The Ways of Squallywood

The Palisades
Skiers (black dots) atop The Palisades

This could be the only thing I ever write about skiing inbounds terrain at a ski resort. That’s not to say I don’t still love it – I clock plenty of hours riding lifts each winter.  It’s just that the comfort provided by skiing inbounds and sipping on après beers rarely makes for as good of a story as a backcountry mission. That is unless you are skiing on a mountain that played an integral role in completely changing the face of freeride skiing.

Upon moving to North Lake Tahoe last fall I began examining potential home mountain options for when avalanche danger was high or sleeping in trumped hitting the skin track early. Given my position nestled between Northstar and Squaw Valley|Alpine Meadows, the choice seemed obvious.

In the eyes of many, Squaw Valley gave birth to big mountain skiing. As early as the mid-1970s the mountain’s exposed cliff bands were making their way into major early ski movies. By the 1980s films like The Blizzard of AAHHH’s and License to Thrill thrusted skiers Scot Schmidt, Mike Hattrup, Glen Plake, and countless others into the spotlight, simultaneously demonstrating that the intimidating couloirs, cliffs, and spines of Squaw Valley were indeed skiable. Years later, the likes of Shane McConkey, JT Holmes, and the Gaffney Brothers were pushing the sport of skiing even further. Using Squaw Valley as their playground, the new generation had begun skiing lines in unthinkable ways while adding their own humor to the sport.

If the goal of skiing is to have fun, confront comfort zones, and continue advancing in the sport then this was the place to do it. Using Squallywood: A Guide to Squaw Valley’s Most Exposed Lines as a guide I quickly became aware of, and humbled by, the magnitude and consequence of some of the most extreme runs on the mountain. As the winter progressed I made a mental list of the dream lines that require perfect conditions and timing in order to ski. Thanks to a good early season, many items disappeared off of this winter’s bucket list by January. Countless laps on the infamous KT-22 chair and hikes up to the big mountain couloirs on Granite Peak had been satiating a black diamond appetite. However, The Palisades still loomed high over the Siberia Chair, beckoning those who wished to prove to themselves (and to gathering crowds of spectators below) that they can ski the same lines made famous by those early ski films.

My chance at The Palisades finally arrived on Monday. The previous Wednesday and Thursday delivered 30” of fresh Sierra snow, and ski patrol keeps the short hike up to Squaw Peak closed on weekends. This prevents beginner visitors from wandering into terrain that exceeds their ability level while also preventing crowds from gathering on the artificially level summit (the peak was blown up by the Federal Aviation Administration to create a relay station on top). As such, much of the fresh snow held through the warm temperatures of the weekend – making Monday a dream come true.

When I woke up in the morning, the Squaw Valley website said The Palisades were closed for the day. That being my main motivation to head to the resort on my day off, I had a leisurely breakfast before double-checking the status of this famed cliff band. As I sipped on my hot tea the mountain updates changed without warning and, sure enough, The Palisades were a go.

The Palisades
The Palisades as viewed from High Camp

I made my way to the valley and after a quick warm-up in Siberia Bowl, I slung my skis over my shoulder and was off. In mid-season form, I crowned the summit of Squaw Peak after about 5 minutes and saw small crowds gathering above Main Chute. I peaked in, watched a snowboarder pick his way down and a skier 360° into the narrow gap, and continued onward – vowing to return before day’s end.

It didn’t take long, as my first run down National Chute skied like a dream. The steep entrance and open, powdery apron helped awaken my ski legs. Used as the start of the National Men’s Downhill in 1959, this is easily the most skied chute off of The Palisades. It is steep enough for some excitement, nice and open, and is relatively low consequence. On Monday, it also held a good few feet of fresh snow.

But National Chute wasn’t what drew me to The Palisades, and it doesn’t even make an appearance in Squallywood. So back up I went, this time with my eyes on Main Chute. The crowd on top had lessened, but onlookers hoping for carnage or backflips still gathered at the top of Headwall and in the middle of Siberia Bowl. I eyed my line and the few turns I might be able to squeeze into the narrow split in the rocks and dropped into the 53° sustained slope. Able to navigate the icy cornice on top, I was quickly rewarded by fast powder turns at the bottom. I knew I needed to ski it again.

Lap three up to The Palisades, and I began to look at other descents. Extra Chute was the next viable option, but it was markedly steeper than National and Main. I convinced myself that this would be my last lap and retreated back to Main for more fun and practice in a steep technical couloir. Run two down Main Chute went even better, and faster, than the first. With a growing community of friends lapping these infamous lines, I was quickly convinced to do one more hike.

The classic winter mantra of one more run quickly turned into three. Now standing above Extra Chute, and on the edge of my comfort zone, I looked into the belly of the beast for any viable way down. The 61°+ entrance and 50°+ pitch into Siberia Bowl had me stepping into and out of my bindings before ultimately deciding that I had spent too much time looking (20? 30 minutes?) and not enough time committing. I sheepishly hopped over to National Chute after watching some riders take 30 to 40 foot airs over Extra, enjoyed some excellent untouched powder turns, and loaded onto the Siberia lift – determined.

After an excellent discussion about comfort zones and consequences with an Australian transplant and my skiing partner for the day, my mind was made. Déjà vu set in as I climbed to the summit for the 5th time that day and, with little hesitation, clicked in, skated to the mouth of Extra, took a few deep breaths and went for it. The mental grappling match with the steep, narrow, and crusty entrance soon gave way to a physical battle. Confronted by sheer cliffs on either side, incredible speed, and blind turns in blower powder snow, I soon skied out into the familiar bowl. Nearing the end of the day, we were the only show in town and hoots and hollers filled the air as I descended. Mission complete. My Palisades partner followed and, without fail, offered to do one more “cool down” run in National. The snow may not be this good again, the crowds were gone, and I’m not one to argue. Up we went.

I put this website together to share tales of adventure and comfort zones and, after moving to Truckee, CA for the winter, the last thing I expected to be writing about was skiing inbounds in a resort setting.  Yet here we are.  The peaks and lines of this mountain are humbling, and there is always a next step in the progression. From tight chutes and straight-lines to mandatory airs, Squaw Valley begs you to grow as a skier while flirting with your levels of comfort, wrestling with your confidence, and understanding your limits. Many believe that mountains provide the best classroom for such lessons.  If that’s the case, I’ll be in a desk up front.

Scouting the entrance to Main Chute on one of the last days of the season