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Outdoors/Adventure

State approves permit for Hatcher Pass snowcat and helicopter skiing

Opponents of the plan are concerned the the move will increase avalanche danger, pollution and noise in the area.

Alaska regulators this winter will allow a company to haul skiers onto Hatcher Pass slopes by snowcat and helicopter, the first time in years such operations have been approved.

Hatcher Pass Mountain Guides could begin shuttling customers in December once the state determines there is sufficient snow cover and frost depth to protect vegetation, according to the permit approved last week by the state Department of Natural Resources. This season’s permit lasts until May 31.

Adam Cuthriell, one of the company’s founders and a mountain guide, said Monday that the next step will be marketing trips.

“All the folks I know in the ski community are stoked,” Cuthriell said.

Cat-skiing and heli-skiing operations

But some in the outdoors community have pushed back against the plan. Opponents have expressed concerns about increased avalanche danger, pollution and noise for winter enthusiasts exploring the increasingly popular area in the Talkeetna Mountains northwest of Palmer. State officials in April extended a public comment period from two weeks to a full month

Toby Schwoerer, a longtime backcountry skier in the area, said he thinks the plan will lead to more user conflicts, with some skiers and snowboarders crowded out of areas.

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“It’s disappointing,” he said of the permit.

Cuthriell and his business partners have said their goal is taking skiers to isolated areas, and that they will operate safely.

Bryce Dean, one of the owners of Willow Creek Resort, stands next to a snowcat that he plans to use for ski operations in Hatcher Pass next winter, on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Public access should only be minimally impacted, according to permit-related documents from the state. The company will primarily operate in the less-busy Willow side of the Hatcher Pass area.

The helicopter and snowcat will not be allowed to operate in non-motorized areas, the state said.

The snowcat will pick up skiers and snowboarders along Fishhook Willow Road, including near Hatcher Pass Lodge, and transport them away from busy areas, Cuthriell said in April.

The helicopter will “never operate on the Palmer side of (Hatcher) pass,” where it is more crowded, "or near the parking lot areas,” the application said. The helicopter would pick up snowcat customers, two at a time, who pay extra to reach more remote terrain.

If the company complies with requirements and no other issues arise, the permit will be extended for up to four more years without public notice, state documents say.

People familiar with the area say snowcat-skiing has not occurred in Hatcher Pass in more than a decade. A heli-skiing operation hasn’t operated there in more than 30 years.