Tom Kelly: Bringing back the joy
Park Record columnist
Editor’s note: Ridgelines is a weekly column from skier Tom Kelly showcasing the mountain life in the historic resort community of Park City.
So, where were we? OK, now I remember. Saturday March 14. Deer Valley, yeah, that’s it.
It was, indeed, Saturday, March 14 — a day that will live in infamy for skiers. It was overcast, not a particularly joyous weather day. Or maybe that’s the atmosphere I remember. I had done my laps, cruising the ridgeline between the aspens on Supreme, eventually winding my way to the top of Bald Mountain and racing down to the Wasatch lift to close out the day. As I arced turns down Solid Muldoon, the last thing on my mind was that it would be my final run of the season.
A day earlier, I slid up to the Saddleback Express at Canyons, feeling good about being outdoors in this burgeoning coronavirus world. As I approached the lift to single up with a young couple, I saw them hold back and let me load alone. It was my very first exposure to social distancing. I was saddened, a bit, to miss the congenial conversation that was often the highlight of being a local and welcoming visitors.
A year ago when I penned my first Ridgelines column, we had never heard the word coronavirus. We didn’t know the meaning of social distancing. We didn’t live our lives in fear.
I wrote: “There’s a mystique to the mountain life. Mountains are exhilarating to us, bringing a special sense of engagement. They provide a different view or perspective, as well as a sense of solitude.”
Suddenly, I was feeling that sense of solitude in a different way.
I finished my run down Bald Eagle and came to a stop at Snow Park Lodge, clicking out of my bindings and setting my skis on a rack. It was mid-afternoon but the lodge was anything but bustling. Tables were separated, the salad bar was covered in plastic. I ordered my favorite blueberry pie and a beer, sitting at a lone table by a fireplace.
It still never occurred to me that this would be closing day. I didn’t know that two floors above me the resort leadership team was frantically meeting to decide what to do. Soon, they would join others in closing out of an abundance of caution.
Through the pandemic, we all think back to those early days — what we were learning and what we know now that we just didn’t understand then.
It was a depressing spring. I thought about grabbing my backcountry boards and heading up into the mountains. But it seemed wrong to put myself at risk — or to potentially risk first responders. Into the summer, I just couldn’t look forward to the ski season. It didn’t seem realistic.
In July I expressed my pessimism to a resort leader friend. He shared some intel on the sales of season passes. They were skyrocketing. I heard it from others and thought, “Hey, maybe this will happen and we can ski again.”
On Aug. 27, I got “the email” from Vail Resorts President and CEO Rob Katz announcing his plan. It would have been easy to read it and complain about the complexity of reservations. But my instant reaction was one of jubilation: “There is now a plan and we will ski!” Through the fall my optimism and excitement grew.
Just a week ago I sat in on a Ski Utah Zoom press conference as local resorts put forward their plans. I saw creativity. I saw concern for our health. I saw optimism. And I saw real caring and cooperation across the resorts to welcome us back. I saw new ideas designed for COVID-19 operation that will clearly transcend the pandemic when it ends.
In the midst of a COVID-19, skiing is just a tiny piece of our life. Or is it maybe more?
Tomorrow, on Thanksgiving Day, I’ll head to Canyons to open my season. I know that I’ll be greeted by a masked employee who will be genuinely happy to welcome me. I’ll slide up to Saddleback with a sense of great anticipation for the day that lies ahead of me. And I’ll stand atop the mountain full of joy for another day on skis.
No, skiing is not the much-anticipated vaccine for COVID-19. It will not stop the disease or bring back those we have lost. But it will enable our ability to feel exhilaration and joy. As we stand atop the ridgeline and look out to the High Uintas on the horizon, we will feel a sense of freshness.
It will be my 51st ski season. And I’ve never been more anxious for it to begin.
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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