Hatcher Pass heli-skiing proposal under review

Hatcher Pass and the historic Independence Mine site. (Photo courtesy Casey Grove)

Three Willow-based entrepreneurs want to operate a commercial snowcat-and-helicopter skiing operation in Hatcher Pass.

The mountainous recreation area sits between Willow and Palmer in the Talkeetna Mountains and hosts all sorts of other winter activities, like backcountry skiing, snowboarding and snowmachining.

Adam Cuthriell is a mountain and fishing guide who teamed up with two snowcat operators, Farley and Bryce Dean, to form Hatcher Pass Mountain Guides. They’re applying for a permit from the state, which is up for public comment. They aim to bring affordable heli-skiing to Hatcher Pass, Cuthriell said.

“The heli-skiing is an awesome experience, but typically high-dollar trips, and most ski bums really can’t swing that for a day,” Cuthriell said.

They want to take clients via snowcat to areas farther away from other recreationalists, and then fly a helicopter to more challenging peaks, Cuthriell said. He said this would be on the Willow side of the pass, away from most others using the Palmer side of the pass.

And it would be cheaper than other heli-skiing, Cuthriell said, because a group of skiers or snowboarders can get into the backcountry in the snowcat and then split into pairs to take turns in the helicopter. He said they can use a Robinson R-44 helicopter to make each short trip, often called a “heli-bump.”

“So by kind of mixing the two, you get kind of get the best of both worlds with a significantly lower price point than most conventional heli-ski and snowboard operations,” Cuthriell said.

Critics of the proposal by Hatcher Pass Mountain Guides say it’s not the right place for such an operation, as there are already many other users in the mountains, more than most other heli-skiing zones because of the maintained road into the pass.

But Cuthriell said there’s been some misunderstanding from a map put out by the state Department of Natural Resources showing the operation’s proposed boundary area, and confusion about where Hatcher Pass Mountain guides plans to actually fly and land the helicopter, versus where they will drive the snowcat.

Cuthriell said there are obvious reasons any commercial, guided skiing operation would want to stay away from other users, like skiers and snowboarders.

“If you have paying clients, you don’t want to be selling this notion of a backcountry experience to have a bunch of people touring right up next to you or a bunch of guys and gals on snowmachines ripping by,” Cuthriell said. “There’s always some overlap, but that’s not good for the paying clients, or for the public, or just the general backcountry experience.”

That backcountry experience at Hatcher Pass, and the quiet, are what some worry will be ruined by having a helicopter buzzing overhead.

And it’s not just the noise, said Nick D’Alessio, a professional ski guide and mountain safety instructor, and a frequent user of Hatcher Pass.

D’Alessio’s concerns include questions about whether landing the helicopter above others might create a risky situation, or whether the R-44 helicopter is actually safe for landing atop mountains in windy conditions. The R-44 is smaller and less-powerful than the Eurocopter choppers more typically used for heli-skiing.

D’Alessio said while Hatcher Pass Mountain Guides can claim they don’t intend to fly or land in certain areas but the proposed boundary map still gives them access to areas on the Palmer side.

“The entire area of the map is unfit for an operation like this,” he said. “To me it doesn’t really matter specifically how they’re going to operate. Generally speaking, trying to have a helicopter in that area is not going to be a good idea, and it’s going result in a lot of very, very pissed off people. It’s just a really dumb idea.”

The permit application to the state Department of Natural Resources is up for public comment until May 2. The proposed boundary map and more information are available on the DNR website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect an extended public comment period.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

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