Gael Williams is the longest-running member of the Palisades Tahoe Ski Patrol. In fact, this year marks his 41st season as a patroller. Known as a kind, knowledgeable, easy-to-talk-to mainstay on the mountain, Gael has been here through decades of change and excitement. What never changes for Gael is how much he loves these mountains (especially KT-22) or his drive to be the hardest worker on the hill. From sun up to sun down (and often in the darkness, too) Gael gives his life to one of the most difficult and rewarding jobs on the mountain. For the past three seasons, there has been another factor upping the fun for Gael as well: His son, Zach, is now a member of the Palisades Tahoe Ski Patrol.
Gael grew up in the East Bay. He got a degree from UC Berkeley and had an accounting job lined up, but before starting work in “the real world,” he spent a few months in Lake Tahoe. He worked as a security guard in The Village and did revegetation in the summer. When he finally made it to the accounting job, he lasted six months. The work was dry, and the mountains were calling. Gael became a Ski Patroller, and he has been here ever since.
Photos: Gael Williams taken by Ben Arnst in 2019.
Gael spent 20 years as a Supervisor in the Patrol department and 4 as the Assistant Director. In recent years, he helped create a new position for himself as the Hill Safety Supervisor. Gael’s job entails making sure that all of our on-hill safety signage, boundaries, and netting are consistent across all zones (The Palisades side of the resort is divided into five zones for patrollers: Resort Chair-Red Dog, KT-Headwall, Siberia, Shirley-Granite, & Silverado, which covers the High Camp area).
Zach’s path to becoming a Ski Patroller isn’t too different from his dad’s. After getting a degree in Animal Science from CalPoly, Zach needed a break before continuing down another several-year course of higher education. Gael says the rule in their family is that you have to go to college before you become a Ski Patroller. (Gael’s other child, Sarah, spent a year on Patrol staff as well. She is now a doctor).
Having grown up on the mountain, Zach’s intimate knowledge of the area was good preparation for becoming a patroller. He also has experience as an EMT and spent years on our Ski Teams. Zach, like many other local kids, started out as a Mighty Mite and went on to be a part of Big Mountain. In a now-funny memory, Zach shares that when he was a Mighty Mite, at 6 years old, he once tried to duck under a “SLOW” sign that his dad had set up that morning and ended up breaking his leg. The patroller who responded to the incident was Gael himself. Needless to say, Zach learned a lesson about why that’s always a bad idea.
“It doesn’t matter how old you get,” Gael says, “if you go through the Mighty Mites program here, you are going to be a good skier.”
Gael’s right: In 2022, Zach won the intense Red Bull Raid event at Palisades Tahoe, beating out pro skiers like his friend Daron Rahlves. Red Bull Raid required participants to ascend CII Bowl using skins and then choose a technical downhill line, getting points for each section of the race. Zach had no experience with uphill racing; he borrowed boots from another patroller’s wife and skis from a friend. He took 2nd place in both uphill heats, but his downhill skill was so masterful, there was no question that he was the winner.
It’s no surprise that Zach turned out to be such a tremendous athlete. Both of his parents were, as Gael calls it, “exercise freaks” and avid skiers. He was encouraged not just by his mom and dad, but also by his step-parents, especially Gael’s wife Deirdre, who never missed one of Zach’s events or races growing up.
Photo: Zach with his dad after winning the Red Bull Raid.
When asked what their favorite memory together on the mountain has been, both Gael and Zach say that taking Deirdre on one of their morning routes of KT last season was absolutely special. Deirdre, a huge supporter of both of them and a pillar in the family, sadly passed away this past July following a fight with metastatic melanoma. In all 41 years of patrolling at Palisades Tahoe, Gael says that last season (the 2022-23 season) was the best and most memorable of all time — and it was made even better by the fact that Deirdre got to be there for it.
Obviously, there’s no question that skiing is a family affair for the Williams’, and their peak of choice will always be KT-22. They both admit that no matter the conditions, if you ask them how the skiing on KT is, they’re probably going to say that it’s great. Gael even spent last summer working with the team to finish building the new KT patrol shack, which he said was a “soulful” experience. KT-22 is to Gael and Zach what it is to so many other skiers who frequent these peaks: A piece of them. Their favorite place on earth. A spiritual spot, for now and forever. A different meaning for the word ‘home.’
If you press Gael and Zach about the best part of their job and the hardest part of the job, they give the same answers. The best part is the skiing, especially in the morning when you feel like you’re alone on the mountain. The hardest part is also the skiing; Patrol work is a physically demanding job that requires you to be on your feet at all times. Despite that, Gael shows no sign of slowing down. He’ll be doing this for as long as he possibly can. Zach, meanwhile, who will be eligible for his Blaster’s License next year after completing 3 seasons of patrol work, is just getting started.
Gael is extremely proud of Zach’s work in Ski Patrol and he loves getting to work with his son. While Gael has been around the longest out of all of our Patrollers, the whole team is very tight-knit and dedicated to one another. It is a brotherhood (a brotherhood with enough female ski patrollers to make their very own Women of Ski Patrol calendar this year, that is) and a community of care that’s hard to find anywhere else. For Gael, getting to share it with Zach is the ultimate fulfillment in a long and decorated career.