Last Friday was the perfect blue bird powder day. I woke up early as usual, and as soon as I peeked out the window, I knew the Palisades were calling my name. I quickly assembled my gear and brewed some coffee before heading out on Highway 89 towards Olympic Valley. The roads were clear and I had plenty of time to get in position before the best skiiers in the world would ascend the Palisades and pick off some of the steepest and most coveted lines at Squaw Valley.
I've never had the chance to photograph the Palisades, mostly because the conditions have to be perfect for it to even be skiiable, and we haven't had too many blue-bird powder days this year. But I had seen incredible photos, taken by other photographers, and I wanted a piece for myself.
My friends in the terrain park crew were boarding the Funitel, and against my good judgement, I decided to try and get a head start up the hill so I didn't miss any of the action. If you have ever been to Squaw Valley, you know that when the snow is good, people get ruthless! Even if I got first chair I would never be able to beat the stampede up the boot pack with all my photo gear unless I got up there before the mountain opened. Going up the hill early is strictly forbidden unless you have permission, but I'd been shooting for Squaw all year and didn't think it was going to be a big deal. This would turn out to be a slight miscalculation.
So I hopped on Siberia chair with a ski patroller and two videographers and tried to act as if I was supposed to be there. Everything was going smooth until I reached the ski patrol shack located at the base of the Palisades.
His hair was grey and his faded red uniform was a sign that this wasn't some gumbie from the Bay Area. He flew out of the shack and started firing questions like bullets. "Who are you?!?! How did you get up here? Do you have permission to be here?" So I responded, "Well sir, my name is Matt Palmer and I shoot for the mountain. I've had permission to shoot on the hill all year." I left out the fact that I was an employee for some reason because he was coming at me pretty strong. My response was inadequate for him and he demanded to know if I had permission to shoot on that specific day and at that specific location. "Well not exactly sir, but...." He erupted and proceeded to tear me apart for not having specific permission.
I couldn't get a word in edgewise before he forced me off the ridge and into Siberia Bowl with my tail between my legs. It was my first real negative encounter with ski patrol, and although I knew I probably should have called ahead first, I really didn't think it was going to get that ugly. Nonetheless, I jammed down the mountain as fast as I could and watched as people began to poor out of the Funitel and race like hungry lions to the base of Siberia Chair. I made a couple quick phone calls, and after a few anxious minutes, I had finally gained permission to head back up.
Just before reaching the final lift tower, I could see all the skittle colored ants, skiis over their shoulders, racing for the summit.
I turbo hiked my ass up the boot pack trying not to slip on the wind polished ice that has built up over the course of an entire season. As I ascended, I could hear hooting and hollering as skiers dropped for the first runs of the day. I picked up the pace and at last, I finally reached the summit.
The wind was steady and people were lined up on every inch of the cliff inspecting the conditions and picking out their lines. They were fearless and it was clear that this was not a place for the weak minded. The view was incredible and I quickly pulled out my camera desperately trying to figure out the best place to shoot from.
I peered over the edge and couldn't believe my eyes. The drop off the cornice on center line was HUGE, 15-20ft in some spots, and it didn't seem possible until I watched it go down. One by one, they clapped their poles and dropped off the edge like lemmings into the abyss. My heart raced as I rapid fired the shutter trying to get that epic frame I had been dreaming of all morning. As the popular lines got played out, people started eyeing and exploring other possibilities on the steep cliff face.
This was the perfect time to switch lenses and try to get a different look. I really wanted the point of view angle looking down from the skiers perspective. Just as I walked up to the edge of the cornice, a confident young fellow pulled up to the lip and announced to me that he was going to drop into "Easy Street." You can judge for yourself but nothing about this line looked easy to me. I could barely get my lens cap off in time before he jumped right in and pointed it down the aggressive chute. I'm pretty sure it wasn't his first day on the Palisades and he made it look pretty easy.People were dropping everywhere and I was running out of time. I still didn't have the epic shot I was hoping to get so I changed locations and spotted someone eyeing a crazy line with Lake Tahoe in the background. It was just the type of photo I was looking for. He chewed on the idea for what seemed like an eternity, but at last, he buckled his seat belt and pointed it down the steep rock face. I framed it up and got the shot, making everything I went through that morning an afterthought.
Shortly thereafter, as I was heading back to grab my bag, ski patrol showed up and began to close off the massive cliff for safety reasons. Only the early birds get this worm I guess. There were however, a few stragglers still perched on the edge of the cornice trying to muster up the courage to drop the tracked and rutted lines of skiiers past. They convinced the patroller to let them get one more go at it before he stabbed the sign. My bag happened to be in the perfect position so I whipped out my camera and fired off a couple quick frames of a skier strait lining off a cliff. It was a great way to end it!
As I packed my bag and prepared for my decent, I thought to myself, "how the hell am I going to get off this rock?" The hike up was too slippery to go down, and I had a heavy pack full of camera gear with me which would make it pretty dangerous. My snowboard would be prove to be the only way off this mountain, and although I'm a pretty good snowboarder, everything changes when you have 35lbs of photo gear on your back. I hiked to the far end of the ridge where I spotted a traverse that would drop me onto the face above headwall. I would have to cross a large sheet of ice suspended over a cliff band but it was better than trying to drop the center line.
I buckled my straps, took a deep breath, and set my edge, traversing across the steep white face until I reached the soft white powder waiting for me in the valley below.