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Punked: Alta vs. Snowbird

The pranks have involved explosives, goats, mannequins, doughnuts, and nudity. Each year on April Fools' Day, the Snowbird and Alta patrollers punk each other, sometimes spawning real panic and organized rescue. Is this the year they get busted?
posted: 11/24/2008
This ratchet will tighten the bolts on Alta's new signs. Fortunately, it won't have to be used to render Alta patrollers unconscious. Read the whole story here.

The assault squad pours out of two trucks into the clear Utah night, not unlike the A-Team swinging out of its conversion van and into action. It’s a crack team. There’s the Orchestrator, La Grenouille, Lady Dynamite, Kent, and Josh. Not their real names, of course, but the Orchestrator made the terms clear: no real names, no faces in any photos. He called this our “gentlemen’s agreement.” Kent and Josh said they didn’t give two shits if I used their real names, so they’re deprived of cool sounding monikers. Though most of their identities remain hidden, they can tell me this much: They’re all ski patrollers at Snowbird Ski Resort. Check out the photos.

By 10:30 p.m. we’re deep in enemy territory, which is to say near Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge at Alta Ski Area. I am a ski-country Geraldo, minus the mustache and flak jacket, embedded with commandos in black Gore-Tex shells and dusty jeans. The stakes are high. We received the details of tonight’s sortie less than a week ago. It involves road signs. As you drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon, you pass four distinct entry signs for Snowbird, clearly marked as Snowbird entrances One, Two, Three, and Four. A half-mile later, you’ll hit two Alta entry signs. If all goes to plan, these two Alta signs will be branded as Snowbird Entry Five and Entry Six, effectively demoralizing Alta in a brilliant piece of ski propaganda and establishing Snowbird’s dominance over Little Cottonwood Canyon. It should take under an hour.

But just as the crew’s preparing to lift the new entry signs out of the truck, a red Subaru Outback pulls up. A girl in her early 20s leans out the driver’s-side window. “What are you guys doing?” We freeze. The Orchestrator must think fast. He’s a battle-tested veteran and the leader of this tight-knit unit. This is not his first rodeo. His strong-jawed middle-aged face goes slack, and then he speaks. “Um…nothing…we were just…uhh…helping a friend out with some gear.”

Later Kent would tell me the Orchestrator isn’t a very good liar—an admirable trait, though fairly disadvantageous in our present situation. But his half-baked response seems to work. The Subaru drives away, but then stops abruptly 100 yards down the road and pulls into a parking lot. She’s onto us. Kent says he recognized her voice. It’s Lea, a rookie patroller at Alta. She must be on sentry duty tonight. Shit.

***

This roadside encounter is my introduction to the clandestine world of Snowbird and Alta’s annual April Fools’ Day prank. A chairlift connected the two resorts in 2002, but that has done little to blunt their 37-year-old friendly rivalry: Alta, the skiers-only mountain with an old-school vibe, at odds with the younger, hipper Snowbird. For the past three decades, the two neighboring patrols have played increasingly elaborate practical jokes that reveal themselves on the morning of April 1.

But Alta hasn’t pulled a prank in two years, and Snowbird patrollers have a feeling that this may be the year of Alta’s big comeback. ’Bird patrollers debated keeping someone on lookout near the Hidden Peak shack—the crown jewel of the Snowbird patrol infrastructure—to make sure Alta didn’t try something, but the Orchestrator said, “Nah, we need to let ’em do their thing. That’s part of the fun.” Truth is, Snowbird patrollers actually want to be pranked. They want the tradition to live on.

In the past, antics have included putting a live goat in the patrol shack, sneaking into the locker room to switch patrollers’ boot liners, publicly announcing a bring-your-snowboard day at skiers-only Alta, and stuffing rescue toboggans with skin mags, condoms, and whiskey. This year, Snowbird’s giving Alta the ol’ entry-sign switcheroo. Seems harmless enough.

But sometimes they get carried away. They’re competitive, hardcore ski patrollers—three men in Snowbird’s crew have summited Everest. At work it’s always safety first, but when it comes to their annual tradition they can be a little reckless.

Snowbird patroller Dusty Sackett, who’s been on patrol since ’77 and serves as the resident historian, can’t remember what year the first prank took place. But he remembers that it got out of hand. Dusty, now 55 and gaunt with bright bespectacled eyes, fondly recalls Alta’s mischief with high-power explosives as the birth of the annual tradition. Alta patrol, possibly in conjunction with the Snowbird snowcat crew, lodged three Avalauncher rounds—explosives fired onto steep slopes to trigger avalanches—directly underneath the terminus of Snowbird’s iconic tram. The way they’d placed the ammo, with a specific tilt in the snow, made it look like live rounds had been misfired from Alta. After a brief hysteria involving an ordnance disposal team, Alta confessed, just in time for the lifts to start running at 9 a.m. No harm, no foul. And that’s key.

Before the Snowbird team settled on the Alta sign swap-out, several ideas were posited and then promptly rejected. They want to stick it to Alta, yes, but they can’t interfere with ski patrol operations. After all, ski patrol’s job is, at times, to save lives. For that reason, they couldn’t sneak in and remove all the toepieces from their bindings, which was one idea. Same rule applied to changing all the locks on the Alta patrol shack. But not all ideas were rejected for the same reason. The idea of putting chickens in their hut was too similar to the time they put a goat in there. And then there was the idea of filling Alta’s sunscreen bottles with a bodily fluid. That one was vetoed for obvious reasons.

The jokes have delved into the scatological before. In Snowbird’s Hidden Peak patrol shack, I’m shown evidence of perhaps the most famous prank pulled against them, which happened in 1988. Dusty leads me to a back room full of an assortment of ropes, shovels, and sleeping avy rescue dogs. Then he pulls out a plaque commemorating The Great ’88 Doughnut Caper.

Just before Christmas in 1987, Snowbird patrollers received a rare gift, a box of doughnuts with a note that read, “Happy Holidays from your buddies over at Alta Ski Patrol.” It seemed like a nice gesture. The doughnuts were quickly gobbled up, the ’Bird patrollers went back to work, and all was forgotten. Until April 1. A package arrived at the shack. It was full of Polaroids. Of the Alta patrollers. With the doughnuts shoved into their assorted nooks and crannies. Score one for Alta. Maybe the photographed ass doughnuts weren’t actually the same pastries sent to Snowbird. But it was psychological torture. Today, a mounted plaque houses a blown-up photo of the Alta guys—with the wedgied baked goods—mooning the camera.

***

It’s three hours before I’m scheduled to meet up with the Snowbird assault team, and I’m sitting in my hotel room having a minor panic attack. I just got off the phone with the Orchestrator. Apparently prank historian Dusty—my only contact until I was on the ground at Snowbird—has unwittingly played his own trick on me. He never told the Orchestrator I’d be tagging along with the crew tonight, and the man with the plan is not happy to hear there will be a reporter present.

On the phone, the Orchestrator tells me he’s not comfortable with the “limelight” and that the prank is usually something just between patrollers. The Snowbird prank isn’t veiled in secrecy, so much as it’s covered by a lead apron of paranoid confidentiality. In short, he doesn’t want an outsider there. He’s also uncomfortable with the fact that a photographer is planning to shoot the entire episode, even though the guy assigned to take pictures is Little Cottonwood legend Scott Markewitz, a longtime friend of Snowbird ski patrol.

After some pleading, he begrudgingly agrees to let us come, but only because Dusty promised access. “Don’t worry,” the Orchestrator tells me. “I’ll be sure to yell at Dusty later.” He says he’ll call in a few hours with specifics about the rendezvous point. I give him my number, but part of me doubts that he’s actually writing it down.

Three hours pass and I still haven’t heard from the Orchestrator. It’ll be dark out soon. I decide to give him one last call. My Hail Mary. The phone rings. The Orchestrator picks up. He tells me to come by around eight and then gives me directions to his apartment at the Hilton (Snowbird’s employee housing and not a swank hotel). “There are no unit numbers, so just walk along until you hear a dog growling behind the door,” he says. I can’t help but think this is all just a big joke on me.

But soon Markewitz and I are standing outside his place. The Orchestrator opens the door, and immediately says to Markewitz, an old friend of his, “Can you vouch for this guy?” He points his thumb at me.

“Yeah, I can vouch for him,” Markewitz says.

“All right. I was worried he’s some spy sent over here from Alta.”

I’m not entirely sure if the Orchestrator is joking or not. Something tells me he’s not. One by one, Lady Dynamite, La Grenouille, Kent, and Josh—a mix of newbie patrollers and wizened, mustachioed vets—slowly trickle into the Orchestrator’s apartment. Josh shows up with a canvas bag of wrenches and drill bits. The signs are in his truck. There’s not much time now. All capering needs to be done before Red, Alta’s Coke-bottle-glasses-wearing night security guard, takes his post.

The Orchestrator gathers his team in the kitchen for a briefing. “All right, we’ll be working in two teams of two, one team on each side of the signs,” he begins. While the patrollers discuss their plan of attack, I thumb through a fake Snowbird employee newsletter (Alta’s 1989 prank on the ’Bird) that the Orchestrator has dug out of an old drawer. Flipping through pages with stories about a daring descent of a sledding hill and a phony job-site safety video, I come across multiple references to someone named Patrolman Fog. I ask the Orchestrator about it and he begins to tell me the story of Patrolman Fog’s long good-bye.

Patrollers don’t like standing around policing closed runs. But Patroller Fog never minded. Mainly because he was a mannequin, dressed as a ski patroller, planted on the edge of Snowbird’s off-limits glades to deter poachers. One day, Dusty, the Orchestrator, and others gave Patrolman Fog working legs and a pair of Rossignol skis. On April 1, 1988, the Orchestrator hauled Fog to the top of Alta’s Mount Baldy, belayed him into its main chute, and cut the rope. He actually skied for the first 200 feet before tomahawking into a nasty, realistic-looking cartwheel. When Alta was about to fire up its rescue helicopter, Dusty told them it wasn’t a real skier. Patrolman Fog spent the rest of his days getting buried in simulated avalanches at Alta.

***

With the assault squad foiled by the snooping Alta patroller Lea, Objective A—swapping out the Goldminer’s Daughter sign—will have to wait till later. We’re forced to move on to the heart of Alta’s defenses, its Guns of Navarone: the Albion Base sign, soon to be Snowbird Entry Six.

“Did Josh get a chance to turn around the security camera at the Albion sign?” the Orchestrator asks on the drive to the next sign.

“I guess we’ll find out,” Kent the wheelman says, turning off his headlights as we approach the next target.

When we get out of the truck, we discover that Josh hasn’t disabled the security camera. But there are no signs of Lea or the night watchman Red, so the team goes to work. Two patrollers on each side, just as planned. The drills make an ungodly squealing sound as the bolts strain against the metal sign. Surely someone will hear this. Next comes the hammering. This will bend the backs of the bolts, so the only way to remove the signs will be with a blowtorch. In five minutes, the work is done. Time to return to Objective A.

We drive back to the Goldminer’s Daughter sign, watching for lurking sentries. Alta must’ve known Snowbird was up to something. Pre-prank intelligence reported that someone saw the Orchestrator measuring the Alta signs a few days ago. They probably saw him holding up color swatches trying to get the exact shade of cobalt blue. But it’s past 10 p.m. now and Red is one of the few people still awake at Alta. And he’s nowhere in sight.

More noisy drilling, more hammering. Markewitz keeps snapping pictures and I’m sure his flash will alert the enemy. Standing 30 feet away, I anxiously keep watch, my head on a swivel looking for oncoming bogeys. Five minutes pass, and the mission is complete. Snowbird entrances Five and Six have been established.

Back at the Orchestrator’s place, the assault team goes in for a group hug, then the Orchestrator hands out a few cold foamers to celebrate. Josh takes a swig, but something is amiss. He crinkles his nose and looks down at the brown bottle. It’s ginseng soda. The Orchestrator offers an earnest apology, but I’m still wondering if this is all part of the prank.

The next morning, April Fools’ Day, I meet up with Dusty and a few of the culprits on the patrol-only 8 a.m. tram, hoping to see what—if anything—Alta did overnight.

We’re heading to the Hidden Peak hut and the patrollers are all atwitter. Several of them are recounting the time that Alta snuck over and released thousands of crickets into the patrol shack via an external air duct. ’Bird patrollers sucked most of the crickets up using a Shop-Vac, but they forgot to empty the vacuum. It stank up all of patrol HQ.

The tram rocks to a stop at the top of Hidden Peak. We unload and the first patrollers nervously unlock the door. I follow close behind, expecting the place to be full of livestock or blow-up dolls. But it’s not. The patrolmen poke around. Still nothing.

“That’s Sleepy Town for ya,” Dusty says, using Snowbird’s pet name for Alta. “Tough as nails, slow as snails.” But the day is still young. A senior patroller begins the morning briefing about avalanche conditions, then the patrollers are let loose on the mountain.

As they police the hill they’ll keep looking for signs of Alta’s meddling. Maybe a midmountain lodge will be covered with a banner proclaiming Snowbird’s inferiority. Or maybe all their rescue toboggans are filled with Jell-O. They’ll keep looking for an Alta prank—secretly hoping the tradition lives on—and maybe, eventually, they’ll find it.

- SKIING MAGAZINE, DECEMBER 2008

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