Tom Kelly: Skiing the trees with a cocktail in hand
It was a black and white day as I scanned the horizon. Low-hanging silver gray clouds obscured the ridgeline across the valley. Below me was a field of snow leading into a glade of aspens. It was peaceful — not a sound. I tapped my poles and pointed my Soul 7s into the fall line, carving deep into the dense six to eight inches of snow from the warm overnight storm — big arcs to control speed as I headed for the trees.
Soon I was in the aspens, carving through an open glade like I had never skied before. It was seemingly endless. The forest-protected snow lightened up for some buttery turns, using aspens as slalom gates, before it opened up into a final bowl below.
It was my introduction to Cocktail Trees.
Just two hours earlier I was scraping a half-inch of rime ice off my Jeep in Park City. I took a look at the Utah Avalanche Center report — it wasn’t pretty. A mix of wet sleet and rain was falling in Park City. “We can’t possibly be going out,” I said to myself.
But I soldiered on, throwing my avy pack and the Rossis into the Jeep, quickly brewing a thermos of tea, then throwing the Rubicon into four-wheel drive to cut through the wet snowpack. Forty minutes later, I pulled up to a lineup of four PistenBully machines in front of the Park City Powder Cats lodge in Weber Canyon. The weather was breaking — well, a bit. Inside the lodge the crew was assembling gear and serving breakfast. The avalanche forecast team briefed the guides to make a safe plan for the day. It was game on.
Park City Powder Cats has been around for over a quarter-century, ferrying skiers every day up into 43,000 acres of mountainous terrain in Thousand Peaks, a sprawling family-owned ranch that stretches from Weber Canyon up into the Uintas. In the summer, sheep graze the mountainsides near the headwaters of the Weber.
Owner Ron Baldis greets his guests in the wood-floored log lodge. Baldis came to Park City to help run the business and ended up as owner 16 years ago. He now spends pretty much every winter day escorting wide-eyed skiers and riders from around the country — and the world — to aspirational experiences they could only dream of in the past.
We climbed into a cat for the ride up the mountain. Most of the 10 in our group were high school buddies from Minneapolis 20 years ago who all came together from around the country for a big ski experience. “It started with a group text last summer. Pretty soon we had it all booked. I had to figure out how to tell my wife,” said one of the skiers, laughing.
Chris piloted our cat along the trail, delicately crossing the Weber River on a temporary bridge, then heading up to Bear Cat Ridge. Switchbacks helped us climb. Soon, we were atop a ridgeline watching the distant tree pods pop in and out with the clouds.
It wasn’t a bluebird panorama day. But it was every bit as beautiful.
Cocktail Trees was just my second of 12 runs that day. But it left a lasting impression on me all day long. The texture of the snow in the woods. The openness amidst the trees. Dead still quiet. No one around me. Just a peaceful day.
I asked my old friend and guide for the day, Bob Merrill, how it got its name. He laughed. Years ago a guest told him, ‘I just felt like I could have skied that run with a cocktail in hand.’ The name stuck.
Given the weather and the instability of the snow pack, our guides picked lines carefully, looking at slope aspect and pitch, and watching for cornices that had built up in the wind.
At the start of the day, there was a bit of an air of apprehension. Most had never done this before. Many were thinking, was this a good idea? Am I going to be able to handle this? What will I look like to my buddies?
All good points. And there probably should be a little fear! But when you make that first sweeping turn in the deep snow, then you link it with another, and you look ahead and there’s nothing but virgin snow ahead of you, your heart lets out a little whoop and you know you’re going to have the time of your life!
Cat skiing is a social experience. In the 10-15 minutes in the snow cat between runs, you meet new friends and share stories. It amps up the experience. You get a chance to rest and warm up, have a sip of tea. Before you know it, you’re atop another mountain. And the cycle continues.
The wind picked up after lunch as we traversed along San Mateo Ridge to our drop-in location. Our crew of skiers and riders was hootin’ it up now, comfortable with their surroundings and making glory turns every run. We felt like pros!
Baldis had a smile on his face as he talked to the guests in the back cabin of the PistenBully. He does this every day, but each story brings a new smile to his face. For a guy who came up to Weber Canyon to help organize the financial numbers, he ended up with a pretty good gig.
As he stands up atop the ridgeline describing each run below, deep down you have to imagine he’s thinking, “Hey, I’m making some dreams come true today.”
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 50th season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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Columnist Tom Clyde writes that the “area around Jordanelle Reservoir is a jurisdictional chowder gone bad.”