Late winter leaves skiers few options

Posted: Friday, November 15, 2002

HATCHER PASS, Alaska -- A kind description for the snow here 3,500 feet high in the Talkeetna Mountains would be ''springlike crust.''

That is, at least, what Anchorage's Tim Kelley calls it. Kelley is a 40-something Nordic skier competitive on the international level.

Skiers of lesser abilities might not describe the snow the same way.

''Crusty and icy and rocky'' is the description Texan Lloyd Taylor uses.

The Taylors, Lloyd and his wife, Geneva, are the winter caretakers for Independence Mine State Historic Park just below Gold Cord at the head of the basin north of the Hatcher Pass Lodge.

''We went out on the parking lot and went ice skating on our skis,'' Lloyd said Tuesday.

That was enough. They quickly put the skis away for the day.

The Taylors never made it the couple hundred feet or so from the Independence parking lot up to this tiny basin where the Alaska Pacific University Nordic ski team has groomed a serpentine loop for cross-country skiers.

Classical tracks frozen solid attest to the fact that the snow was softer earlier this month. Now there's barely enough for skate-skiers.

And on Tuesday there were no skiers at all.

Some snow-starved skiers have driven up from Anchorage and Palmer on weekends to sample the tiny loop, Lloyd said. More common have been teenage snowboarders weaving routes between the boulders from the Gold Cord down to Independence Mine.

About half a dozen of those boarders showed up after school Tuesday. They packed their boards from Independence Mine up to Gold Cord, tried a couple of runs and quit well before dark.

The consensus: very hard snow.

More than a few skiers have reached the same conclusion in recent days, said Hap Wurlitzer at the Hatcher Pass Lodge. He's seen them come walking down the icy Independence Mine Road to the lodge carrying their skis, afraid of killing themselves trying to ski the slick surface.

There is so little snow that the road from the lodge to Independence Mine remains open to cars. The gate that normally closes the road above the lodge's parking lot has been swung wide open. But the drive requires caution. The road is an ice rink. Four-wheel drive, studded tires or both are a good idea for anyone driving to the Independence Mine parking lot.

Many Alaskans did just that last weekend, Lloyd said. They came searching for a winter that had yet to arrive.

''On Saturday, there was over 40 cars in the parking lot down here,'' he said.

On that day a week ago, the temperature was well above freezing and the snow was soft. That made skiing and the snowboarding attractive.

Who knows what conditions might be like today. Temperatures have been up and down, according to Wurlitzer.

''A month ago,'' he said, ''I got my snowmachine out of storage at Independence Mine and drove it down here'' to the lodge. There was 2 feet of snow then. Wurlitzer figured the ski season was close.

It wasn't. Warm weather and rain followed.

Nearly all of the snow around the lodge washed away. Most of the snow above the lodge got wet and heavy, then froze.

''It's kind of unusual,'' Wurlitzer said. He has been at the lodge since 1963, almost 40 years.

''I do recall a year in November when it was so cold with no snow,'' he said. ''I don't know that you can't say this hasn't happened before.''

It just doesn't happen often.

No doubt it's unusual to take a November drive past a golf course with golfers still out. And it is equally unusual for November to include an ice-free Little Susitna River, which parallels the drive to Mother Lode Lodge. And it is even more unusual to follow a snowless and unfrozen gravel road from the Mother Lode and up through gray, leafless alders toward an almost snowless Hatcher Pass high above.

Getting to the snow resembled driving from the brown Great Plains into the snowy Rocky Mountains. But if you went high enough, there was snow.

There was even spindrift moving in the wind above the Talkeetna ridge tops on Tuesday. Of course, the wind doing this was a Chinook that drove the temperature at the Hatcher Pass Lodge up to 40. In these conditions, one thin layer of polypropylene provided more than enough warmth for some 10- to 15-minute, skate-ski loops around the tiny APU circuit.

The National Weather Service predicts temperatures will drop this weekend to normal levels.

For Wurlitzer, that can't happen soon enough. The lodge was full last weekend, he said, but you can't expect skiers to keep coming if skiing deteriorates.

Skiers simply don't seem quite as devoted as teenage snowboarders, who will settle for almost any surface on which they can slide.

''It's fascinating, the kids who come up,'' Lloyd Taylor said. ''These are not couch-potato kids.'' Many of them will walk a long way to get a short ride back downhill.

And at the moment, this is the only game around.

The snow here might not be great, but at least it's snow.

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