Hatcher Tours & Helicopters

November 2019 Update

In November 2019 DNR approved this permit. You can read the entire permit here and an ADN article about the approval here.

It should come at no surprise that DNR permitted this.  DNR has a history of siding with motorized users and commercial operations in the Mat-Su area.  During the Knik River Management Plan process that basically ignored every single letter that was in favor of increasing non-motorized corridors.  During the Hatcher Management Plan they refused to address the issue of non-motorized boundaries adjacent to heavily used motorized areas which has lead to frequent motorized usage on motorized areas.  In this case both non-motorized and motorized users were against this permit – yet both were ignored.

As for specifics.  Here’s a collection of thoughts in regards to what DNR got wrong in their decision.

  1. DNR  recommendation of activities
    There was never any argument that this area of the management unit was open to this type of activity.  The argument presented by numerous people was that this management area was too busy to safely incorporate heli-skiing into a narrow crowded corridor.  DNR did not address this and instead just said “it’s permitted”.
  2. Usage of Independence Mine Bowl Parking Lot
    One of the issues frequently commented upon was the lack of adequate parking due to the high number of users.  DNR justifies this by saying the permit won’t use the Independence Mine Bowl Parking Lot.  However – the Independence Mine Bowl Parking Lot  is the only parking lot that doesn’t fill up 100% every day of the season.  In other words what they’re saying is that they won’t use the big parking lot with room but will instead use the little parking lot that has room for 15 cars.  This makes no sense at all.
  3. HP Management Plan Conflicts
    DNR justified their recommendation of the permit due to the fact that a snowcat operation existed in Hatcher Pass from 1995-2008.  However they do not take into account population growth in that time period.  The population of the Anchorage/Mat-Su Region has grown from 300,000 in 1995 to 400,000 in 2018.  In Ma-Su alone the population grew from 49,000 to 106,000.  Hatcher Pass has seen incredible growth during this time frame and the backcountry is brimming with users.  DNR did no study of user days and just based the permit on activities from 20 years ago.
  4. Helicopter Usage
    There was no change in the permit in terms of helicopter access / restrictions.  They have secured permits for fuel storage at an existing mine. DNR hardly regulates this stuff and will do little to ensure that they are within compliance.  Something to think about is the storage of fuel at the headwaters of a salmon stream.  Another thing to consider is that DNR can’t police existing helicopter companies that poach non-motorized areas in Hatcher Pass, so it makes no sense to allow another heli-operation into this area.
  5. Safety & Ops
    DNR won’t touch anything that has to do with safety and basically punted every concern by saying “it’s not within our authority”.

Where do we go from here?

Users can send a letter to DNR pointing out that they failed to address the issues, but without legal action little will come of it.  Aside from that the only approach is to let both the permit holders (Hatcher Pass Mountain Guides / Adam Cuthriell of Girdwood-based FishHound Expeditions and Bryce and Farley Dean of Willow-based Willow Creek Resort) and the helicopter-operator (Talkeetna Air Taxi) that their operation is incompatible with the crowds in Hatcher Pass.  Talkeetna Air Taxi has a long history of working with recreationalists and hopefully they will listen to user complaints and make sure their operation does not conflict with current users.

Original Article

This week DNR posted a proposal for a snowcat / heli-ski operation in Hatcher Pass and it caught everyone by surprise.  The original notice was sent to DNR in November 2018, but DNR waited until April 2nd to quietly post it and mail out notices to people who have private inholdings in the affected areas. Thankfully after a bit of public outcry they increased the comment period to 1 month instead of the original 2 weeks.

Scroll to the bottom of the page to read the proposal in full.  Specifically Hatcher Pass Mountains Guides is asking to allow cat skiing and assisted heli-drops on Bullion Mountain ridge through Dogsled Pass.

Note that they are requesting access to Bullion Mountain but the map shows pretty much the entire non-motorized area.  This is because areas requested for operation in the permit are by “map section”. Thus, on the mapped boundary of the permit proposal, we see entire map sections designated with overlap into areas that are non-motorized.  This is best explained by Ralph Baldwin who was on the Hatcher Pass management plan committee back in 2010:

As an example, a request to utilize the road over the pass that is usually groomed and accessible by snowmachine (and snow cat groomer) must include the whole map section. Even though Government Peak and Independence Management Units as well as well as part of the Archangel Management Unit are closed year-round to recreational off-road vehicle use by virtue of Hatcher Pass Management Plan 2010, the party requesting access for a permit must request by map section. The closures as a result of Hatcher Pass Management Plan 2010 will remain in place and only the access corridor that is desired, the road, would be allowed.

That said – Bullion Mountain and Dogsled Pass are a super busy zones within Hatcher Pass. All sides of Bullion are literally always crisscrossed with snowmachine tracks and the peak to the NE (Granite / Lost Wall) can be reached on foot within 45 minutes of leaving the Independence Mine parking lot. Likewise Black Prospect and Dogsled Pass see skiers and snowmachines on a regular basis. This is a super busy and incredibly accessible zone for skiers, paragliders and snowmachiners – and from a safety viewpoint alone the notion that helicopters should land in these zones is insane.  From a noise perspective, allowing helicopters to land on ridges that can be accessed within 30 to 40 minutes of hiking makes no sense at all.  Alaska is a very large area and there is ample room for snowcat / helicopter operations to exist without having these operations overlap with multiple users competing for space.  As pointed out by longtime Hatcher skier Leo Americus:

For comparison SEABA in Haines has 975 skier days for an area of 100,000 acres. This operation is looking for 1,000 skier days for an area of 16,000 acres.

There has been a lot of discussion in terms of “how will this impact skiers or snowmachiners” with the underlying assumption that there is ample room for everyone in Hatcher Pass.  This same reaction has been voiced by Hatcher Pass Mountain Guides who claim that their actions won’t impact skiers in the area.

I want to preface my comments by pointing out that I am a skier and not a snowmachiner – thus these comments are geared towards non-motorized users.  However, this proposal would impact snowmachiners far more than it would skiers For skiers the impact would primary be aesthetic due to noise with safety concerns in select areas.  For snowmachiners this proposal opens up the possibility of entire areas being closed to motorized access due to user conflicts.  Skiers don’t spend sunny winter days highpointing above Dogsled Pass – but dozens of snowmachiners do.  If you are a snowmachiner I encourage you to engage in the dialog on the Hatcher Pass Snow Riders page.  This shouldn’t be a skier vs snowmachine argument.  Snowmachiners have more to lose than the other users in this area.

To illustrate how this operation could impact skiers and splitboarders I’ve uploaded tracks for 4 tours in Hatcher Pass that I did this past winter.  All of them are in areas that would be impacted by this commercial operation. Read through the route descriptions, download the GPX and go for a tour.  A single day above Independence Mine should give you an idea of how small this area really is and how much an adjacent heli-operation would impact users.

Again, all of these tours are primary within non-motorized areas that will not directly see impacts. However every single listed tour will be affected due to noise and the fact that skiers are routinely dropping into zones that are either adjacent to, or part of the permit area. And while skiers won’t necessarily be in harms way they most certainly will be seeing and hearing the helicopter and traveling close to the snow cat.

Another thing to note is that two of these tours (Lost Wall / Cable Valley) cross private property (click to view property maps on Mat-Su map server). Currently access is not an issue when trespassing on the private property in the Independence Mine zone, however that doesn’t mean that issues couldn’t arise. A high profile accident, vandalism, overcrowding or sale to a different owner who wants to restrict access are all scenarios where public access could be threatened or blocked.  If access was ever restricted it would push skiers and riders further back into the proposed permit area.

4068 / Bald Mountain Ridge Tour

The 4068 region is a super popular spot for ski tourers looking for quick access to runs on all aspects.  Most users skin to the top of 4068 and then ski either north or south depending on conditions.  For a longer tour continue down the ridge aiming for the ridge that connects to Hatch Peak (Bald Mountain Ridge).

Thomas Bailey on 4068

Looking at Bald Mtn Ridge

Thomas Baily and I toured the ridge this past winter and linked up runs off the North side of 4068 and northeast side of Bald Mountain Ridge. From Bald Mountain Ridge the run dropping back into the valley (“Valley of Sin”) towards the road is called “For Men Only”.  It’s a perfect 35 degree drop in a zone that is often sheltered from wind and sun.  We skied it in perfect powder and at the bottom skipped the last 300’ of low angle skiing and quickly skinned back to the ridge for another north facing run off the highest point on the ridge. From there we skinned back to the top of 4068 for a final run down the NE bowl of 4068 (“Wimp Bowl”).

How would the proposal impact this tour?  For starters the parking for 4068 is limited.  On a sunny winter day there are dozens of skiers and dozens of snowmachiners all competing to for parking in this zone.  Add in multiple additional snowcat users and a snowcat driving down to pick them up and the parking lot (and motorized access corridor) will be overflowing.  Second – with the possibility of the ski area opening next season skiers will be forced to travel further down to the ridge to avoid conflicts with ski area users in the valley below (given avalanche danger and liability concerns there is a good chance that 4068 will go the way of Arctic Valley and be closed to skiers).  Skiers will be forced to travel further down the ridge where they will be overlooking Summit Lake and the zone where the helicopter will be shuttling skiers to the top of Bullion Ridge.

In short picture this… after fighting for parking you ski 2 hours down a ridge, only to reach a point where you’re overlooking a snowcat / heli-ski operation.  This same zone sees dozens of snowmachines on a daily basis – all of whom will need to be redirected around the helicopter and snowcat for safety reasons.  Thus many of those snowmachines will be pushed into the valley below Bald Mountain Ridge, leading to crowding and avalanche mitigation issues for everyone involved.

Granite Mountain / Lost Wall Tour

This tour is a loop around Granite Mountain (the point at the furthest NE point of Bullion Mountain). In stable conditions you get to ski a wonderful NW aspect run off of the Black Prospect / Granite col, climb into a hanging valley W of Granite Mountain where you can ascend a SW gully to the summit ridge of Granite Mountain.  If conditions are right from there you get to choose between dropping the Lost Couloir or the Found Couloir.

Scott Fennell down Black Prospect

Todd Kelsey down Lost

Todd down Lost

The Lost Couloir is the giant broad couloir that splits the face.  It’s wide and around 45 degrees at the top.  Never too difficult and never too tight.  A beautiful run.  The Found Couloir starts with complicated route finding down a couple gullies and rock aprons until you reach a point where the wall narrows  into a tight gully.  It looks great at the start but halfway down it narrows to 200cm with 10’ of often exposed rock.  You then get to choose between straight-lining over the rock band (the correct way) or side-slipping down granite slabs (not recommended – and I can vouch that this not recommended) .

Lost & Found. Note how many tracks there are.

How would the proposal impact this tour?  This entire tour is in the heart of the zone that the proposal seeks access to.  Granite Mountain is on the far edge of Bullion Mountain and if granted as is, they would have permission to land on top of Granite Mountain – a zone that sees skiers on a regular basis.  (Note that if conditions are right you can leave the parking lot and boot up the Lost Couloir and literally be on top of Granite within 45 minutes of leaving the car.)  The NW run of Black Prospect is regularly skied and dumps you right at the base of Dogsled Pass (where the helicopter would be shuttling skiers to the ridges above).  The tour around Granite to access the southern slopes and bowls would be the zone where the cat is driving as well as potential landing zones for the helicopter. I can’t stress how crowded this zone is.  The day we skied Found Couloir we had to wait at the top of the run because of multiple users below us.  The day we skied Lost Couloir we had a bootpack staircase to the top of the run and the run had been skied at least 20 times within the past week.  At the top we turned around to see 2 other skiers following us up the route.  From the top we saw multiple snowmachiners and many tracks in the bowls off Bullion Mountain.  The idea that a commercial operation with an R44 can safely operate in this zone is ludicrous.  Another thing to note is that technically the Lost Wall is on private property. If this zone was ever closed skiers would be forced to travel further back towards Bullion Mountain to find areas open to recreation.

Cable Valley Tour

This tour links up several aspects of Cable Valley and you end up making a nice loop through the heart of Independence Mine.  The day we skied it we started with a quick lap on Lost Couloir to get a feel for conditions, then we cut across to the south face of Gold Cord and skied across the “Death Traverse” bench to reach Cable Valley.  Cable Valley is named for the old mining cable that hangs a couple hundred feet off the ground stretches across the entire valley – It’s a wild sight!  We skinned up the valley and climbed up the SE gully to access the bump just below the summit of Gold Cord.  We scoped the run off the north side of Gold Cord (which Sam and Jessie call “Pine Martin Express”) and then skied back into the valley.  From there we climbed up the east side of the valley and skied a gully dropping east into Pinnacle  Valley.  A great tour that takes you to multiple cool places – with the option to drop steeper or easier runs depending on conditions.

Todd up Cable Valley

Anthony Larson down Cable Valley

Ron Polk up the run behind Cable Valley / above Dogsled Pass

How would the proposal impact this tour?  Gold Cord and Cable Valley sit right above Dogsled Pass.  From the top of Gold Cord you can ski a north aspect (Pine Martin Express) and be right at Dogsled Pass.  From there you can ski back up Friendship Pass and be back in the Independence Mine area within half an hour.  This is a zone that is very very accessible – and you look right down at where the helicopter would land. To stress a point I’ve already made – there are multiple areas where helicopter skiing and snowcat skiing can exist without user conflicts –this is not one of those areas. Another thing to note is that the base of Gold Cord is private property.  If public access to this zone was ever blocked users would be forced to recreate in the same area as the proposal.

Dan Bailey up Friendship Pass. Note the snowmachine tracks. Dogsled Pass is directly below and can be reached within 2 hours of easy touring by foot.

Fairangle Loop

This is a tour I’ve done a couple of times where you ski up Pinnacle Valley and then cut through a notch to gain Fairangel valley via a fun gully. The first time I did this tour we kicked off a decent slab while dropping in Fairangle.  The other times I’ve been back there we’ve had perfect powder top to bottom.  The tour starts from the Independence Mine lot and then tours up towards Pinnacle via the Rock Garden.  Then you tour all the way to the back of the valley and ascend to the col between Cable Valley and Fairangle Peak.  An exposed 100’ traverse takes you to a small notch beneath a rock wall.  Drop the into the valley and look for other runs that look great.  Get home by either skiing all the way out Archangel Road (which is a really fun tour) or climb back up to the notch and ski out Pinnacle Valley.

Stephanie Birdsall overlooking Dogsled Pass. Note the snowmachine tracks.

Anthony down Fairangel Gully.

Anthony Larson & Cathy Flanagan up a steep couloir in Fairangel.

The two recent times I was back there we skied the Fairangle gully and then skied a run dropping back towards Dogsled Pass and another time attempted a really steep skinny couloir by Fairangel.  This steep couloir didn’t quite go as planned which resulted in side-slipping, downclimbing and a fall (but that’s another story).

How would the proposal impact this tour?  Again – this zone sits right above Dogsled Pass.  The northwest run we skied from the Fairangle notch dumped us within 10 minutes of Dogsled Pass.  While traversing over to the notch you would be looking at (and listening to) the heli-operation.  Furthermore – the zone right below Fairangle is always tracked up by snowmachines. How a snowcat / heli operation could mitigate conflicts in a super accessible and busy zone is beyond me.

Anthony above Fairangle Valley.

That should give you an idea of impacts of this proposal. Download the GPX for these routes and go take a look for yourself.  For names of ski runs and peaks in the region download this GPX so you can familiarize yourself with the names of where you are / where you’ve been.

Before you comment familiarize yourself with the 2010 Hatcher Pass Management Plan. Remember, in your comments, to  carefully specify drainages, peaks, ridges and slopes adjacent to the units closed to motorized recreational access year-round you wish to have removed from the proposed area of operations. Note that the Hatcher Pass Management Plan designates the west side management units such as Craigie Creek and Willow Mountain to allow off-road recreational vehicle use.

Things to note in your comments:

  • Helicopters, snowcats, skiers and snowmachiners cannot safely operate in such a small zone that is already crowded. This zone it is way too busy and there are thousands and thousands of areas where they can go where user conflicts would not be an issue.
  • Bullion Mountain is an incredible accessible and crowded zone with Hatcher Pass. Helicopter skiing in this zone is a public safety hazard and should not be allowed.
  • Helicopters should not be allowed to land in other areas that already see lots of traffic. Summit Lake, Granite Mountain, Black Prospect and Dogsled Pass are already crowded as is.  Adding a commercial operation to a crowded zone is a safety hazard.
  • Be sure to specify drainages, peaks, slopes and ridges adjacent to the closed units of Government Peak and Independence Management Units that you wish to be removed from the proposed permit boundary; e.g. Hatch Peak, Skyscraper Mountain (all aspects), Granite Mountain (all aspects) and northerly aspects of ridge line at the heads of Gold Cord Valley and Pinnacle Valley.
  • Note that many of the zones that users currently recreate in are on private property. If public access to these zones is ever blocked users will be forced to recreate in the same zones that this proposal is seeking access to.
  • Avalanche specialist will want to point out that none of the guides listed in the proposal are certified ave pro. As noted by AMGA guide Nick D’Alessio, “Guides need to have Professional avalanche certification (Pro 1, Pro 2). Recreational level avalanche courses do not certify and are unfit for somebody in a paid position in the mountains. Ideally, like the rest of the mountain guiding world you would need training, examination and certification from the AMGA/IFMGA.”
  • Consider reiterating that you are not anti-motors.  We all use motors to access skiing – we just want defined boundaries. If this proposal was pushed  just one ridge further W of Craigie Creek it would minimize 80% of the potential user conflicts. Most of us do not have issues with cat skiers or heli skiers – as long as they make efforts to minimize noise and conflicts.   This proposal appears to be focused primarily on making money in the hopes that by offering cheaper flights they can book a niche market.  Reducing user conflicts seems pretty low on their list.

The comment deadline is May 2nd.  Please email comments to jay.rokos@alaska.gov.

For more information check out these news articles

Hatcher Pass heli-skiing proposal under review by Casey Grove, Alaska Public Media.
Plan would bring snowcat and helicopter skiing to Hatcher Pass for the first time in years by Alex DeMarban, Anchorage Daily News.

Download LAS 32622 Proposal