Pay It Forward: Karl Kelley

A ski town chef on love and pow

Karl Kelley and his wife, Michelle, in Canada's Bugaboos. PHOTO: Courtesy of Karl Kelley

Karl Kelley and his wife, Michelle, in Canada’s Bugaboos. PHOTO: Courtesy of Karl Kelley

This is the latest installment of Pay It Forward, an interview series designed to find THE guy or girl in every single ski town, everywhere. And the next guy, and the next girl after that. The catch: Each person I interview will recommend the person I talk to next. It’s a journey. We’ll see where it takes us. Click here for more interviews.

Karl Kelley, 47, a chef by profession, has cooked his way through ski towns across North America—Crested Butte, Tahoe, Crystal, Taos, Salt Lake, B.C., the Sawtooths. A climber in the offseason (he just wrote and published a climbing guide, High On Moab), Kelley takes three months off every winter to hit the skin track and farm fresh turns in the backcountry with his wife. Read on for tales from the kitchen at Alta’s Peruvian Lodge, how to get married in Alaska, and some advice on pursuing a lifelong love with the love of your life.

How’d you end up in Moab?
We’ve been coming to Moab since about 1983 and decided to move down here and do a bunch of rock climbing. I bought a restaurant here in town [The Desert Bistro], which has always been a dream of mine…We always joke that I had to move to the desert to become a full-fledged ski bum. We close the restaurant down December, January, and February and we take off. We spent 10 years skiing in Canada and British Columbia and the last three years, we’ve been hanging out in the Sawtooths.

You were the chef at the Peruvian Lodge at Alta for a long time. How did you score that job?
I was the chef there for about nine years. I, honestly, kind of lied my way into the job. I had run a few kitchens before, but not really such a big crew. That place has breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a crew of 60 people. I’d never done anything of that volume, so I fibbed my way into the job. It was a good mutual thing. It made them money, it made me money, and I got to ski every day.

Kelley, following his rule of thumb in the Valhallas—never cross another pair of tracks. PHOTO: Courtesy of Karl Kelley

Kelley, following his rule of thumb in the Valhallas—never cross another pair of tracks. PHOTO: Courtesy of Karl Kelley

Working in the kitchen at a place like Alta, you must have met some characters.
Sage Cattabriga-Alosa—he was actually my dish dog. I hired him when he was like 18 or something, and it was really refreshing. So many people at that time were trying really hard to become this skier guy for the films and stuff. Sage was someone who was just out skiing. They discovered him. That was nice to see.

Being a chef, that’s a good trade. Where has it taken you?
I started moving around out West and met the love of my life at Crystal Mountain, Washington state. That was a wicked cool scene…Then I moved to Taos, then to Salt Lake City. I asked Michelle to marry me. We got married up in Alaska, heli skiing. Dean Cummings was our preacher.

Wait, a heli ski wedding and Dean Cummings?
We took an avalanche class in Salt Lake and we told him we were coming up there and wanted to get married. We asked if he could find a justice of the peace, and he goes, ‘Oh, it’s Alaska. I can sign up for a day and do it.’ We ended up heli skiing with him. He married us. And we got a first descent that we called the Honeymoon Couloir.

Frozen in the Sawtooths. PHOTO: Courtesy of Karl Kelley

Frozen in the Sawtooths. PHOTO: Courtesy of Karl Kelley

Tell me about B.C.
B.C., wow, we run all over the place. We ended up making friends with a guy that owned a climbing gym up in Nelson…We started switching off, he came down here every spring and fall and we were going up there every winter. Canadians, holy crap, those people have to be the nicest people on the planet. There are no worries up there, you know?

And the Sawtooths?
There’s three little mountain ranges right there. And there’s just everything: steep chutes, great woods for when it’s a little more sketchy, the meadows. There’s 20-mile snowmobile rides into these mountains, way out into the wilderness, and it’s just beautiful. I would say we’re sharing those mountains with 15 people. There’s just nobody skiing up there.

What keeps you closing the restaurant and going back to the mountains, year after year?
We lucked out. Having the restaurant gave us the means to be able to take three months off and go play. We could probably work those other three months and save a little more money. But, you know, there’s a guy who once said, being rich has nothing to do with money. And I’m inclined to believe him. The experiences and travel and beauty and being out there with a person you really care for, that’s way better than any amount of money in my pocket.

It also rekindles our love. When you’ve got three months of doing nothing but the thing you both desire the most—skiing pow—it really reminds you why exactly you love that person and why you want to spend so much time with them, in particular, alone. I have fun skiing with my friends and stuff. But really, I’d just rather ski with my wife, bag a beautiful peak, have lunch, and go skiing.

Kelley setting the skin track in B.C. PHOTO: Courtesy of Karl Kelley

Kelley setting the skin track in B.C. PHOTO: Courtesy of Karl Kelley

Hard to beat that. Any other final words?
I will ski until I can’t get out of bed, for sure…I can’t crush it down a bump hill anymore, I can’t huck 60-foot cliffs. Or not that I can’t, my interest isn’t there anymore. I got all hippied out and grew a ponytail and jumped off cliffs in Lake Tahoe. Now, I’m a clean-cut business guy that takes three months off to ski the pow with his old lady. And that’s where I’m at in life right now. I don’t see that changing. Our only rule all winter is: We can’t cross a track. Not even our own.

To pay it forward, Kelley chose a lady by the name of Michelle Manning: “I met Michelle in Alta. She worked the front desk at the same lodge that I was working at as the chef. I knew right away that she is a lover of the mountains.”

Add a comment

  • Neal

    Great article, made my day ,..

  • Hugh Gren

    Yeah Karl!!! Great story and I can’t wait to join you this winter!!!!

  • Fagazi

    In 1998 I called Karl at the P-lodge and asked him for a job. He said “how many days do you want to ski?” I said “every day.” “your hired.” He was a teacher and good man. I am glad he got some love from the ski community.

  • Mike Barrett

    Right on Karl! As soon as I saw this “Pay It Forward” series I thought of you two.

  • nuge

    Ya Karl. Hit the nail right in the head with you bra.

  • Cupcake

    Could not think of a better person for this series of articles. He is a character of epic proportion and just damn good people! Took me for my first real ski tour which I will always remember and be thankful for. His wife is rad too and plays a killer game of scrabble!!

  • Doug Ferguxon

    Great attitude towards life! He’s the type that if he died with $10 in his pocket, he worked half an hour too much in his life.

  • Spliffyvontoker


  • npontarolo

    That guy has the right outlook on life.

  • Cameron

    I love this series and the people that have been highlighted. Please keep it going!

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