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Hatcher Pass Snowcat Operation

1990s

Name of Ski Area: Hatcher Pass, name of snowcat operation: Glacier Snowcat Skiing and Tours
Location: Palmer, on mountains in the Hatcher Pass area, operations based at the Motherlode Lodge on the Hatcher Pass Road.
Type of Area: Ski-able mountain slopes
Dates of Operation: 1990s
Who Built It?: The owner of Glacier Snowcat Skiing and Tours was Chris Nettles
Base/ Vertical Drop:

Base: ~1700' / Vertical: Up to ~3000'

Lifts: Snowcat
Facilities: The Motherlode Lodge
Miscellaneous: Parties at the Motherlode Lodge where skis were burned in huge bonfires as offerings to Ullr, the god of snow.  Russ Gregston was a Snowcat driver for this operation.  Katie Palmer and Jay Bennett worked as guides.
Sources of Information:

Tim Kelley; Russ Gregston; Katie Palmer; Lynn Noel

Photos: Does anyone have pictures of Glacier Snowcat Skiing that they would like to contribute to ALSAP ?

~  Photos  ~

1995 Glacier Snowcat Operation Pictures Courtesy of Lynn Noel

   

 

1992 Glacier Snowcat Operation Pictures Courtesy of Russ Gregston

    Snowcat can be seen in the distance, above the helmet of the man on the right.  Katie Palmer in center.

~  Maps  ~

This large scale topo shows where the Motherlode Lodge (formerly the Little Susitna Roadhouse) and Hatcher Pass is located relative to Palmer and Wasilla.

(click on this map to expand it)

topo_hatcherpass.jpg (145230 bytes)

A zoomed in topo view shows the areas around the Mother Lode Lodge.  Depending on snow conditions various slopes to the north, west and southwest of the lodge would be used for the snowcat operations.

(click on this map to expand it)

topo_zoom_hatcherpass.jpg (182099 bytes)

Research Correspondence 

[Katie Palmer - 30 June 2016 email] 

My name is Katie Palmer. I was a guide for Glacier Snowcat and want to set the record straight.

Russ Gregston was one of our drivers and the best for sure but the cat would of never moved without our head guide, who's hard work and efforts were constant. His name is Jay Bennett and it's pretty much BS that Russ didn't even name us considering he slept at our house and ate our food for many seasons. I am the woman in the picture. There is no picture of Jay I'll send you a couple soon if you would be so kind as to add them. Jay was also on several safety teams in Thompson Pass back in the extremes and King of the hill days and is an all around great guy. The cat is parked in his driveway to this day as he was one of the owners....

[Lynn Noel - 4 March 2019 email] 

Had some amazing times with Chris, Kate, Jay, Rick, Jeff, and so many others in Valdez and Hatcher Pass. Fun times with some really amazing people. I got hooked and moved to Alaska and most likely would still be there if not for family matters in the lower 48. Some day.  I worked for WESC, the Valdez Chamber and taught at the college in Valdez and Copper Center. Also lived on Raspberry Island. Fun times. CHEERS.

 

Glacier Snowcat.

My first time meting Chris, Jay and Kat was in 1995 in Wasilla, Ak. We were preparing to head to Valdez, Alaska and Thompson Pass to explore the Chugach Mountains via snowcat with a big crew of folks from Alaska, Valdez and the lower 48.

Gear all loaded we headed out for Thompson Pass to unload and begin our adventures. As I remember it was an epic evening. Full Moon, Northern lights were ripping and Hale–Bopp comet was discovered on July 23, 1995 was ripping across the sky. It was a bit windy also. Blowing in excess of 60 mph.

We spend most of the night unloading Snowcats and getting them tracked and other gear sorted out for the trip. I was working for a company in Seattle at the time called MountainZone.com and was writing and documenting the trip posting nearly live video and reports on the internet when we could get online.

We had some issues in town, typical Alaska, but managed to get out on our way to the Books. An Extreme Ski Library with snowier, steeper faces then anywhere else in the world.

Measurements in Thompson Pass, Alaska, show that an astounding 83 inches of snow fell over three days, with 52 inches piling up in the first 24 hours. Thus making this some of the most intense snowfall ever recorded on the planet.

We soon got a taste of the Cold Smoke as it blew in the open window of the snowcat as the cat was enveloped in a avalanche in a narrow chute. I believe it was Todd Jones at the helm at this time and one other passenger was with us. We managed to get out of the Avalanche quickly, checked our pants and continued on our journey.

We were basically the Probes. Route finding and marking the trail with long poles we cut the day before. It times it was a bit sketchy. Ben and I got out a couple of times, put on our Tele gear and tied ourselves to the plow of the snowcat.

One-Hundred feet in front of the Cat, Ben and I were probing for crevasses. It was ok if we dropped in as we were tied to the Cat, but if the Cat fell in, then we’d have problems.

We made it the our first Base Camp just below the Books. Words can’t explain the gravity of the situation. This is definitely some of the steepest and most extreme tertian I’d ever seen. I was speechless. I just couldn’t process it all.

We got camp set up and headed back to town. The next day we headed back out with more folks, supplies and SnowCats. One Cat was towing a hood I grabbed in town off a Cadillac. We converted it into a pull being sled for the Cat.

We had all kinds of gear in the sled including a 400lb BBQ I brought with me from the lower 48. It was quite the BBQ machine and very capable of feeding our crew.  It even had a warming table built in.

Camp set up. I’d have to say the most impressive camp was Jay and Kate’s snow cave. Jay and Kate are some very unique folks. Truly Alaskan’s in every way. Talented, warm hearted, and very skilled folks when it comes to living in AK.

Their snow cave had three rooms, with queen beds covered in Elk hides, seats carved into the walls and a table with benches. Hell they even had Ice windows. Ice Elegance on the edge of the world.

Other encampments included tents and a few small snow caves. We’d made a berm of snow to add a bit of shelter from the winds, but that became a problem. More on that in a minute. 

Several folks stayed in camp and the rest of the crew with all of the Snowcats headed back into town for more gear and he rest of the crew. I filed my first reports with MountainZone. They could not believe what they were seeing, neither could we.

We were not the first to explore the Books by a long shot. Pioneers like Doug and Emile Coombs and Valdez Locals like John  Tol and his son Jessie Tol and Chet Simmons, were some of the first explorers I got to meet, know and call friends.

John Tol was the first person I met in Valdez. I was walking into town from 10 mile. It was blistering cold and blowing so hard I could have sailed into town if the ice were more smooth. Along comes this red Saab and my hero John. He opens the door and I jump into a warm, HEATED SEAT, get a cup of coffee and a rollie stuffed in my hands. Was sorry to hear his son Jessie died in a avalanche while John could only watch and film.

Back in town. Valdez. We had some more organizing to do and it looked like the weather was going to be closing in. Snow, wind and Blizzard conditions. This was not good. We needed to get into camp and get our folks out before the storm.

Everyone was scrambling. I headed off with new friend Van Kitagawa who lived in Valdez wife. He was from Hawaii and we hit it right off bot being Ohana. We were headed up to Thompson Pass to get my Teepee. I woke the day before in the Tepee covered in snow on the inside of the tent because a vent was left open. It was quite shocking to poke my head out in the morning only to find myself and Ben buried in two feet of Cold Smoke.

I hoped my tent was not totally buried.It was and we spend a couple of hours digging it and the gear out before heading back into town. We arrived back in town and went to the hotel to check on the other crew. We found several of them having an argument with one of the snowcat owners from the lower 48. He was not going to let alone take his snowcats into the mountains in the conditions.

As is in Alaska. Some folks get tied up, keys taken from them and folks get to helping their friends. Within minutes, we headed out. We had to hurry before someone got untied. We got the snowcats filled and headed up the pass. It was a whiteout and the snow was coming down hard and fast.

We unloaded and got on the trail. Into that same avalanche chute, again it got a little dicy and icy. Visibility was a real issue.Finding our trail was impossible, the snow and wind had completely obliterated all traces of our previous tracks and the 15 foot poles we place as markers when we could find them were  one to two feet above the ground.

It took the better part of 6 hours t make it to camp. We thought we were getting close, but it was hard to tell. Then all of a sudden we see a figure popping up out of the snow. It was Jay. He was waving at us to stop. Turn out we were nearly onto of his snow cave.

The weather subsided and the clouds broke. Our camp was gone. It had been completely filled in by drifting snow, but all three of the folks that remained in camp were accounted for and in good health.

They did have some scary stories to tell. Turns out Jy and Kate had to dig out of their cave, nearly filling it with the snow they were digging out of the entrance of the cave. It took several hours. The third member of the party was no where to be found when Jaya and Kate dug out so they spent the next 20 minutes of so frantically probing for their friend.

Thankfully that found him and dug him out, shaken, clod and a bit blue from lack of oxygen. It was a close call for sure. As a group we spent the rest of the day unburying the the camp, getting a fire and dinner going before heading to bed exhausted.

The next day…. BLUE BIRD, Cold Freshies and we were on it. It was definitely my first time tele skiing in such extreme places. I took it easy and skied with Chris Nettles the owner of Glacier Snowcat most of the day. WOW…. EPIC… Be still my beating tele-heart. I was in heaven.

Back in town, I filed my reports, videos and pictures with MountainZone. The thing you have to remember is we were doing all this with 128K upload speeds. Way before YouTube, InstaGram or Social Media every existed. Truly amazing from a technical standpoint and literally hour of waiting for the fucking ball to move. YOU GOT MAIL!

I was back to Seattle, but as fate would have it I was back in aValdez and Alaska for my first WESC.( Now called TailGate Alaska)  The World Extreme Skiing Championships on Thompson Pass and two side noted. The forth Snowboard King of the Hill and the Ice Climbing Festival. It was a winter wonderland for sure.

I’ll have to say, push of the event was a blur. The party scene on Thompson Pass and is insane. Kind of like a Dead Concert parking lot scene. So much fun and mayhem. You must go.

Wanna ride. Grab a rope hanging off the back of any SnowGO. (Snow machine) and hang on as long as you can. If your luck you’ll make it to the top of Thompson Pass and onto runs named. Odessy, School Bus, Vertigo Shack, Nicks, Python and Cracked Ice to name a few.

THE FIRST TELEVISED EXTREME SKI COMPETITION

 

 

Do you have further information, stories or pictures that you would like to contribute about this ski area?