The Process: Prepping for a Dawn Patrol
The square, gray rack of puzzle pieced plates slides into position and I once again lower the lid of the industrial dish washer. The jets whir to life on a mission to provide clean plates for the line cooks so that they, in turn, could serve food to high class tourists enjoying the night life of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. While the water churns in the dishwasher, I have just enough time to fire off a text before resuming the never-ending scrubbing ritual that precedes the puzzle piecing and loading of the plates into the dishwasher. The text is simple, yet effective, and will be enough to set the plan in motion since I won’t be able to text back until I close and lock up around 12:15am. “DP 25? Solid forecast… Avy?”.
If he doesn’t have to work, Ryan will be stoked to dawn patrol at 25 Short. A dawn patrol means to hike at sunrise, and to a backcountry skier or snowboarder it means a really early start for a quiet morning of fresh turns before the rest of the world wakes up. 25 Short is a backcountry ski route in Grand Teton National Park having earned its name because its false summit sits just twenty five feet below 10,000ft of elevation at 9,975 ft. The route also offers access to a bunch of different terrain options to ride down, making it a good starting point for a route selection that could change based on the conditions of the day. Given the new snow, recent avalanche forecast, and virtually complete absence of tourists, that’s where I want to be.
I’d assumed my post in the dish pit around 4:45pm after taking the bus from the mountain back to my car and driving over. I had been used to the tight squeeze, but working doubles allows for a few days off every week and my 3 day weekend officially starts tomorrow. I’d been at the mountain since shortly after 8am to make the journey from the parking lot up to my locker, get my gear and uniform on, and get down to the chairlift to meet my client at 9am. The base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is affectionately called the village, but during peak tourist time periods it feels more like a city. Knowing where to go once up on the mountain and off of the crowded base makes it feel like your own isolated paradise. My client and I wrapped up just shy of 4pm when the chairlifts close, and I did my usual mad-dash back to the locker room and then down to the parking lot to catch the bus amidst the overflowing crowd of people also commuting from the mountain back toward town on the one road that connects the two.
Swigging my shifty, my complementary beer for diligently performing my illustrious dish sanitation duties for the evening, I rid myself of my smock and pull out my phone with my pruned fingers. Ryan had responded, “Ya dude, I am IN!”. I knew he’d be excited. Our days off don’t always line up, but we occasionally get the chance to take an early lap or two before work. Tomorrow, neither of us has to be back in a rush. “Sweet man, I’ll peep the avy report and give another holler around 5am”.
I finally pull into my driveway around 12:35am, thankful that I hadn’t left my snowboard boots or my goggles in my locker in the village. Definitely haven’t done that before…
As I walk inside I routinely begin laying out my gear. I place my jacket and mid-layer hoodie on the rack by the door, and then make my way across the living room to put my boots, hat, gloves, and glove liners in the hallway in front of the heater. Turning, I pluck my blue and white Jones splitboard from our apartment’s gear closet that overflows into our living room and onto the couch. The gaudy green, faux leather couch is accompanied by a futon, both picked up at furniture swaps. They allow our living room to transform into a hostel for frequent vacation visits from friends of mine or of my roommates.
I’ve made it a habit to pack and ready my gear the night before going out so that I don’t have to do a million and one things at 4:30 in the morning when I’m groggier than the subject of an allergy medication commercial.
Unclipping the bindings, I separate the splitboard into its two-plank mode, pivoting and then reattaching the bindings to complete the transformation from snowboard to skis. I affix my climbing skins to the bottoms of each split ski and then lash the skis together with a voile strap in a neat bundle with my poles. Climbing skins are like magical little pieces of carpet that you put on the bottom of your skis or board so that they grip the snow and allow you to walk uphill like you’re snowshoeing. (Once at the top, you take off and stow the skins in your backpack, clip the board back together, and then totally surf that sweet pow pow down the mountain, bruh.)
I try not to wake up my roommates as I make my way upstairs to retrieve my avalanche airbag so that I can pack it with my beacon, probe, shovel, and gear for the morning. I check the batteries of my avalanche beacon the night before too, because if I need to replace them, I’d rather know that now rather than when trying to get out the door.
An avalanche beacon is a Gameboy-sized transmitter that lets you find other transmitters, and lets them find you. You wear it on your body so that if buried in an avalanche, people can find you and dig you out. For those same reasons, I carry a collapsible tent pole-like item called a probe to poke through the snow and hopefully come into contact with a buried person, marking their location. And that’s also why I carry a collapsible shovel; to dig out that buried person from the probe’s marked position.
In my backpack you’ll find a medical kit with extra athletic tape, band-aids, and mole-skin for blisters caused by ski or snowboard boots. More often than not, these get used by other people instead of me, but I carry them because most people don’t. Depending on the day and what I need, you’ll also find:
- 2 liters of water
- a knife
- a compass
- a repair kit
- an emergency space blanket
- a foldable SAM splint for potential injuries
- extra emergency energy bars
- a multi tool
- extra parts for snowboard bindings
- extra snowboard boot laces
- walkie talkies
- a notebook
- mechanical pencils
- a snow saw
- a couple of beers
- an extra base layer
- and extra mid layer
- extra goggle lenses
- an extra neck buff
- an external battery pack for my phone in case of emergency
- my DSLR camera to, ya know, totally get the shot bro
I’ll also bring a coffee thermos, caffeine free tea, and sports drink mix for the car. Probably some La Croix too. (I consume a lot of beverages, OK?)
Lastly before bed I lay out my clothes for the morning. Yeah, really. It saves time and I’m a zombie before I have my coffee.
* * *
My phone’s surge to life forces my own and I slowly move across the floor to silence the radiating alarm. 4:30am on the dot. I flip the light on and sit down on the edge of my bed for a minute. A few deep breaths, a slap in the face, and an elongated “fuck” exhaled under my breath combat my urge to lie back down. That, and the plans I had already made with Ryan. I do that intentionally on my days off so that I escape from people up into the mountains instead of downstairs onto my couch.
Tossing on a pair of sweatpants and a sweat shirt I make my way downstairs, round the corner at the bottom, and pass the hallway heater and my gear, stepping off of the carpet and onto the cold tile of the kitchen floor en route to the coffee maker. Hitting light switches along the way, my groggy movements are methodical, calculated, and rehearsed. I have to pee; but I grind the coffee beans first, fill the pot with water, slap the ON button and then start boiling more water for oatmeal. Now, I head toward the bathroom while the coffee pot and tea kettle do their thing. Efficiency- no wasted steps.
Sitting at the kitty-cornered kitchen table next to the hallway door, I eat my bowl of oatmeal with a banana and peanut butter while I read over the avalanche report on my laptop. A few different weather sites are also bookmarked in my browser and I open all of them in order, reading and comparing the information for different elevations and locations nearby. I send the text to Ryan at 5:05am, “Looking good. New layer seems moderately stable so far and the flakes are still falling”.
“Copy that. Lets do it!”
“Meet at the home ranch parking lot at 5:30? I can drive”
“Word. See ya there”
Finished eating, I guzzle the rest of my coffee and then fill my travel mug right up to the brim and set it on the counter. I work through a quick stretching routine in the living room and then head upstairs to put my snowboarding clothes on, now that I’m awake and semi-functioning.
Once my snow pants are on I check my beacon again before stowing it in my pocket. Back downstairs I step into my work boots without tying them, pull my hood up over my beanie, and crack the door to head out to my car. The chill of the pre-dawn air stings my eyes and slithers up my nose and into my throat. I exhale and feel my breath twinge the ends of my mustache and beard as the vapor freezes crisply to the hair on my face. I crack a smile in the darkness and step out into the snow to go start my car so it can warm up and melt some of the fresh white fluff off of my windshield.
* * *
The parking pull out is empty except for a couple of other cars. “They’re here early”, Ryan noted as we both looked at the fresh tire tracks in the snow curving ahead to the parked cars. “Must be tackling a pretty big objective if they’re trying to get up high ahead of the sun” I added.
Sunshine and warmer temperatures during the day melt snow at elevation faster and create higher risk for avalanche, kind of like the snow that heats up and slides off of the roof of your house. So, the longer your hike to where you want to go, the earlier you have to start if you want to minimize your risk of triggering or being swept in a slide.
Leaving the car is always the hardest part for me. Not because I don’t want to go snowboarding, but because it’s likely the coldest I’ll be all day. I’m dressed for hiking, which means I’m dressed to be hot and sweaty even though I’m not yet. All of my extra layers are stowed in my backpack and I’m about to put my snowboard boots on while trying not to step in the snow with my socks. Lacing up snowboard boots with non-gloved hands is always a time sensitive challenge as well. When I’m done, I strap into my bindings and hoist my pack onto my back. The sun isn’t up yet, but the morning light is starting to dimly illuminate the jagged silhouette of the Tetons above us.
I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of looking at the Tetons. The impressive mountain range is 40 miles long, 8 miles wide, and stands a whopping 13,770ft tall at the summit of the Grand; the tallest peak of the bunch. The Grand also sits just off-center of the panoramic mountainscape, and the sharp edges of the other staggered rock summits almost look like the snaggle-toothed jawline of a shark.
Despite the subtle morning light, we still need our headlamps, and I stab my poles into the snow beside me to adjust mine beneath my hood. The poles go into the powdery snow with ease; no crust layer on top of the snow’s surface, no mushy, clumped slush below the surface. Just soft, aerated champagne. I look over at Ryan and see that he’s doing a few Michael Phelps arm swings to get the blood flowing to warm up his hands. His head lamp is inadvertently pointed toward my eyes and I can’t make out his face in the darkness behind the light. But I can see his breath rising in front of the bulb while he’s moving his arms. “Dude you look like you’re in a Nike commercial right now”, I say. “Huh?”, he doesn’t get it. I mimic his motion, and my headlamp creates the same effect. Now he gets it and we both laugh.
Holy shit this is going to be a good day.
I tell Ryan where I stashed my keys in case anything happens and he needs to access them in an emergency. Next, we test our walkie talkies and turn our avalanche beacons on, checking to make sure that each beacon detects the other.
It is now 6am and I get to press one more button before we depart, and this one is my favorite: airplane mode.
It usually takes a few steps to get into the rhythm of slip sliding forward on a splitboard or skis with skins on the bottoms. You push off of one foot and gently glide onto the other in a half walking, half rollerblading motion. The silence of the morning is only broken by the clicking of our bindings and the creaking of compressed snow beneath our strides. That, and the shuffle of our hard-shell pants and jackets as we move swiftly through the darkness. The elevation of the parking lot where we left my car sits at about 6,625 ft, and it will take us about three and a half hours to climb the 3,000 feet of elevation to the saddle of 25 Short.
As we climb further from the parking lot and into the trees, the growing light dances past the snow flakes and lingers on the tree branches; highlighting the sparkling crystals already settled on the frozen limbs. We weave our way upward, steam escaping from the open vents in our jackets and rising above our heads and shoulders, though our breath and pace remain steady. My shell pants have vents from the upper thigh to the mid-calf on the inside and outside of each leg, and since my body is a furnace, I tend to hike with those cranked open, especially as we reach higher elevation and steeper slopes.
These steeper slopes require a “Z” style zig zagging path up the mountain. The path we’re making is called a skin track, and the diagonals criss crossing the slope are called switchbacks. We aren’t saying much to one another and we don’t need to. The snow has subsided and the clouds have been burning off with the dawn. Since we’ve been hiking up towards, and into, the Tetons, emerging onto the ridge means that the rising sun at our backs is now highlighting the prominent peaks in front of us in a golden array. Poking out above tree line also means a pause for rest, food, and water. For me, that’s dark chocolate covered almonds and some trailmix. But I’m mostly psyched about the dark chocolate covered almonds.
We both like the silence and the solitude. It is a welcomed oasis in a world away from the tourists in town and at the resort. I smile there too, genuinely excited to share my love of snowboarding with clients. I take pride in my work and appreciate the opportunity to connect with people from many places and all walks of life.
But this; the stillness of this moment. The serenity of this space. This place is void of time and of the stressors and pressures of life. This world is mine, if only for a bit.
I toss Ryan one of the PBR tall boys I’d stashed in my pack. He cracked it and slurped the foam off the top.
We sit. And we stare. Eyes wide, the corners of our mouths pulled back into closed smiles.
“Cheers to airplane mode”