Dawn Patrol at Squaw Valley: As close to heli skiing as I’ve ever experienced in a resort
The term ‘Dawn Patrol’ originally referred to surfer’s getting up extremely early - sometimes before sunrise (i.e, "dawn") to go surfing, a time when the waves are their purest, unaffected by wind, and when according to surfers, it feels most spiritual to surf. Surfing and skiing of course share many parallels (and enthusiasts). But for me, it was the the application of the concept to an early morning in the mountains that made for an extra special experience one February morning last winter. Reminiscent of a heli ski day, as close as I’m ever likely to experience in a resort.
Squaw Valley, in Northern Californian hosted the 1968 Olympics and is also famously known for being home to some of the best pro skiers on the planet- (Shane McKonkey, Kent Kreitler and other ‘soul’ skiers’ but more on that in another post).
Squaw followed suit of some other famous North American resorts and launched a Dawn Patrol programme. A select small group of skiers and boarders can ride the lifts 1 or 2 hours early, allowing them to ski the mountain in it’s most pristine state- either freshly groomed groomers, or powder laden off piste slopes first.
It seemed like it was the resort’s best kept secret- You have to book by the evening before, and the spots are limited. It’s free or discounted to season pass holders. You then have to turn up to the bottom of the tram at barely sunrise, line up with the other eager beavers, and the journey up makes for some spectacular sunrise colours on the mountains.
The key to dawn patrol is to pick the day that is most likely to have received fresh snow, followed by adequate time for the Ski Patrol to have performed their avalanche bombing duties so that they can open the lifts with virgin powder. If you can get that day, then you are GOLDEN! You’ll probably be able to get in about 6-12 runs (yes, reminiscent of a Heliski day) in those couple of hours.
If you are REALLY LUCKY- you’ll capture multiple runs with fresh tracks like we did. How? We managed to complete a run just about 10 mins before they opened the Granite Chief lift. We managed to then be in the first 6 to 10 chairs or so, and I noticed that everyone had been skiing off the skiers left side. There were some ropes on the right hand side, it sort of looked like it was closed. But on my further investigation once I got off the lift, I discovered that the skiers right side was in fact open. And I had the most pure, deep, virgin, serene moments as I skied hard right, the steeps off the chair down into the knoll under the lift pylon and then into the trees with pure first tracks and then further down as if it was me, my mates, and my guide heli skiing in Canada. Of course by this time the whole lift carriage saw me. I knew the next run would not be the same. However, suffice to say, since they limit the number of skiers to this programme, I am pleased to say that I was able to enjoy several more Heliski-esque runs on that chair before the masses arrived at around 930 that morning (and proceeded to ski it out). My friend Hutch was equally stoked. At just $29 for the experience (2 free for Gold Season Pass holders), it’s definitely the best value pure powder day money can buy for sure.
After we’d done the same as a normal day by 1030 am, we ventured into the mountain restaurant for some well earned hot breakfast, grinning ear to ear, and wondering why we don’t get up earlier to ski on normal days. I guess the thing is, that by definition, Dawn Patrol, can never be a normal day. And as the old saying goes- you snooze, you lose!