Utah Avalanche Center avalanche forecaster Dave Kelly poses for a portrait in Alta on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
The mountains — and this will come as no surprise to anyone who has been conscious in Utah the past five months — are well on their way to a record snowfall season.
There have been big, long winters before, but none shaping up to be bigger or longer than 2022-23. It started snowing in October and it’s only stopped so it could start again. Here at Alta, the venerable mining town turned ski mecca, the most snow ever recorded at the historic guard station located on the north side of the highway is 745.4 inches during the winter of 1994-95.
This year, it will be something of a surprise if the total doesn’t break the 800-inch barrier — that’s 66.6 feet — by the end of April.
Nowhere is there more glee about all this than in the mountains themselves — where the people hang out who love snow the most.
Like Dave Kelly.
Dave is a part-time ski patroller at Alta Ski Area and a full-time forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center. To say this season has kept him busy is a gross understatement. Every time it snows he arises at 2:30 a.m. to formulate his forecasts. That’s been a majority of the time this winter.
Despite all the early-morning shifts, how would he describe the season?
“Epic would be a word you could say for it,” he says. “And nonstop and never-ending.”
Dave, who just turned 40, came here 19 years ago after graduating from college in New Hampshire so he could ski for a year and get that out of his system. Then he would move on to graduate school and some vague, yet-to-be-determined career.
He’s never left.
“It was supposed to be a one-off kind of thing,” he says.
Then he fell in love with the mountains.
He had student loans to pay and people back home scratching their heads about what on earth Dave was doing out there in the West. Didn’t matter.
“I felt the empowerment and the draw of the mountains,” he says. “That grabs you. That’s why I stuck around.”
He’s paid his dues. When Alta told him the best path to getting on their ski patrol was to gain experience elsewhere, he spent a winter in Colorado and another winter in Montana learning the ropes before returning to Utah and getting hired at Alta.
Last October, after years spent studying avalanches, he signed on with the Utah Avalanche Center.
His life is centered around snow and skiing — that and the camaraderie of the like-minded mountain people doing similar to what he’s doing: fellow snow disciples who accept the fact they’re not going to get rich doing what they do, at least not in the monetary sense.
He laughs and says, “The joke is you’re getting paid in sunsets and powder shots.”
In the summers he’ll run rivers or work construction, but come wintertime you know where to find him.
Utah Avalanche Center avalanche forecaster Dave Kelly shovels out a buried sign that alerts people that they are entering avalanche terrain in Alta, on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Skiing is how he met his wife, Johanna. She’s a ski patroller too. She came to Snowbird six years ago from Canada on a two-week ski vacation, met Dave, and stayed. They live in a house in Albion Basin, elevation 9,238 feet. Johanna is a snow safety supervisor at Snowbird so she has the longer commute, about a mile. Dave can practically roll out of bed and be at Alta.
He and Johanna have had a front row seat to watch the snow — which has already surpassed the totals for the last two years combined — pile up this year.
“I do follow the numbers,” Dave says. “It would be cool to be here for the first season to go over that 800-inch mark.”
And if he’s any kind of a forecaster, the nonstop winter will leave another kind of mark.
“This is the kind of season where you’re going to have some kid who shows up on vacation, or somebody who’s moved out here who’s washing dishes in the back of some kitchen somewhere, decide to stick around for the next 20 years,” he says.
“In 2043 you’ll be sitting down with someone who showed up this season and this is why they stayed.”
Not that there aren’t some things about the record-setting winter Dave won’t miss. Shoveling snow being top of the list.
“There’s been so much shoveling at our house,” he says. “We’ve had over 700 inches for the season and probably shoveled 900 inches because you have to shovel it once and shovel it again. This is the first year we’ve considered buying a snowblower.”
A small price for an epic season.