Stars, stripes, and skis: Keeping up with an Olympic skier on a snow-packed Independence Day adventure

During Freedom Fest, thousands of people flock to Palisades Tahoe for a last ski run of the season

I’ve already sacrificed my favorite pair of titanium Volant skis in pursuit of this story. And now, here I am, staring down the steep ridge of National Chute, a narrow pass on Palisades Tahoe’s Palisades, risking my health, life, and limbs to chronicle this tale of summer skiing.

This adventure was supposed to be all fun in the sun, cruising a few runs at Palisades Tahoe for the second installment of Freedom Fest, a “celebration of skiing in summer” according to Liesl Hepburn, the mountain’s PR director. Skiers from around the world flock to Palisades Tahoe and Lake Tahoe to hit up the last remaining mounds of snow for the Fourth of July holiday, bombing down the slopes in shorts, tank tops, and bikinis, the mountain ablaze in red, white, and blue.

skiers glide by a lake and some mountains
In the middle of the summer, Palisades Tahoe still boasts snowy peaks. | Photo: Dan Shapiro

Somehow, though, I managed to pass on the leisurely Freedom Fest activities, instead choosing to chase a few extra wintertime thrills in early July, which is exactly how I find myself here, at 8,885 feet elevation, attempting to keep pace with U.S. Olympic alpine skier Travis Ganong down the slopes on this final run of the 2018-19 season.

It’s no big deal. He only placed fifth in the downhill competition at the 2014 Sochi Games and has been a mainstay on the World Cup circuit for the last decade. What could possibly go wrong?

Stars and stripes

Arriving at the Palisades Tahoe to ride the iconic Gold Coast Funitel to the upper mountain around 10:30 a.m. on July 4, I got a late start on this Freedom Fest adventure.

While there’s still roughly 12 feet of snow densely packed into the base, Palisades Tahoe is down to four lifts on Independence Day. It’s a far different scene than the mighty mountain boasts in the winter, with 177-plus trails and 30 lifts to cover 4,000 acres. Over the last few years, I have grown accustomed to the enormous scale of Palisades Tahoe during peak season, but with my expectations reasonably tempered, it’s a real joy to click into my bindings in July and see the area still alive and bustling.

people in patriotic garb ski and snowboard downhill
Patriotic skiers and snowboarders take to the mountain on July 4th. | Photo: Dan Shaprio
Uncle Sam takes a break from the slopes, poolside. | Photo: Dan Shapiro
Uncle Sam takes a break from the slopes, poolside. | Photo: Dan Shapiro

Instantly, I’m struck by the mountain fashion, as dozens of skiers and boarders cruise over to the Gold Coast Express decked out in American flag apparel, stars-and-stripes bathing suits, red and blue tutus, and a few actual flags flapping in the wind.

Hepburn prepared me for the fashion focus, but she also mentioned that Palisades Tahoe and Freedom Fest are quite retro friendly. I opted for my vintage fluorescent yellow CB spring shell, making me the only thing as bright as the shining sun on this warm, 67-degree summer day.

Tightening my boots on the way down to the Big Blue chair lift, I can immediately feel the difference in the snow, which is slushy and sticky. I probably should have opted for a little extra wax on the underside of these metallic silver planks.

I take the first run down Atkinson’s a bit slowly, aware that the consistency of the snowpack is unlike any I’ve ever skied before. Growing up in the Northeast, I learned to ski on many less-than ideal surfaces, so I’m prepared for the worst—but Palisades Tahoe’s snow quality still provides for a speedy and smooth glide down the slopes. As Ganong mentioned prior to my arrival, I wasn’t “skiing on ice by any means. It’s kind of spring slushy snow. It’s really, really fun to ski.”

Dan Shapiro stands in a neon jacket and shorts
The author takes a break after a downhill jaunt. | Photo: Dan Shapiro

Prior to the official launch of Freedom Fest at the tail end of the record-setting 2016-17 season, Palisades Tahoe has occasionally been open for runs on Independence Day, conditions permitting, over the last 15 years. More than just a spectacle on snow and a bizarre way to spend the dog days of summer, Freedom Fest has become a major component for the multi-sport ethos of Lake Tahoe, where locals hit the slopes in the day and use the afternoons to hike, mountain bike, kayak, canoe, or even tube down the Truckee River with a cooler of beers, lazy river style.

With thousands attending the very first installment, Freedom Fest returned for its sophomore effort this year after Palisades Tahoe amassed over 60 feet of snowfall during the season. During the month of February, the elements dumped more than a foot of snow on the mountain per day.

Free to ski

With a lap in the books, I head over to the Shirley Lake Express, the most popular and crowded lift on this day. On a fresh winter day, you can traverse beyond the line of sight, into the trees, and over to Granite Alley, one of my favorite runs. Today, though, those trails are already off limits, so I pick a line through a dense patch of moguls, carving perfect turns all the way down the bowl before the slopes merge into a flatter surface under the lift.

One of the many bright sides of this whole summer skiing deal is the lack of any beginner skiers on the slopes. “It’s all access to intermediate and expert terrain,” offered Hepburn days before. It’s a welcome change to peak season, when rookies tend to clutter up the hills, often times creating the most unsafe conditions.

Ganong skis down a steep hill
Ganong easily skis down an expert-level slope. | Photo: Dan Shapiro

Freedom Fest is really for the diehards, people who would ski year round if the weather permitted. While many are already getting an early start on their après-ski activities—lounging with a few drinks at the Gold Coast lodge or hanging out at the High Camp pool party, 8,200 feet up at the top of the Aerial Tram—I’m right back in line, this time ready to take on a rare summer skiing phenomenon.

“Palisades Tahoe’s really known for its free skiing, like big mountain terrain,” Ganong told me before I even arrived. “One phenomenon that’s been happening lately is people create these snakes. Everybody skis kind of in the same spot, and over time it creates these big bank turns that link together all the way down a run, that people have built just from skiing them over and over again. Those are really fun to go play in, in spring and summer.”

Heeding Ganong’s advice to not take the snake too fast, I drop in and carve my turns low to high, almost as I would inside a halfpipe, using the vertical rise to control my speed before rolling on my edge for the next move. All goes well for the first few turns, but with a bit too much speed, I catch some air over the lip, turning in mid flight. On my way back down into the snake, the back half of my right ski lands flat on the outer edge of the snake trail, right where my heel meets the binding.

a snowpack near the edge has a sign that reads "stop: closed area"
Because of the quickly melting snow, certain areas are off-limits to skiers. | Photo: Dan Shapiro

The sheer force of my body weight slamming down onto the snow pack bends the titanium 15 degrees, and for the first time in a decade, I’ve thrashed a pair of skis—my favorite Volant G66 skis that are no longer in production.

It’s perhaps the biggest summer bummer I could possibly feel on such a day, but the combination of beautiful conditions, fresh air, and extreme altitude, along with the fleeting sounds of Grateful Dead hits playing in the background are enough for me to brush off the heavy buzz kill. Instead, I decide to rent a pair of skis and complete this Freedom Fest mission.

Peak hiking

All geared up, I rendezvous with Ganong at the top of the Gold Coast Funitel. Ganong is a Lake Tahoe native who’s been skiing for the U.S. team since he was 15 years old, and is currently preparing for the 2021 World Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy and the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. He takes me on a few laps to see if I’m able to keep up; we rip down Tomlinson’s, Hill’s, and Standteiner’s in succession.

An experienced skier with more than 30 seasons under my belt, I’m hot on Ganong’s tail for the first run, but with each progressive trip down the mountain, his pristine form and mastery of the terrain really starts to show.

Travis Ganong stands posing with his skis
Travis Ganong is a 2015 World Championship silver medalist and an Olympic alpine skier. | Photo: Dan Shapiro

Having proven my worth and expert-level skill, we proceed to the Gold Coast Express, removing our skis once atop the lift for the 20-minute hike past the Siberia Bowl to Olympic Valley Peak, the second highest peak at Palisades Tahoe, where we’ll tackle the Palisades, a series of steep ridges, chutes, and cliffs that rank as some of its most difficult terrain.

Lift service to this area has been suspended for the season, but the trails remain open for those willing to brave the elements and endure the hike.

“I’ve skied on the Fourth of July [at Palisades Tahoe] I think five times,” says Ganong, as we approach the Palisades. “It’s not a super rare phenomenon. It happens probably every two, three, or four years.”

Overlooking the Sierra Nevada mountains and walking through dirt and stones, Ganong offers some insight into the local region and the various peaks. “I can remember as a kid we’d get out of school, go on a family vacation somewhere and then when Palisades Tahoe announced once that they were open on the Fourth, my dad and I cut our vacation short—we were in the Caribbean or something—and flew home to go have fun on the Fourth skiing,” he says.

in the distance are green-topped mountains and hills
Most peaks aren’t snow-capped this time of year. | Photo: Dan Shapiro

Remembering how I first started skiing back in the ‘80s, taking regular trips with my dad to the mountains in Maine, my mind wanders a bit as Ganong identifies our surroundings. Then, realizing that we’re now atop Olympic Valley Peak, I snap to and mount the rickety rentals that are supposed to get me down to the base safely.

The initial drop in is steeper than expected, but I won’t show any hesitation, especially not in front of Ganong, who quickly offers some encouragement in the form of “the steeper the better,” before charging down National Chute.

Watching him carve the first five turns, I have that same empty feeling in my gut that I’ve had in Whistler Blackcomb, Aspen Snowmass, Snowbird, Kirkwood, and Sugarloaf. It’s just the initial drop that creates any mental barriers to entry. From there it’s an easy run down to the next plateau—the North Bowl.

No fall zone

Once again, we pop off our skis for another short hike over to the North Bowl. Once again, Ganong offers a few words of wisdom: “This is a no fall zone,” he says, pointing to a narrow path in between two sharp rocky formations that run on both sides of the tiny trail, eliminating any margin for error. “Don’t fall.”

I’ve received better advice in my day. I’ve also received worse, so I keep my turns tight and my heels dug firmly into the snow. No falls, no foul, and now it’s on to Hogsback, the final part of our descent down to the Funitel, Palisades Tahoe’s iconic cableway.

“We call these suncups,” explains Ganong, pointing to patches of slightly melting snow that soften up as the day goes on due to direct sun exposure. “They’re really soft and fun to ski.”

Dan Shapiro looks over a cliff's edge
One wrong turn could send a skier over the edge. | Photo: Dan Shapiro

Aware that this will be the last run of the season, I’m prepared to make the most of this final jam and hit every turn with precision and purpose. It’s not often that I have the chance to ski with an Olympian, let alone on a perfect and sunny July afternoon.

The experience is by far the most significant Independence Day memory I can recall. It’s a bizarre treat to enjoy my favorite winter activity in the middle of summer and an experience I hope to have again, the next time Palisades Tahoe hosts one of its Freedom Fests.

But for now, with the 2018-19 ski season officially in the books, it’s time to fully embrace the summer by hopping on a mountain bike and jumping directly into the icy cold waters of Lake Tahoe.