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The Patrol Race Revisited

Photo by Lowell Skoog. A modern racer crossing Mirror Lake with Tinkham Peak behind during the first running of the Patrol Race in over 70 years.

The Patrol Race Revisited
by Andy Dappen

Wenatchee couldn’t send its best, so it sent some of its oldest. This was, after all, a reenactment of the historical ski race between the old lodges owned by The Mountaineers outdoor club, one located at Lodge Lake near Snoqualmie Pass, the other 18 trail miles away near Stampede Pass. So when the call went out for three-man teams interested in re-starting a race 72 years after it was last staged, it was deemed appropriate by city leaders that the team of ‘Old, Older, and Oldest’ represent the Wenatchee Valley. “Anyone can be young and fast,” the city council proclaimed in a press release, “but it takes decades of dedication to the craft to be old and slow.

To be honest the threesome of Tom Janisch, Andy Dappen, and Jamie Tackman bristled at the ageist moniker, but off to Snoqualmie Pass they went on February 8 to do their city proud. At the sign-in, the team renamed themselves to ‘Slow, Slower and Slowest’ and they smiled at their cleverness in refusing to let age define them.

“Slow, Slower, and Slowest?,” the race organizer asked puzzled by the choice as he scratched out the old name and wrote in the new. “And would that be referring to your physical or mental capabilities?”

“Huh?” said the team captain.

“Right!” said the race organizer. “Slow, Slower, and Slowest it is.”

A map was produced and, pointing to different checkpoints, the race organizer told the three where to go.

This annoyed the orneriest of the trio. “Collectively we have 160 years of ski touring experience between us. It will be a cold day in Hell when we let a pubescent whelp tell us where to go.”

“It will be a cold day in Hell if I ever see you again,” the race organizer mumbled to himself.

And with that an attractive blonde took their team photo, looked at her watch and said, “Get ready to leave in three, two, one, zero. Go, go, go!”

It was 7:05 a.m. as the three started sprinting on skinned skis up the slopes of Summit West Ski Area at Snoqualmie Pass. They moved with the startling likeness to lizards crawling over blocks of ice – left ski forward, pause five seconds, right ski forward, pause, left ski forward again.

One minute out and only 50 feet away the race organizer shook his head, “They’ll never make it,” he said to the blonde.

Undaunted by the skepticism of youth, the trio maintained their stoic pace upward through a gray morning that slapped their faces with spindrift swirling in vortexes of 15-degree air.  Atop the ski area, the three strode south and intersected the Pacific Crest Trail, which like a great serpent winding through the hills, bent left, writhed right, dipped down, and curled up.

Through hemlock forests, with trunks five feet in diameter and with canopies capped by a foot of snow, they plodded. “These guys are old,” Slow marveled craning his neck back to take in the 200-foot height of the monsters.  “And they’re even slower than us,” he cackled.

The trail snaked onward, usually winding uphill, sometimes arcing slightly downhill. “How is it that the downhills are so short and the uphills last forever,” Slow wondered as they continued their trademark shuffle -- left, pause, right, pause, left.  “There’s no explaining the mystery,” Slowest concluded.

On the perpetually climbing Pacific Crest Trail near Tinkham Peak. Photo by Colin Johnson.

Yet, like the proverbial tortoise, the three made progress. Windy Point west of Mount Catherine succumbed to their efforts, then Tinkham Pass. Down on the frozen plain of Mirror Lake with Tinkham Peak rising steeply above them, they sat on packs and refueled as several teams of younger skiers sprinted past. “Fool rabbits,” they laughed. “We’ll be mopping up the course with their tails before the day is done.”

Seven hours from the start time, they slid into Checkpoint 1, at about the ten-mile mark. The race organizer, who had accessed the checkpoint more directly via a snowmobile and who had no empathy that he had set them out on a course that only went uphill, was heartless about their sluggish progress. “At this rate you won’t make the end before dark. Why don’t we take you out on the machine with that team?” He pointed to a threesome huddled around a fire.

A team of rabbits at Checkpoint 1. Not all rabbits are slow -- this threesome, Team R&Ski, was first to finish.

Slow recognized the skiers. “Why there are a few of the fool rabbits who passed us earlier!” he crowed.

A debate about being pulled from the race followed. “We’re not concerned about the dark,” Slowest told the race organizer. “We’ve got headlamps.” Slower also emphasized they had plenty of reserve in the tank. “We’ve been pacing ourselves, but if you’re concerned about our speed we’ll pour on the gas." And without waiting for approval they sprinted away from the checkpoint in fast motion: left, wait 2 seconds, right, wait, left.

Now the landscaped streaked by at hyperspeed. Over the course of the next two hours Stirrup Creek came and went in a blur, as did Dandy Creek, and Dandy Pass. Furthermore, the uphill curse of the Pacific Crest Trail seemed to crack and the route actually slanted downhill at times. A little before 4 p.m. the team happened upon a patroller sweeping the course in reverse to make sure no collapsed heaps of protoplasm lay in the snow.  The patroller greeted them with more pessimism, “Tell the helpers at Checkpoint 2 to take you out on the machine, you’re moving too slow to finish before dark.” And away he flew.

“We’re going to make the end with daylight to spare,” Slow told his team and onward they glided. Several minutes later they slid into Checkpoint 2. Here they were greeted by an acquaintance and an amiable chat ensued for 15 minutes. By then, the skis had been re-skinned, and food had been consumed. “The sweeper wanted us to tell you something,” Slowest said, “What was that?”

“Oh yeah,” Slower said. “I don’t remember either.”

“Doesn’t matter,” their acquaintance told them. “You guys better get going so you can mop up the goslings along the way.”

And off they went with a blessing.

Now the course traversed through ribbons of decimation where great swaths of primordial forests had been leveled to make way for corridor upon corridor of high-tension power lines that sustain the colonies of humanity spreading across the globe like mold consuming a cheeseball.

Where the forest lay leveled, the wind howled, spindrift swirled, and the electric lines snapped as snowflakes were vaporized by the jolts of 100,000 volts. “It’s the Power line Arctic,” Slow noted before they stepped out into the first of many miserable micro-climates wrought by the decimation of trees. Minutes would pass as they pushed through each treeless wasteland with hoods pulled over ears and noses pointed at the ground. On the far side of each strip, they would pluck icicles from eyebrows as they re-entered the sanctuary of the forest.

Colin Johnson Photo. The rime and the reason: It takes wind to form this kind of rime on trees ... and that's the reason the forest was preferred to suffering out in the open domains of the Power line Arctic.

By 4:40 the skins were off for the final time and 1600 vertical feet, the longest descent of the day, separated them from the finish. While powder snow coated the forest floor, there would be no such prissy surface to ski. They salivated over the sandblasted wind crust awaiting them – this was garbage that actually demanded skill to carve.

Down they went in the dimming light alongside the power lines. Much lower they traversed though forests and intersected ski slopes serviced by a remote rope tow. Shortly thereafter, they reached race’s end at the doorsteps of the Meany Lodge owned by The Mountaineers.

As Slowest pulled to a stop, other racers and guests of the lodge huddled around to congratulate him. Slow, having arrived a minute sooner, was already rummaging in his pack. “Here it is.” He fitted a headlamp over his ski cap and turned it on. “It’s not much of a tour if we don’t end in the dark,” he said with a grin.

Slower and Slowest dug into their packs, produced headlamps, and also fitted them to their heads, “OK we’re ready.” And with that the shining lights of Wenatchee entered the dark hut and gave the younger, faster skiers the privilege of basking in their awesome luminance.

Outside the race organizer shivered waiting to see if other racers would be gliding in after dark. For him resurrecting the Patrol Race had, indeed, proved to be a cold day in Hell.

Most of the crew who participated in the 2014 running of the Patrol Race. Several teams did not spend the night at Meany Lodge and are not pictured. Anne Brink (on the right) is the first woman to have completed the race.


Details, Details: The Patrol Race

The Historical Race. The race formerly connected two huts owned by The Mountaineers and was held annually from 1930 until 1941. Read more about the history.

The Modern Race. The race was resurrected in February 2014, thanks to the efforts of Nigel Steere, and support he received from sponsors like K2 and Backcountry Access. Despite the jokes made at his expense in the exaggerated accounting of the race above, Steere put an amazing amount of hard work and good cheer into bringing this race back from the archives of history. The combination of history, setting, and camaraderie make this a worthy event to  put on the bucket list.

Teams and Equipment. The race must be completed by teams of three that travel together and end together. Emergency equipment, warm clothes, food, and water must be carried by each participant.

Race Route: Originally the race started at Snoqualmie Lodge (elevation of 3,200 feet), which has since burned down, and headed south toward Tinkham Peak, Mirror Lake, Yakima Pass, Dandy Pass (3700 feet), Stampede Pass, and the Meany Lodge (2900 feet).

Record Time: Wolf Bauer, who raced the route back in the old days, continues to hold the course record for fastest time (4 hours and 37 minutes). The best time produced by those completing the course in 2014 was a disgraceful 7 hours 9 minutes.

Registration: If you want to take on this all-day race in the future, visit the Patrol Race Facebook or the Meany Ski Hut page for updated information and ways to get your team registered.

Meany Lodge. If you do the race (or complete the route as an outing), spend the night at Meany Lodge (aka the Meany Ski Hut). The lodge is a classic destination by itself and has a colorful history, wonderful ambiance, and a warm collection of volunteers who keep it operating.

A group doing the Patrol Route in traditional style. Sort of: traditional anorak with Arcteryx pants, wooden skis with Black Diamond bindings...