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Tom Kelly: Sagebrush and snow

Frost-covered sagebrush with the Park City ridgeline in the distance.
Photo by Tom Kelly

The early morning sun crept up over the eastern horizon. Its rays started painting splotches on the ski runs across the vast Park City ridgeline. It was a stage show of light as the heavens waved their magic wand, illuminating the mountain peaks, down pristine white ski runs and igniting the fresh rime crystals hanging delicately on the sagebrush with the dawn’s early light.

I’ve watched this scene for three decades from our home and it never gets old. It’s the light switch telling me to get out the door. As a photographer, I look at the nuances of light on the landscape. They tell a unique story every day.

As if on cue, Jupiter and Clayton Peaks ignited in the morning light. My mind was drawn to skiing the ridgeline off the Great Western Express up Clayton Peak at Brighton in neighboring Big Cottonwood Canyon, with the stunning views of the Heber Valley as I descended to Snake Creek Pass. Or booting it up Jupiter before dropping into a powder bowl down to the historic Jupiter ore bin down below.



I still remember every turn in a fluffy Christmas Eve day powder dump in 1989 as I skied waist-deep powder down Portugese Gap — one of those runs that never leaves your mind.

At nearly the same instant, Murdock Peak burst into illuminated splendor. The majestic northern bookend to the Park City ridgeline doesn’t get the love its neighbor Jupiter Peak receives 5 miles to the south. But it stands sentinel, a lighthouse bathed in white.



It takes me back to the days of Park West, riding the old Ironhorse double chairlift (think Condor) up the narrow spine to the base of the Murdock Bowl, with bootpacking skiers hiking up to deep powder runs off the flanks of the 9,600-foot mountain. I think about dropping into the trees off Ironhorse, down Ambush, Stampede and Geronimo.

Park Record columnist Tom Kelly.
Courtesy of Tom Kelly

Like a symphony coming to life, suddenly the spotlight shifts broadly to Sound of Music, Squaretop and Silver Peak. That morning, the light shone a bit more brightly onto Dutch Draw, a sad marker of yet another avalanche death there last week.

I was reminded, too, of the backcountry line I skied with my neighbor on the backside, coming out of Big Cottonwood up Beartrap and Willows. Or the days of riding a mountain bike from Scott’s Pass and dropping down into the forested slopes of White Pine Canyon before there were mountain homes.

Like a curtain rising up from the stage, the broad brush of light started to extend its palette downward. From the top of the Crescent lift at Park City Mountain, light extended down the spine. My mind went back in time to thousands of fans lining Willy’s Run for the World Cup as America’s Opening kicked off the season in years past.

The light show extended eastward, moving from Jupiter Peak to Empire, along the snowfields above the Daly Chutes and on to Bald Mountain and down to the Jordanelle. In just a few hours, I’d be arcing big turns down Stein’s Run, the reservoir looming below. As I dreamed, I conjured up memories of coming off Bald Mountain and dropping into the Sunset Trees for a few turns off the old ore tailings pile.

Every morning I look out on the 15-mile ridgeline from Deer Valley to Park City to Canyons and remind myself, this is a pretty nice place to be.

Soon, the morning sun broke over the ridgeline above Promontory, igniting the white crystals on the sagebrush and the prairie grasses, their faceted snow flakes clinging together until the sunlight melts them away for another 24-hour cycle.

It’s time to go skiing!

Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.


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