Why We Wake at 4 a.m.: an Ode to the Wasatch Dawn Patrol

Erik Balken rises before the sun. “My memories of skiing in the Wasatch all begin in the pitch dark,” the late Alex Lowe wrote in the foreword to Andrew McLean’s The Chuting Gallery. “Over the course of the several winters I lived in Salt Lake City, a loose group of twisted individuals coalesced into what became informally known as the ‘dawn patrol.’” [Photo] Jay Beyer

Seeing the swirling rainbow of radar for a storm forecast to drop two feet of snow on the Wasatch Mountains overnight and clear just before dawn, I know tomorrow calls for a dawn patrol. This means careful staging: setting out baselayers, outerwear, sunglasses and hat; putting skins on skis (to avoid finger-reliant tasks in the frigid morning air); and stocking my pack with water, snacks and camera gear.

Dawn patrolling was already ubiquitous when I was growing up in the Wasatch. I thought skiers everywhere on Earth woke at 3, 4, 5 a.m. to greet the day from a mountaintop. It’s just what skiers do, right? Wrong, apparently. Though it does occur on a smaller scale elsewhere, the Wasatch Mountains are unique in the sheer volume of dawn patrollers they’ve inspired to miss out on beauty sleep. Perhaps it’s the combination of access to 11,000-foot mountains within 30 minutes of a bustling metropolis of two million people that makes the dawn patrol so appealing here: If you sacrifice a few hours of pillow time, you can sneak in several thousand feet of powder before most people have even opened their eyes.

We can thank Andrew McLean and the late Alex Lowe for popularizing the dawn patrol. One of their first 4 a.m. wakeups was for Main Chute at Alta. After eating hockey puck-like muffins and drinking 16 ounces of stovetop espresso apiece at Lowe’s, McLean recalls, they climbed the ridge before sunrise, reaching an untouched couloir filled wall-to-wall with fresh snow. The turns were sublime. Over the phone, McLean told me it was then that he was “hooked!” Apparently, ski patrol was less enthused when they sighted the two skiers in their avalanche guns. But this was long before the days of “CLOSED to UPHILL TRAFFIC” signs, so patrol couldn’t be too mad at the delighted duo.

After that, McLean and Lowe frequented more acceptable locales and built momentum behind the dawn patrolling scene. They continued to encounter “Red,” Alta’s night shift parking attendant, who one day warned McLean that patrol was shooting Twin Lakes Pass at sunrise and that they were “going to get a 105 Howitzer up the ass!” McLean found this highly unlikely, and the 105 became the crew’s code word for flatulence on the skintrack. That was in the early ’90s. Now, 30 years later, many backcountry parking lots are full before 6 a.m.

Us Wasatch locals dawn patrol for a variety of reasons. Alex Zuhl, a Salt Lake resident turned finance director in Park City, dawn patrols three times a week on average because, he says, “You’re pretty much guaranteed first tracks, and I just love skiing pow. I’ve been doing it for so many years now, it’s just part of how I go skiing. Then I log in at 8:59!”

Photographers, myself included, hope to catch that liminal moment when snowflakes float through the air and the sun paints the mountains with dreamy pastel tones. Wasatch photographer Jay Beyer started dawn patrolling 20 years ago because it was the only way he could get turns in before going to work as a carpenter. A few years later, when he became a career photographer, he kept at it. Beyer explains, “I fell in love with the look of colorful morning light and fresh, sparkling snow. It’s normally a cold start, but it has been worth it every time to watch the sunrise on the mountains.”

Eric Balken, executive director of the nonprofit Glen Canyon Institute, says, “It brings together all the best aspects of backcountry skiing: early morning exercise, serenity and solitude in nature and, usually, skiing pristine powder in the orange light of sunrise.” Anna DeMonte, a pre-med student at the University of Utah, recalls skinning up the Emmas last year under dreary gray skies, wishing she was still in bed. A surprise sunrise stopped DeMonte in her skintrack. “It was this amazing, vivid, orange and pink light that almost injected energy into our crew,” she recalls. “Our speed quickened, our eyes brightened, and we continued on for a few awesome morning laps.”

Others are here to beat the ski traffic that clogs the canyons when the resorts open. Driving down past the “red snake” with a few powder runs tucked behind your grin feels like winning the lottery. Some may be skiing a line with conditions that necessitate completion prior to solar warming or have an especially large objective planned, so the early alarm is a safety measure. Caroline Gleich—the first woman to complete all the lines in McLean’s guidebook, The Chuting Gallery—concurs. “From a safety standpoint, I like to dawn patrol to get an early start on bigger objectives to leave a wide margin of error before nightfall,” she says. She also notes an added bonus: “The miles in the dark go quickly, almost like I’m still asleep.” Three thousand feet of climbing with no reference points is a nice mind trick for keeping leg muscles fresh for the runs ahead.

Dawn patrolling hasn’t been without its challenges. A 2016 Utah Department of Transportation policy implemented overnight closures of backcountry terrain in Little Cottonwood Canyon in certain storm scenarios to keep skiers off slopes that need to be shot for highway avalanche control work. Skier response to this policy, for which violation is punishable by fines or arrest, has ranged from grudging understanding to stubborn rage, but it has ultimately required would-be dawn patrollers to research closures and change their objectives accordingly.

What I love about the early skintrack is that I’m 99 percent sure to see someone I know. Although Salt Lake has a massive population, the dawn patrol scene is largely made up of familiar faces. Within this friendly camaraderie is the silence: the solitude of moving up a skintrack through air so cold you have to keep moving, a headlamp illuminating your breath, dark silence stretching into the ether. In, out, in, out, measured breaths set a cadence that’s not too fast to sweat and shed a layer, not too slow to let the cold seep in.

What’s the hardest part? For some (ahem, me), it’s getting out of bed when the alarm goes off in the pitch dark. Zuhl says otherwise: “The hardest part is convincing other people to go, not getting out of bed. I’m hyping!” And he’s right. Have any of us ever really had a bad dawn patrol? Even when the snow is stiff windboard rather than sublime powder and the skiing is more like chopping downhill through crème brulée and maybe you miss your morning meetings….Well, seeing the sunrise from a mountaintop is always worth it.

This article was originally published in Issue #142. Snag a copy here or subscribe.

Why We Wake at 4 a.m.: an Ode to the Wasatch Dawn Patrol

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  1. ArmNotLongEnough says:

    Where can you park this season for a dawn patrol up LCC? only 50 paid spots for a 6am start in the town of ALTA. No more 4am starts unless you’re going after lower canyon objectives.

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