Dawn Patrol: The Morning Ritual of Backcountry Skiers

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I’m often leery of bro-speak.

I am uncertain whether this is because 1. I enjoy using words in the manner they are defined in the Oxford English Dictionary or 2. I’m just not nearly a) cool or b) rad enough. Most likely, it is a combination of both.

Since I love being in the outdoors, I tried my best to be an early adopter when “dawn patrol” began transitioning from a noun to a verb.

Noun: Danny gets up early enough for a dawn patrol on the pass at least two days a week.

Verb: Danny dawn patrolled two times this week.

Now I’m so into dawn patrolling as a verb, I’ve dawn patrolled the past five mornings. Yes, the snow up the Teton Pass has been wonderfully velvety. But I also want to be able to say that I’ve dawn patrolled as much as I can. If you don’t know, dawn patrolling is getting up at the crack of ass, often before sunrise and doing a backcountry skin run before your work day starts.

Alex Lowe, during his tenure at Black Diamond in the early 1990’s is credited with creating the dawn patrol moniker. Salt Lake City, where Black Diamond Equipment is located, might be the country’s only major metropolitan area with an appropriate environment for dawn patrolling. We’re lucky in Jackson, it’s much easier: a 15-minute drive to the mountains instead of 30. Teton Pass is ripe with opportunities for dawn patrolling. Two weeks ago, it was the run First Turn that I was dawn patrolling on. The past five days, it’s been Shovel Slide.

Both take about the same amount of time: about 2:15 from the moment I walk out my front door to the moment I return to my front door.

The drive to the top of the pass is 25 minutes. The 1,800-some foot boot pack up Glory takes about 45 minutes. Although last Sunday, when winds were gusting close to 70 miles per hour and I was blown out of the track no fewer than four times, it took 55 minutes.

Transitioning from carrying my skis to stepping into my bindings takes 5 minutes.

The descent is 5 minutes.

The walk back to the car is just as long. First Turn and Shovel Slide have some of the shortest walks back to the parking lot. Just five minutes.

Stopping for a double espresso at Pearl Street Bagels at the bottom of the pass is between five and 15 minutes.

And then 25 minutes to drive back to town.

Five minutes later, I’m at my computer, answering emails from writers and editors who have no idea I’ve already gotten my fill of exercise and face shots for the day. When it’s not storming, I’ve also witnessed beautiful sunrises.

If you can’t bring yourself to get up before the sun Teton Pass still is a great place to ski. There are endless opportunities for runs. First Turn is often in great shape though, so here’s how to find it.

I’m not going to waste many words on the ascent up Glory. If you’ve never done it before, I will tell you that it can feel long and tedious. It starts directly opposite the parking lot, on the north side of the highway. About three minutes up, there is a small station that checks your avalanche beacon is on. Use it.

While at times the boot pack might seem interminable, know that it does indeed end. But not at the small knob just past the giant antenna panel. That’s the first false summit.

The real summit is about 15 minutes farther and has a rebuilt-this-season hut, draped with Buddhist prayer flags, of course. The top of Glory is often tremendously windy: the hut is the place to take a short break out of the wind and also to put on more layers.

Skis or board on your feet, goggles on, and boots buckled, it’s time to start down. First Turn is fairly easy to find. Of course, writing this, I am dooming some first timers to getting lost. I apologize.

Head west and north around the back of the warming hut. You are aiming to traverse rather than turn downhill at this point.

Know that visibility can be tricky here at times. Also, there are severe wind drifts that form along this ridge.

You should traverse for about 200 meters. Below you (to the west) on the traverse is a thin row of gnarled pines. After traversing for 200 meters (or so) begin to look for a break in the trees. There are several to choose from.

Once through your selected break, an open powder field should greet you. Its pitch is decidedly mellow. I’ve encountered new snow so deep here it was difficult to make turns in.

Enjoy this powder field while generally skiing southwest. About 100 meters down, you want to make a 90-degree turn to your left so that you are facing due south. Again, there is a thin row of trees for you to make your way through.

Once through and below the trees, if it’s clear weather, you should be able to see the road below you.

Welcome to First Turn.

There are numerous lines to ski in here. A personal favorite of mine is to skier’s right, where thin patches of trees often hold and preserve snow.

You can head as far right as you want, but then you might end up walking up the highway back to the top for longer than I plan for you to.

To make your walk along the highway a short as possible, about 500 feet above the road, ski across the gully on your left. Continue through the trees until you pop out into another glade. From here, ski down to the road.

Your car will be a five-minute walk up the road.

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