matanuska Valley from the Independence Mine trails.

The rain line has been high this winter, generally ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 feet at Turnagain Pass. Anchorage has broken high temperature records, and nordic skiing in town is limited to pitiful man-made snow on a short loop at Kincaid. Powerful, irregular winds have lashed the mountains, contributing to generally dangerous avalanche conditions. Fortunately, most nordic trails at Hatcher Pass have remained above the rain line, creating good touring at Independence Mine and Archangel Road.

Hatcher Pass has carefully delineated use areas designed to provide a mix of multi-use and dedicated-use trails for a wide range of users. Archangel Road--which starts at approximately 2,100 feet--climbs gradually before terminating approximately four miles later near the defunct Fern Mine. The first couple miles of the trail is open to non-motorized uses such as skiing, walking, and fat-biking, but it is closed to snowmachines. The upper half is open to all uses, though early in the season this distinction doesn’t matter since the general area isn’t yet open to snow machines. Regardless, frequent grooming keeps the trail in good condition. Check snowio.com to see user reports, including from the folks who groom Hatcher Pass trails, for the most up-to-date trail information on Hatcher Pass and Government Peak Recreation Area nordic trails.

Archangel Road is flatter and easier than trails up at Independence Mine. Its first couple miles have only slight elevation changes, and then it climbs steadily toward the mine. Beginning skate skiers who don’t enjoy hills can turn around when the grade becomes unenjoyable and lap the gently rolling hills that overlook the Mat Valley.

Independence Mine trails, located at the end of the road in winter, are significantly steeper. A skate ski at the mine begins with a slog up a long hill from the parking area to near the base of Gold Cord peak. Skate skiers with imperfect technique (me) will be reminded of their inadequacies, but the long climb provides plenty of opportunities to tweak methods and to try to improve skating efficiency.

Most of the winter, there is a series of ski-only loops to the north of the mine, across the creek toward Microdot. In the early season, these routes may be limited to classic skiers, as the only groomed loop winds through Independence Mine. The more limited early season trail system resembles a lollipop, with the out-and-back hill (open to all non-motorized use) topped by the loop through the mine itself. Classic skiers can continue uphill on a variety of more narrow, ungroomed trails that head in the general direction of Friendship Gap.

The groomed trails of Hatcher Pass are generally outside of avalanche terrain, though parts of Archangel Road could be in the runout zone of unusually large slides coming off of Marmot. Unless you’re nordic skiing in or right after large storms, nordic skiers at Hatcher Pass don’t need to be too concerned about avalanches as long as they’re on the groomed trails. However, classic skiers could quickly get into avalanche terrain by skiing under steep slopes on all sides of Independence Mine, including Skyscraper, Marmot, Microdot, and Gold Cord.

Climate change means that nordic skiing in Anchorage is increasingly unreliable. Though the rain line is rising, the trails at Hatcher Pass are still in the snow zone most of the time, including early this winter. As a bonus, Hatcher Pass’ groomed trails generally have southern exposure, giving skate and classic skiers a chance to catch the brief rays of this solstice season.

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