Eagle's Eye

Resort Hike Pass Offers Dawn Patrol Turns, But Beware

Photo Credit Ryland West

Photo Credit Ryland West

Ryland West, Editor

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The aroma of Weston’s “Betty White camper-made breakfast burritos” drifts through the 5 a.m. air. Two silhouettes raise their heads and with an exuberant “Yeeeeeeeeew!” they holler at the setting moon. To their left the rising sun scorches the morning clouds, framing a Lake Tahoe panorama, and underfoot freshly groomed snow shimmers in the corduroy. With the use of a hike pass at Diamond Peak, Isaac Laredo and Weston Park have split-boarded up the North Lake Tahoe resort to catch “epic” sunrise turns before class.

Diamond Peak is one of the few resorts in the region that offers a pass allowing snowboarders and skiers to hike, snowshoe, or split-board up the hill and rip down the mountain when the resort is closed for lift operations. It provides an opportunity to get some turns in before work or school.

“I would skin up, get a fresh lap then go to class or catch first chair,” Sierra Nevada College senior Garrett Ramos said.

The pass requires strict safety protocols to keep the user safe, and this year Diamond Peak is seeing those rules broken daily. Head snow cat driver Timmy Hay is frustrated.

“Not only does it make our work harder, but it is extremely dangerous,” he said. Snowmakers and groomers are working with huge machinery.

Diamond Peak’s protocol states that users must skin (using an accessory on the base of the skis that allows for uphill hiking), or walk up the middle of the run with a headlamp.

“It will be a full moon (or dawn), and people will be skinning up and they will have headlamps, but their headlamps will not be on,” Hay said. Even when its relatively light out, the cat drivers rely on the lights to track hikers in the runs.

“I’m in my machine doing so many different things,” hay said. “If I see light it makes me aware somebody is out there. If they’re on the side of the trail with no light or anything, I don’t see them.”

Hay’s biggest concern is the disregard of warning signs. When there’s a flashing sign that says the groomers are “winching” or “snowmaking,” that means turn around.

Winch cat-grooming is a practice where a cat stretches hundreds of yards of cable across the run. One end the cable is attached to the cat, the other anchored to a tree or another fixed position. The cable produces nearly three tons of pressure.

“What people don’t realize about a winch is I have potentially 3,000 feet of cable stretched out,” Hay said. “You might think that you are in the clear, you know, because you don’t see anything, but then I come down the hill and all of the sudden you are on the side of the run and my cable swings across the run and it can potentially behead you.”

The cable can be buried under the snow, or 20 feet in the air. This season, Hay has noticed most of the uphill traffic will ignore the flashing warning signs and blast right up the trail. When Hay’s team sees this they have to backtrack, stop working, and wait for the hikers to pass.

Hay stresses that an accident can mean much more than a sprained knee or a bruise. An accident around a winch cat can be fatal. And accidents happen.

In 2007 Hay was working for Snow Basin, and he had winch cat incident where a snowmaker on a snowmobile was nearly beheaded.

“Luckily there was a certified EMT that was also a snowmaker and he was the first responder on the scene,” he said. “We had to do a life flight out of the ski resort at 7:30 at night. There’s no patrol at that time. There’s no anything. It’s straight up call 911.”

The hike pass is $5 and can be accessed through Diamond Peak’s season pass window on the resort website. Users must fill out a waiver, familiarize themselves with the protocol, and come in during normal operating hours to get the pass.

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Resort Hike Pass Offers Dawn Patrol Turns, But Beware