Locals We Love: A Life of Medicine in the Mountains with Dr. Ken

By Stio Mountain on

Locals We Love: A Series

From their outdoor activities to their professional means, these locals are fueled by their passion of pursuit and place. It's not always easy living in a mountain town, but from powder mornings to post-work projects, it’s this shared love that creates a community and connects us all. Through drive, sacrifice and creative determination, these locals have chosen passion first. This season, we bring you their stories - stories that continue to inspire us in our ever-evolving pursuit of the mountain life.

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Words by Mali Noyes | Photos by Sam Watson

The radio buzzes with reports of avalanche shots fired, snow movement results, and areas cleared as Alta Ski Patrol finishes their morning control routes. Grom, the head of the Alta Ski Area snow safety program proclaims, “Let’em have it.” Interlodge has lifted, the road up the canyon opens and Dr. Ken Libre is already out the door. In an excited rush, he stops at his office in the Alta Medical Clinic to drop his backpack then hastily puts on his ski boots, helmet and jacket, grabs his skis from the closet and runs out the door. If Dr. Ken is fast, and the receptionist gets up the canyon in time to open the clinic, he can get in two, three, maybe four ski runs before he has to return to work. On a powder day, when the avalanche bombs have been sounding since 6:00AM, the road up the canyon has been closed since last night, and the Christmas crowds have finally left town, you can be sure Dr. Ken is skiing.

An unusual routine for a doctor? Certainly, but in the middle of a stormy winter, this is just another day at Alta. Located above Salt Lake City at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) in the Wasatch Mountains, Alta Ski Area sits as an orographic catcher's mitt, trapping winter storms as they drop feet upon feet of powder. Surrounded by steep canyon walls and an average of 545 inches of snowfall a year, Alta and the LCC road face nonstop avalanche hazards. As storms hit, snow accumulates and instability rises. The heavily monitored LCC road often closes for safety and avalanche control work. Simultaneously, the town of Alta goes into interlodge, forcing everyone inside and protecting them from the danger of potential avalanches while Alta Ski Patrol and the Utah Department of Transportation shoot the slide paths over the town of Alta. Crews still use military artillery, and combined with their handheld charges, a snow day at Alta sounds something like a war zone. It is the explosions, interlodge restrictions, and stopped traffic that are all precursors to a deep powder day at Alta.

This is what Alta is famous for. The ski area is small, and the town is smaller, but with its steep runs, ample north-facing terrain and multi-day storms, Alta is a ski addicts paradise. Other than four high-speed lifts, there is nothing fancy about Alta. Instead Alta is sweetened with a family owned coffee shop, lodges decorated with wooden skis and leather boots, a church that doubles as a yoga studio, a movie theater and community center. Alta Ski Area remains independently owned, without a terrain park, night life, or a resort village. It is not a developed ski destination, but instead is a community that truly loves to ski. A community that side-steps and traverses to the best ski terrain, that participates in biathlon races, ski-swaps, and ski-race fundraisers. It is a community that treasures the history of skiing. It's through this family and charm that Alta has turned many a ski-bum from one and done seasonal workers into a ski fanatics working vital roles in the community.

One of those community members is Dr. Kenneth Libre, or Dr. Ken for those who know him well. In the family owned lodge that makes up Alta’s base area, next door to the one-room school, and a short walk from the patrol locker room, Dr. Ken runs the Alta Medical Clinic. For the few that live year round at Alta, he is their town doctor, and for the countless skiers that visit Alta in the winter, he is the first they see with their altitude sickness and unfortunate injuries. 

Before Dr. Ken and the clinic, the Alta Ski Patrol brought their injured patients to a small room with a nurse responsible for applying simple first aid or sending injuries down the canyon. Inspired during his residency at Mogul Medical at the Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, Dr. Ken merged his medical career with his love of skiing Alta by starting his own ski clinic. Renting space from the Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge, Dr. Ken renovated a corner of the basement into a four-bed clinic capable of treating injury and illness and to stabilize life-threatening cases before sending them to a larger hospital. Now 16 years later, Alta Ski Patrol pull their injured patients, wrapped inside sleds coming off the mountain, straight to the clinic door, where Dr. Ken meets patrol to wheel skiers out of the snow and into the comforts of the clinic.

Dr. Ken grew up skiing. His mother was a native Swede who loved everything about winter so the family would often drive 10 hours from Maryland to Lake Placid to ski at Whiteface Mountain. In between college and medical school Dr. Ken worked at a backcountry lodge in the Adirondacks. With lace up leather boots (personally modified with plastic cuffs), tele skiing was his sliding method of choice. It was during this year of skiing the narrow trees of the Adirondacks that Dr. Ken realized he wanted skiing “to be part of (his) everyday winter-life”. And so, in medical school, Dr. Ken bought a pass to the nearby Dartmouth Skiway where he would study on the chairlift, claiming skiing “kept him sane.” Growing up with a father and two older brothers who all worked as physicians, Dr. Ken was destined to be a doctor. Originally, he planned on being an Ophthalmologist, but after his rotation at Mogul Medical in Taos, Dr. Ken set his sights on working at a ski clinic. His time in the Taos clinic was the “best month” of his years in medical school and not just for the pre-public powder runs, but also for his experience treating acute ski injuries and working with motivated skiers and athletes. 

After finishing his residency at the University of Utah, in an attempt to re-create his “best month” of medical school, Dr. Ken started working part-time at the Snowbird Clinic. It quickly became clear that the corporate management of the Snowbird Clinic didn’t align with Dr. Ken’s goals, so he moved up the road to Alta ski area. After a lot of work, planning and help from the Alta community Dr. Ken opened his own clinic, The Alta Medical Clinic, in November of 2004.

Founding, owning and operating a private clinic comes with many challenges, but as Dr. Ken reflects, “While at times hard, this job has never really felt like work because I love it.” Dr. Ken has built his life around the Alta Medical Clinic while embracing the nuances and enjoying the perks of working as the ski town doctor. Living at Alta with his family, Dr. Ken cross country skis to work with his loving clinic dog Luna. He treats patients in his “professional” brown ski pants; which, while stylish, are practical; keeping him ready for either an on-hill coding patient, or a rope drop to his favorite terrain. Dr. Ken speaks freeride slang, knows the jumps that frequently injure the young senders, the icy groomers that scare the timid visitors and is well practiced at the classic ski injuries of knees, shoulders, and concussions. He has charts tracking the injuries of Alta’s avalanche dogs and has perfected the cast treatment for skiers thumb so that it can still hold a ski pole.

The Alta Medical Clinic is not like other bustling medical facility. Instead, Alta’s clinic aligns with the town - it’s small and simple. As few as three people work at a time meaning that in addition to examining and diagnosing patients, Dr. Ken takes on the roles of x-ray technician, billing department, and greeting patients. However, the size and simplicity of the clinic doesn’t take away from the quality of care, instead Dr. Ken’s priority is on treating his patients. He often gives out his personal phone number, makes house calls, stays open after hours, and loans out, at no fee, crutches and braces to Alta locals. With a few snuggle kisses from Luna, the clinic dog, and a bag full of snow to ice injuries, patients leave the clinic feeling treated, taken care of and thankful.

In the town of Alta, with some of the best snow in the world, the skiers know how to ski powder and Dr. Ken is no different. Skiing brought Ken to Alta and skiing has kept him there. Like the rest of the Alta family, Dr. Ken has built a life around skiing. With his big smile and oversized goggles to cover his glasses, Dr. Ken charges the steeps of Alta, often accompanied by his kids, an off-duty nurse or a long time Alta Ski Patroller. In a time when many ski resorts are selling-out and becoming corporate chains (similar to many hospitals and medical centers), Alta and Dr. Ken have stayed small and intimate. Together, they simply want to share their passion of the great Utah snow while making skiers feel at home in the devoted powder community that is Alta.

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