How a volcano helps Parkite Brad Lewis live the skiing dream
November 28, 2017
Not everyone gets a chance to live in a great place and spend time doing what they love, but for decades, Brad Lewis has had the pleasure of calling Hawaii, Alaska and Park City his home. From a young age, he knew he wanted nothing to do with office life; a volcano eruption in 1982 made living his dream possible.
Born in Salt Lake City, Lewis has been a photographer from when he got his first camera at the age of 5. He started traveling in his late teens and early 20s and presenting slideshows of his adventures.
During that time, he had a mishmash of jobs, including archaeology in Alaska, but kept finding himself hemmed in.
"They involved fun-filled work then morphed into office work," he said. "And the more money you started making the more boring it was. It was like 'Wait a minute I just want to be flying around in a helicopter. … I don't want to be writing the reports.'"
Then. in 1982 he took a vacation to the big island that changed the course of his life.
"A month after I got there this eruption started," he said in a phone call from his jungle location in Hawaii.
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It was the beginning of the Kilauea Volcano eruption. Lewis was mesmerized by the 2,000-foot-tall lava fountains bursting from the volcano, and it provided a beautiful and unique photographic opportunity. At that time, there were almost no photographers dedicated to shooting volcanoes, he said, and Lewis saw he had the market cornered, so he decided to try and make a living as a photographer.
"It was liquid light," he said. "It's constantly changing so I was hooked right away."
He sent slides to every magazine he wanted to work with, and soon started making good money selling stock photos to clients around the world.
"Life magazine was the first ones to bite," he said. "They did a double-page spread of my volcano work and all of a sudden my phone started ringing."
He developed a relationship with the volcano monitoring station, providing them with photographs that helped the scientists understand what was going on in exchange for access. As the volcano's lava flow morphed and spread, Lewis followed it, covering important cultural events, like when the lava enveloped petroglyph sites and flooded the historic town of Kalapana. News of its destruction went international, earning Lewis more work and acclaim.
As volcanoes are wont to do, Kilauea demanded sacrifices, and that was meted out upon Lewis's equipment.
"It's really rough on camera gear; its part of the deal," he said. "At vents or ocean entry, you have hydrochloric acid, and sulphuric acid, you have fumes that will get in the camera."
At one point, he became an ambassador for Pentax because their camera bodies were more resistant to the toxic fumes.
When one of the medium format Pentax cameras he was using stopped working, he sent it in for repairs.
"They said 'Oh you dropped your camera in the ocean,' because of the corrosion," Lewis recalled. "I said 'No that's just what it looks like from the volcano.'"
The volcanic environment also wreaks havoc on tripod legs, which melt, warp or bust into flames, and the soles of his shoes, which he said can melt flat after a single outing.
Sometimes, fumes from the volcanoes have melted his vests and clothing.
"Basically it's like someone squirted battery acid on them," he said.
One thing he never skimps on, even if its going to get ruined, is a very good respirator.
"(The fumes) might melt my shirt off me, but I'm not messing up my lungs," he said. As dubious as it sounds, Lewis claims he has never taken foolhardy risks to get a shot.
The sacrifice continued to pay off, and with money from his photos, Lewis was able to stay in touch with another passion: skiing. He bought his mom's cabin in Brighton Estates where as a child he spent winters learning to ski and taking to the backcountry when he couldn't afford lift tickets.
"I remember cardiac pass on (Asnes Tur Langren) wooden skis and (Alfa) ultra low cut boots," he said. "We were shredding this epic powder on really basic gear."
He still has those skis today, and takes them around the neighborhood when he doest have time for bigger outings.
The cabin is a stone's throw from Park City, and a five-minute snowmobile ride from Deer Valley Resort, where some days he can get three first-chairs in a day.
With eruptions going on year-round, and stock photography income supporting him, Lewis could make the effort to take time and go back to Alaska each year, and Hawaii for some shots, and still remain a dedicated skier.
He estimated he skis 120 days in a season.
Last season was, as skiers know, particularly good; the kind of season that Lewis remembered as a kid. So much snow fell that his cabin door was blocked for a time, and his snowmobile was buried so deep he opted to ski to the resort instead.
But he said his situation hasn't made him a powder snob. In fact, after spending so much time close to lava and far from skiing, he said it's always good to see snow, even if it isn't perfect.
"Every day is good, it all feels good to me," he said of life on boards. "I might not ski a full day but I will definitely get out there for a first chair, ski a few hours."
He said, regardless of his workload, he still makes time to get out and ski, which is the product of another choice toward creative freedom he made when he and his family moved home base back to Park City in 2010, when his daughter said she wanted to go to Park City High School.
"I used to do a lot of commercial stuff," he said. "Even in Park City I had an epiphany of choice. I don't want to be dealing with these people shooting this $17 million living space. … I'd rather be watching the light get good on the aspen leaves."
Because of the proliferation of intuitive digital cameras and the internet, lucrative stock photography sales became a thing of the past, so Lewis turned to fine art to fill the gap.
And with that, his documentation of Kilauea, which for so long he called home, is winding down.
He said photographers flock to the still-erupting volcano now, and access is more restricted, so he's putting Hawaii's hot spots on the back burner. His plans are to spend summers sailing and backpacking and his winters at his snow lodge, where he anticipates spending more time in the backcountry, maybe with some new neighbors.
Lewis said he's hoping the snow will be good this season, but who can say how it will go?
One thing is certain, after dedicating so much to a lifestyle of freedom, he won't be returning to a day job anytime soon.
"I'm not going out of my way to do anything different," he said. "I'm at this stage where I'm really focused on staying active in the wilderness."
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