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Shuffling towards the base of Alta in the early morning hour, my stride is dampened. It’s still dark out and I’m trying to skate-ski to the base area dragging a massive pile of laundry from Dr. Ken Libre’s home—near the bottom of the Wildcat tree runs at Alta Ski Area—to the Alta Clinic. Avalanche bombs echo around me as the town of Alta wakes up from its Interlodge slumber, and I begin to skate faster—eager to reserve my spot in the lift line. We spent the morning sipping coffee and listening to the avalanche control via the radio in Dr. Ken’s home, waiting for the all-clear to go outside. It was the winter of 2010-2011, and my wife, who was completing her residency at the Alta Clinic, couldn’t have timed her rotation more perfectly: the Wasatch was getting buried under 783 inches of snow. I just had to get the laundry to the clinic so they could open; then, between patients, the staff could take turns shredding pow.
Like most things in Dr. Ken’s life, the Alta Clinic, which opened in 2004, is fueled by a love of skiing. Following a residency at a family practice at the University of Utah, Dr. Ken started working at the Snowbird Clinic, but as cool as it sounded, staff weren’t allowed to ski, even if it was a slow day. “It was so close to being a great job,” he says. But if skiing wasn’t going to be part of the gig, he realized the job wasn’t for him—skiing was an integral part of his life. Even while attending Dartmouth Medical School he had made sure to head out for a couple laps at the Skiway, glancing at class notes on the chairlift. Libre knew he needed to figure out a way to incorporate skiing into his life rather than stay in a job that paid the bills but wasn’t his dream.
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Incorporating skiing into work as a doctor wasn’t a far-fetched idea. He knew it could be done thanks to a brief stint working at the Mogul Medical Clinic in Taos, New Mexico as part of his medical school training. “It was the best month of medical school, I loved every part of it—the injuries were real and it was better than sitting in an office taking care of vague symptoms as a result of poor life choices,” he says. “I got a glimpse of how great a doctor’s job could be from Mogul Medical, and from then on it was always in the back of my mind—how can I fit skiing into a job?”
One day in 2003, while he was still working at the Snowbird Clinic, Libre decided to take matters into his own hands. “It had snowed three feet and when I was on my way down to the Snowbird Clinic from Alta I thought, ‘Why isn’t there a clinic at Alta? And why don’t I run it?’
”At the time, if someone got injured at Alta, they would be seen by a nurse in a triage-type setting located in the Buckhorn —a residence for resort employees. “The cots looked like they were out of the Korean War: canvas mats with wooden sides to carry and move patients,” says Libre. If patients needed more extensive care, their options were to either visit the Snowbird Clinic or head down valley to the hospital. It wasn’t ideal, especially since Alta was home to locals and resident employees in addition to visiting skiers. It seemed to him that Alta needed a more robust clinic to serve its population.
Opening a clinic in Alta as a father of a toddler and a newborn was no easy task, but his wife Carolyn, an ER doctor who loves skiing every bit as much as he does, supported the idea—on one condition: they buy a home in Alta. “Carolyn said to me, ‘I will be god-dammed if you’re at the Sitzmark bar and still hanging around Alta after a powder day while I’m at home with two small kids,’” Libre remembers. So the family moved into a fixer-upper cabin in Alta at a time when things were more affordable.
Today, Dr. Ken functions as the primary caregiver for the small community of Alta. His practice sees the gamut of illnesses and injuries, from ailments associated with post collegial life amongst employees housed up at Alta to major ski injuries and emergencies on the hill (for which he accompanies ski patrol to the scene) to managing chronic medical conditions including mental health concerns. Libre goes to great lengths to adapt the way he practices medicine to the unique ski town population he serves. He sets up discount plans for those who are living a ski-bum lifestyle, as he wants to provide affordable, approachable care in the small, tight-knit community, and when his patients are back on their feet, he likes to go skiing with them.
The Alta Clinic has allowed Libre to find a balance of work and play and shift the norms of what is expected of a doctor. If you ask him about his practice, he’ll explain to you that he feels like he’s getting away with something when he straps on his cross-country skis and commutes to the clinic for work.
“The best part of my job is when my staff and I can go out early and ski pow. We call those clinic meetings,” he laughs. “My favorite time to ski is around 2:30 to 3 p.m., once all the valley people have left and it’s just me and a group of locals. When it’s snowing two to three inches per hour and every run is a free refill. That’s what it’s all about!” Libre and his staff are also serious Nordic skiers, and typically place in the yearly Alta Biathlon. A month before the race each spring, they’ll have a target set up in the back of the clinic to practice archery.
For Libre, running the Alta Clinic doesn’t feel like a job, and that was the whole point. “I feel fortunate to have found this job, and to take care of patients who have a similar love for skiing,” he says. “My goal as a physician is to get injured patients out skiing again.” The fact that that goal requires him to strap on a pair of skis to get to work brings a smile to his face.