Meet Gael Williams and his son, Zach. Gael has been on pro patrol at Palisades Tahoe for longer than anyone; Zach is just getting started.
Gael Williams has been a ski patroller for exactly 40 winters. Currently the longest-standing member ever of Palisades Tahoe’s pro patrol, Gael, age 64, is a veteran in his field and still one of the strongest skiers on the squad. Last year, a new rookie joined the patrol ranks at the legendary California mountain: It was Gael’s son, Zach.
“The ski patrol is filled with very big personalities, and my dad is a very big personality,” says Zach, who’s 24. “I had to figure out how to create my own spot.”
This past season, the father-son duo worked side-by-side through one of Tahoe’s snowiest winters on record, with over 720 inches of snow. There were stormy early morning shifts, running avalanche routes together on the Nose, a steep section of KT-22. Gael is a morning person; Zach is not. “It’d be 6 a.m. and my dad is the most awake person,” Zach says. “He always shows up with the most energy.”
Gael, in fact, wakes up hours before his shift starts and has a full warm-up routine, which involves early-morning stretching, lots of coffee, and jogging across the parking lot from his car to the patrol locker room each morning. (Zach has started doing the same running-to-the-locker-room routine, too.) “I like to tell people I’ve transcended fatigue, but really that’s only dawn to dusk,” Gael says. “I leave it all out there on the field, and I’m pretty tired at the end of the day.”
“He’s a complete workhorse. Always go, go, go,” Zach says. “Sometimes when it’s that early in the morning and I’m trying to be lazy, I’m like, ‘Ugh, Dad.’”
Gael was hired on the pro patrol in November 1983. He was 24 years old at the time, the same age Zach is now. “I was going to spend one winter getting skiing out of my system before starting an accounting career,” Gael says. “I didn’t ever get it out of my system.”
Zach grew up in the nearby town of Truckee, the son of a patroller and a member of the resort’s freeride team. He competed in junior freeride contests, while his dad worked mountain safety. When Zach broke his leg skiing at age six, it was Gael who showed up with the sled. When Zach got a concussion at age 12, other patrollers dropped him off with Gael. “I always felt at home on the mountain,” Zach says. “That’s basically where we lived.”
Zach went off to college to study animal science, with plans to become a veterinarian. But when Zach’s older sister, Sarah, joined the ski patrol alongside their dad for a season between college and medical school, Zach thought, well, that sounds cool. He joined Palisades Tahoe’s pro patrol in fall 2021. Sarah is a doctor now and no longer on patrol, but the family—including Gael’s wife, Deirdre—still shreds together whenever they can. The west side of KT is the family’s happy place—they could rip the steep lines off that peak all day long, charging harder than anyone on the mountain. “The kids have grown up with a love and appreciation for the mountain that’s similar to my own,” Gael says.
Last year, Zach won the Red Bull Raid, a ski contest at Palisades Tahoe that combines uphill touring with a big-mountain downhill. “He’s pulling off rad moves and making it look easy,” Gael says. “Parenting is so cool all the way along. I get so much from them from their love and appreciation and tolerance for their dad.”
As for retirement plans, Gael isn’t there yet. “I think I can go for another 10 years,” he says. “I’m living the dream, ski patrolling on my terms. I absolutely love my job.” As for Father’s Day plans? Those are loose, too. “We might go for a bike ride,” says Zach.