The Palisades | Skiing from the top of the world

Skiers make the short hike to the top of the Palisades on a powder day.

Come the last week of January we had finally received a proper snowstorm that came in two waves. Thursday night the flakes swirled thickly, coating the mountain with 2 feet of fluffy, yet substantial powder. A perfect bluebird day was followed by another blast, this time lighter and colder, adding another foot on top. It’s now Friday morning and I’m on my way to Squaw Valley to ski the Palisades.

Skirting the steep spine of National Chute, I carve my way into the channel to find deep pillows of thick powder awaiting below.

When I arrive around 9:30 a.m. after dropping my daughter off at day care, most of the initial powder has already been carved. I warm up with three laps on Red Dog and Far East where I find some untouched powder still hidden along the edges of the trees and plenty of soft moguls to blast. My blood now flowing, I board a crowded Funitel gondola bound for the upper mountain. The energy of the passengers is palpable as each person daydreams of which classic line he or she will ski next.

From Gold Coast Lodge, it’s a quick ski down to Siberia Express and I’m on my way to eternity. Rising over a rolling hill, the Palisades materialize before our six-pack chair, bold and snow-covered in the hazy morning sun. Cold clouds of vaporous mist pass quickly overhead. I see a tiny human standing atop Main Chute looking out over the world below. A steady trail of people marches like ants up the north shoulder of Squaw Peak.

To my luck and delight, it looks like they’ve only just opened Palisades for the day. I slide over to the ski patrol shack where the signs read, “Reverse Traverse Open” and “Palisades Open, Variable Snow Conditions/Expert Skiers and Snowboarders Only.”

Skier Ben Paciotti drops into National Chute to celebrate the 4th of July. | Ben Arnst, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows

I shed my skis and join the line of riders hiking the snowy footpath up the ridge through a small notch onto the summit plateau. The wind whips sharply at my cheeks as I make my way up the frozen staircase step by step and onto the elephant’s back of Squaw Peak. The air is thin, 8,900 feet at the crest and a hike up here always gets the heart pumping.

The top of Palisades is remarkably flat and dotted with radio towers and weather stations. I click back into my skis and make my way carefully toward the edge of Main Chute. At this point in the season there is a 20-foot overhanging cornice above what appears to be a cascade of blue ice dusted by windswept patches of misplaced snow. The rest of the ridge is in similar condition with Chimney, Main, Box, Tube and Extra Chutes all closed for good reason. I remember last spring when there was enough snow to ski easily into Main Chute without making a required drop.

I shuffle along the cliff line to National Chute at the far end of the mesa. Looking out from the edge, the earth appears in miniature below me from the San Fernando Valley to Lake Tahoe and Desolation Wilderness whose Crystal Range shines brightly in the distance. One of the most exciting aspects of dropping into Palisades is the feeling that you are about to ski down from the top of the world.

Skirting the steep spine of National Chute, I carve my way into the channel to find deep pillows of thick powder awaiting below. My turns grow ever wider, faster, smoother as I descend into the still untouched patches of Siberia Bowl. My adrenaline carries me sailing back into the lift line ready for more.

By my second ascent of the ridge, the majority of the crowds have already dispersed having likely just reached the base of the mountain after sacrificing the powder of Upper Sun Bowl to the snow gods. At this point, I’ll be taking what’s left.

I glide across the table top to the west end and spot an untouched line just along the skier’s right area boundary. It’s knee deep and responsive and I fly down, spraying snow with abandon into the wide-open valley before coasting along the linkage trail to the top of Cornice Bowl.

With the energy of my momentum behind me, I drop into the upper snowfields above Hourglass Chute until the route tightens and I weave my way into its concave bottom and onto Mountain Run below. My legs scream with the pleasure and pain, the Palisades now far behind me as I glide into ground level once again.