Almost a full year after their opening ski season was foiled first by a delayed lift installation and then by a global pandemic, the volunteers behind the nonprofit Hatcher Pass Xperience (HAX) ski area are ready to get things started.
The lift and ski area, known as Skeetawk, is operating under a use lease from the Mat-Su Borough, well over $1 million in grants and donations and the dedication of volunteers who have pushed the dream to reality.
Opening day is targeted for Dec. 5, snow dependent, with a grand opening ceremony and party closer to Solstice, said HAX chairman Butch Shapiro.
The lift is the first in Hatcher Pass since 1972. Planned in a series of development stages, the first step, completed this year, includes a 1,250-foot lift, warming yurt and ski patrol trailer. Ultimately organizers plan for the area to include multiple lifts plus amenities like lights, bathrooms, and a ski lodge.
While that’s a target that’s about five years and millions of dollars off, said Shapiro, but the upcoming season is still well worth the visit. In addition to the lift and backcountry access from the parking area, which has space for 200 vehicles, at least two food trucks will be regularly open to support users, and the warming yurt will sell basic concessions like hot coffee and soda.
“Our business model is basically to make enough to pay for operations, and anything additionally we build is going to be grants and fundraising,” he said. “it’s just a never ending thing when you’re a non-profit trying to do something like this. There’s a lot of known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns.”
Attracting users won’t be a problem for the area if attendance at the annual “Blueberry Ball” fundraiser held Sept. 27 is any indicator. Although organizers expected a couple hundred attendees, they instead got an estimated 700 eager to listen to music, drink beer, bid on silent auction items and test out the ski lift.
The event raised more than $10,000, said Louisa Blanchflower, a volunteer who previously served as HAX board president. So far they have sold more than 70 passes for the season (including two to this reporter).
Among the biggest criticism of the area is the increase in traffic locals fear it will bring into the pass. But Shapiro said that increase will only be noticeable before the ski area driveway.
“Once they pull into our area they’re not going to be on the corridor,” he said. “It’s from mile 10.6 down the pass where you will see a little bit of increase of traffic in the morning and in the evening when skiing starts and ends but other than that you’re not even going to be able to tell we’re here because we’re off that main drag.”
One of the biggest challenges the area faces is balancing use with ongoing precautions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Brian McGorry, the HAX mountain director and, for now, lone employee. Visitor choke points at the base of the lift are a concern for any ski area pandemic or not, but it’s especially worrisome given current public safety guidelines.
Until best practices from the National Ski Areas Association dictates otherwise, Skeetawk will require face masks in closed spaces or any time a six foot distance cannot be maintained between visitors, McGorry said.
“I think the biggest thing for us is when you have a small ski area that’s operating in the time of COVID, how do we manage capacity and still incorporate social distancing?” he said. “That’s the question that we’re beginning now to start to answer and for us the reality is we’re in wide open spaces, once you get on the mountain there’s room for everybody.”
The ultimate goal, he said, is to avoid shutting down operations. .
“Last year every single ski area in North America got shut down. Our requirements for masks and our requirements for social distancing, they’re number one made in the name of public safety, but number two made in every best effort to stay open,” he said. “The initiative that we’re pushing is really to save our season before it even starts.”
Users looking to support the ski area can soon buy passes online, donate or volunteer. More information is available on Skeetak.com. HAX is also looking to hire a General Manager and Lead Lift Operator with plans to bring on several liftys and staff late this fall.
Season passes are priced at $390 for adults ages 18 to 69; $320 for students 13-18 or military members; and $200 for youth ages 6 to 12. Users ages 5 and under or over 70 years old are free. Day tickets are $39 for adults ages 18 to 69; $32 for students ages 13 to 18 or military members; and $20 for youth ages 6 to 12. They plan to be open for operations on weekends and MatSu Borough School District holidays.
More than anything else, Shapiro said, he hopes the new area can give residents another way to pursue health and wellbeing outside.
“The biggest thing I’m looking forward to is just being a community resource,” he said. “Mental health, especially after COVID, people need to get outside.”