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Dawn of the Dawn Patrol

Skiing in the dark is hardly a new idea.

In the Pacific Northwest, night skiing at the resorts—in the rain, no less—can almost be as crowded as skiing during the day. As a means of approach, climbers have been getting “alpine starts” at midnight and skinning through the dark to ensure they beat the sun to their climbing objectives for generations. Avalanche forecasters and snow safety patrollers routinely start work hours before sunrise and the crowds show up. And of course, there is always the most popular form of skiing in the dark—by accidentally getting lost in the mountains and ending up benighted.

Early ski start

Craig Hatton in the dark.

In the central Wasatch however, skiing in the dark has taken on a life of its own and almost become an industry. Known as “dawn patrolling,” or DP’ing, the basic idea is to wake up early, meet a friend/friends at the parking lot, drive up a canyon, skin up by headlamp, ski down at first light and then reverse the route back to your desk at work. The popularity of this activity in the Salt Lake Valley is made possible by easy and immediate access to the backcountry and our world-famous minuscule approaches where you can start skinning uphill right from your parking spot and then finish the run by skiing directly into the back of your pickup truck bed. While DP’ing is popular in many areas, in the Wasatch Front entire trailheads can be full at 5:00 a.m. on certain days.

Another contributing factor to dawn patrolling’s rise in popularity is the huge advances which have been made in headlamps since about 2000. In the early 1990s the state-of-the-art headlamp was a Petzl Zoom, which used pricey Duracell “brick” batteries to power a doily little incandescent bulb. The effective range was about 20 feet, which made navigation hard and skiing even harder as you could easily outrun your beam and plow straight into a tree or snowbank. At best, you might get two outings per $9.00 brick battery, and stopping mid climb to swap out batteries and bulbs (which also burned out constantly) was the norm.

Skinning in the darkMark Holbrook with a Petzl Zoom headlamp on high beam.

All of this changed when LED headlamps came out; they were much brighter, had high/low beam settings and the cheap AA or AAA batteries lasted much longer. This technology has improved to the point that now darkness is a mere temporary inconvenience and with some of the lamps you almost have to wear dark eye protection to avoid the blinding white light they put out.

DP-17 final2

People have been stomping around in the dark mountains of the Wasatch for over a century, but it wasn’t until Alex Lowe moved to town in 1991 that it took on its current ski-centric form. Alex worked as the Quality Assurance Manager at Black Diamond Equipment and he had the energy of a nuclear reactor. On moving to a new area, he’d immediately join a gym and within a few weeks (or even days) the manager would give him a key since Alex was so personable and would be waiting at the front door at 6:00 a.m. day after day. Early starts were a way of life for Alex and it didn’t matter how little sleep or how much beer he’d had the night before.

left: Alex Lowe on top of Hidden Peak in 1991.

My involvement with dawn patrolling came as a result of a late October weekend tour in Grizzly Gulch where I pointed out Alta’s Main Baldy Chute and told Alex that it had always been on my wish list. I had been envisioning doing it the traditional way by waiting until the resort and lifts were running, and the patrol had it officially opened, but Alex had other ideas: “Let’s ski it tomorrow morning before work!” At the time such an objective seemed like an inconceivable amount of climbing and steep skiing to even fit into an all-day trip, but my male ego got the best of me and I heartily agreed that was a great idea. The worst that could happen was that we’d be late for work, and in those days, missing work for skiing was a pardonable offense at Black Diamond.

Mt. Baldy Chute

Skinning up Baldy Chute before Alta opens for the season.

With Alex in the lead and breaking trail (as he always did), we skinned up Baldy’s Shoulder and were on top in time to watch the sun break over the mountains to the east. Having time to spare, we sat around drinking tea and checking out future chutes before heading down what would become my first needle-in-the-arm backcountry skiing experience. I would have been happy skiing Baldy Chute with moguls and 50 other people, but instead we had it to ourselves, with completely untracked bottomless powder lit up in early morning alpenglow. It was like discovering a magic kingdom of skiing I never even knew existed and within two years I had bought my last season’s pass.

Ski sunrise

The payoff.

Not only was the run phenomenal, but it also established a future pattern of dawn patrolling conflicts in the Wasatch. As Alex and I took turns leapfrogging pitches down Baldy Chute, a single skier matched our progress down on the Ballroom cat track below. When we got within earshot, we heard him say “Okay, yep, I’ve got them right now.” into his crackling Alta Ski Patrol radio before we skied up to him. It was a friendly meeting of skiers, in part because he asked us where we were from (not where we currently lived…) and “Montana” and “Washington” seemed to justify our actions. We explained that we thought Alta wasn’t open for the season yet, hadn’t seen any signs saying otherwise, and had spent quite a while on top of the chute in plain sight; to which he replied, “I know. We were planning on sighting in our avalanche guns this morning and have been watching you the entire time.”

In the end nothing came of it, except we started to be much more selective on where we chose to dawn patrol. Over the years where to go has become even more of an issue as DP’ers climbing and skiing in slide paths have thwarted the efforts of the Utah Transportation authority, UDOT, to secure the canyon road with artillery in the morning.

Alex coined the term “dawn patrol” in reference to an old movie by the same name where one of the main characters apparently bellowed, “At dawn we ride!” The idea quickly caught on, but most early adapters soon realized they had better things to do at 4:00 a.m.―like sleep. Although Alex was most often the ringleader, he was so fast and pumped up that it was common to only see him for the first few minutes of the tour and then have him magically pop up next to you covered in snow and talking about the great run he’d just had down the backside of some other drainage. At first it seemed like a joke, but it wasn’t. People tried all sorts of speed tricks, including going to the point of barfing, to keep him in sight, but in the end it didn’t matter and we all had a good time.

Perhaps Alex’s crowning Tour du DP Force was a morning where he mounted a set of bindings and trimmed out some skins before touring all the way up to the head of Broad’s Fork and then returned home and read two chapters of “Winter Dance” before making it to work by 8:00 a.m. When asked about it, all he said was, “It’s a really good book. You have to read it.” Alex died in an avalanche on Shishapangma, Tibet in 1999, but his legacy lives on.

For most mortals, the hardest part about dawn patrolling is taking that first step out of bed; everything from there on gets easier and more fun. To lessen the shock and awe of a 4:00 a.m. alarm, I pack up the night before so I don’t have to think that early in the morning, if I even could:

  • Everything that is not going to freeze goes in the car.
  • Boots and water stay right by the door where they are impossible to forget.
  • Headlamp is attached to the outside, top of the pack where it can be found in the dark.
  • Coffee is set on a timer and ready for instant infusion and/or transfer to an awaiting insulated mug for driving.
  • Breakfast is minimal and clean-up is saved for later.
  • Skins are pre-placed on skis and the climbing pegs are set for the angle of the anticipated first step.

Not only does all of this advanced preparation ensure that I don’t forget something in the fog of dawn, but it helps me sleep better not having to worry about remembering to get my gloves from the drying hooks in the morning.

Skis in rack

Skins on skis, skis on car, ready to go.

The next critical milestone of dawn patrolling is the meeting time. Before cell phones, meeting at 5:00 a.m. meant that the caravan was leaving the Park & Ride at 5:01, since it is just way too early in the morning to wait for people, especially when they could be hours late. The DP theory of time relativity states that 5 minutes at 5:00 a.m. is equal to 30 minutes at 9:00 a.m. Even with the modern “5 late” text message, I usually don’t wait because I’m a jerk (just ask any of my ex-girlfriends or the Powderbird Guides) and the tardy party can meet up at the trailhead. Excess carbon emissions don’t count before 6:00 a.m.

Where and when to dawn patrol is also an important decision. I try to find areas with minimal approaches and where I can turn around at any point and ski back down if I’m running short on time. Runs like Scottie’s Bowl, Butler Fork Trees, and the Y-Couloir work well, whereas classics like Pink Pine ridge tend to burn up precious morning minutes with flat approaches and exits. The south-facing couloirs along the Little Cottonwood Canyon road are classic DP material, but you need to be very aware of any UDOT plans for shooting them. Hopefully not going to these spots will be obvious from an avalanche safety standpoint as you probably shouldn’t be booting straight up those couloirs with any new snow or increased avalanche danger to begin with.

Skiing Little Pine

Fred Marmsater skiing Little Pine with the LCC road below.

Aside from polygamy and the right to shoot cattle crossing signs, dawn patrolling is an excellent reason to live in Utah. The waking up part is hard, but few places in America offer such a tight package of instant access to pristine powder capped by a day in the office. And while you may fall asleep at work, at least you’ll be getting paid to have powder dreams.


The Powder Police: Keeping the Backcountry Safe