Hatcher Passion

I first came to Hatcher Pass near Palmer Alaska on a film project I had set up with my media cooperative company, Vertical Integration, about a decade ago. Jon Gurry, Dave Magoffin and I had organized a trip to film for Telemark Skier Magazine's (TSM) annual movie. We invited two young chargers Spencer Jonas and Andrew Schauer. Cody Smith came as the principle cinematographer for TSM. At that point Vertical Integration had become a driving force in the background behind a lot of the telemark industry's media in film, photography, and writing. After years working in Valdez Alaska utilizing helicopters I decided to embark on a different kind of trip utilizing human power and some snowmobile assisted access with the Vertical Integration crew in the Chugach around Girdwood and the Talkeetna Range near Palmer. Jon Gurry had moved to Palmer, and Dave Magoffin was based in Girdwood. The two locations allowed for flexibility of different weather patterns, access to a resort in Alyeska, and a plethora of human power and snowmobile assisted access. Leaving the helicopters out of the equation opened budget space as well as opportunity to build content regardless of weather. We shot under this program for two projects in subsequent years yielding countless content streams for Telemark Skier Magazine's pages, social media, and annual movie. After these projects I had not returned for years as I retired from athlete work to become a backcountry ski guide. Now in my last stages of the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) ski guide track I needed to chase some bigger lines and some glacier experience. I thought there would be no better way to do so than to go back to the backyard of my long time touring partner, Jon Gurry, in the Talkeetna Range. 

From Jon's home in Palmer Alaska the grandeur of the surrounding peaks is evident right outside his door. The zone generally known as Hatcher Pass was one of our most successful zones when we were shooting for our projects all those years ago by the time I returned this particular spring. I had come back training for my last course in the AMGA ski guide track leading into the final exam. As a prerequisite I need to ski ten ski mountaineering lines with five on glaciated terrain. Ski mountaineering is not my strongest skill set as I have been a classic powder hunter ski guide in Utah the last decade simply helping clients find the best snow and teaching avalanche and backcountry skiing courses with Weber State University in Ogden Utah. In deciding to join the AMGA, as it became evident to me that the AMGA is becoming the defacto union for ski guides in the near future, I have had to increase my proficiency in climbing and ski mountaineering to complete their certification for AMGA Ski Guide. Despite my lack of desire to guide ski mountaineering objectives as I am already a fully booked full-time ski guide I have been committed to obtaining a basic skill set in ski mountaineering in order to complete the AMGA track. My old touring partner and comrade in Vertical Integrations media projects Jon Gurry has also been dabbling in the ski mountaineering craft as well. So I reached out to Jon as the Talkeetna Range seemed like a great place to chase down some lines to continue to increase my proficiency in ski mountaineering and begin to gain some glacier experience as well. 

By the time I showed up to Jon's house I had been through a record breaking snowfall winter in Utah leaving me with a spring ski mountaineering season that never took shape in Utah by the time I was scheduled to depart for Alaska. Ironically the day I showed up I seemingly brought the snowfall with me resulting in 16-24 inches of new snow in the higher elevations and some rampant avalanche problems in the Talkeetnas. 

As a result, Jon and I spent our first week scouting low elevation sheltered low angle skiing. I knew this would foil my efforts to get in as many ski mountaineering lines as I had hoped, but mother nature rules the game so we take what she gives us. That is rule number one in the mountains. We're not in charge. I was pleased to find some good low angle powder skiing though because if I ever do decide to host any guided ski trips in the area it is always key to have some good skiing for situations exactly like we found ourselves.  

Even the meadow skipping here has grand views though. 

The powder skiing was damn good too. I will never complain about good powder skiing either that is for sure. 

Eventually the sun came out and I was able to start to get my feet wet in the zone around Hatcher Pass as the avalanche problems began to run their course and heal out. I had a solo day touring around some simpler terrain and getting reacquainted with Hatcher Pass again after all these years. 

This view still gets me the same it did all those years ago. The zone has seemingly gained more popularity as people ascended on the terrain in greater numbers than I was used to seeing a decade ago, but as the local community and backcountry skiing in general grows it is no surprise. Just like most mountain towns around the world, this one is growing too. Through the day I covered a lot of ground to scout some potential lines for Jon and I to attempt when his schedule opened up and the snowpack settled in. 

Jon and I began our efforts ascending up into the canyon above Hatcher Pass towards a pair of classic couloirs in the zone named, the Lost & Found Couloirs. 

The bulk of the mileage is on skins getting up underneath the couloirs and the views along the way are equally up lifting.

In this picture above Jon ascends with the Lost Couloir and the Found Couloir looming in the background. 

Both objectives require some significant boot packing and then some moderate rock scrambling to get to the top. Nothing that we felt the need to rope up for, but since it was both of our first time in the couloirs I had one in the pack just in case. 

I had to cut through the cornice atop the Lost Coulior as it got rather steep at the top and even the smallest section of cornice required me to cut my way through it to hit the ridge. This picture above gives a little perspective of the exposure we ascended through. 

The ridge views were simply breathtaking. It felt good to be back in the higher elevations after a week of low angle and low elevation relegation. Jon and I moved pretty well together despite the latest years of minimal touring together. There was a time we explored mountain ranges around the world together year in and year out. That kind of comfort and familiarity does not subside much and comes back pretty quickly once put back into practice. 

Familiar faces, familiar spaces.

Jon slaying in the Found Couloir. 

Successful tracks, up and down.

The Hatcher Pass Lodge has reopened in recent years and was a perfect spot for Jon and I to celebrate finally chasing down a couple worthy objectives. 

Once again, the views provide good vibes and a cold beer even more so. 

With basically zero glacier experience I wanted to start simple with a trek to the Snowbird Glacier and an American Alpine Hut at its toe. This seemed like an ideal first exposure to glacial travel for me as it fills in rather well and lends itself to someone like me beginning to cut my teeth on a glacier. The trek out comes up an adjacent canyon to the Hatcher Pass zone in an area known as Arch Angel. There is snowmobile access below, but Jon and I went in straight human power. After getting sidelined for the whole first week with the weather the window to be out on the glacier got cut down to just an overnighter. We hiked about 6 hours to pop over the pass and down onto the Snowbird Glacier and the Hut. 

The Hut and the Glacier in the background.

It is a public hut so you never really know who or how many folks you'll be joining there and to our delight there were just two really nice guys on their second night. It was nice to have some conversation beyond ourselves and their beta on conditions was really helpful. 

Jon out the window catching some photos in the evening light before dinner. Jon was the photographer for Vertical Integration all those years in our glory days. We had a unique system at the time where we were all a group of athletes with additional talents that we brought together to achieve our media prowess. I was the business manager and could run a film camera pretty well, Zach Houston was the musical aficionado and the best natural talent skier I had ever skied with, and Ben Geiger was our director of stoke and could ski like the wind. Dave Magoffin came on with us in the later years adding another great skier and snowmobiler who could run a video camera. Throughout the trip I was feeling the nostalgia being in these mountains with Jon from those glory days when we were pushing our boundaries and traveling around the world on skis. A few years ago Ben died of a heart attack and I could not help but think of him and how much he'd have loves this trip. 

From the hut the views gave us a glimpse even deeper into the Talkeetna Range. The expanse of it all is overwhelming at times. I was fighting emotions of the end of a long winter missing my family. Feeling the depth of where we were exasperated those feelings of separation from them. It was hard for me to choke down at times. It seems when I get that way and into deeper remoteness it grows even more. Jon could tell my plight and was super helpful in keeping me motivated and on track to check some objectives off my list. 

The next morning I snapped this picture of my Voile V6 BC skis resting on the porch of the hut with our day's objective behind it in Yisbo Peak. The sun had begun doing its spring time work so we were unsure if the snowpack would hold up for us as the temperatures rose throughout the day. We got an early start to be sure, and it played into our favor to do so. We crossed the glacier and skied a beauty down the most prominent couloir off the looker's left side of the peak. 

With that my time had come to an end and we crossed the glacier back to the pass and home to Palmer. I did not get to accomplish as much as I had hoped from the perspective of the amount of lines I wanted to ski or glacier time. However, I did get some good work done and got more familiar in the zones I plan to utilize more in the future to keep the momentum rolling towards the finish line of my goal to complete the AMGA track. I had some great times with my old friend Jon as well. Jon and his family showed me wonderful hospitality. I am always so grateful for all the people like them that aide my journeys through these winter wonderland experiences. I would not be able to do this work without so many like them. 

My flight back home to Wisconsin marked the end of my winter and another successful season of doing my dream job in all these crazy mountain ranges across the globe. This sunrise atop the clouds as I flew into my hometown from a red eye over night pair of flights from Alaska felt like a fitting metaphor for the dawn of another seasonal transition. Each spring I transition my work with the seasons to summer endeavors building trails and I was really looking forward to some quality time with my wife and kids after spending so much time away from them in my winter travels. It is really hard for me to be away from them so much, but I can't seem to bring myself to do any other work than what I am. I still feel like I have been given a gift from the universe to be able to do my dream job. I hope it serves as an example to my kids that we really can follow our dreams to do anything we put our minds to. It has not always been easy, and I have had my doubts and sacrifices along the way. However, any time I find myself in quiet moments like the airplane seat at sunrise I know I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing.