In Praise of the Beauty of a Mountain Sunrise

Easter Sunday Sunrise at Snowbird

Why not begin at about the end?

At 6:15 this morning my friend Laura and I and about 700 others stood atop Snowbird Ski Area's Hidden Peak - 10,992 feet - and silently watched the sun rise over the Uinta and Wasatch mountains. Like a skirt being lifted, or like a cloth being pulled slowly from a table, the sun caught and lit Hidden Peak, Twin Peaks behind it, the Pfeifferhorn and Lone Peak beyond that, the high points across the Big Cottonwood-Little Cottonwood divide, Devil's Castle, Sunset Peak, Tuscarora, Superior, Provo, Spanish Fork, Flagstaff, Cardiff, Toledo, the Oquirrh and Stansbury mountain ranges, and the thousands of other high points, peaks and mountains that make up northern Utah.

The moment of silence was a break in an hour-long Easter sunrise service now a hallmark of Snowbird, an event in its 21st year.

The morning for us had actually begun nearly two hours before the sun rose, waking up groggy and unbelieving at the early hour. We dressed, splashed water on our faces, and drove through the city and up Little Cottonwood Canyon, the canyon home to Alta and Snowbird that over my last 14 years in Utah has become so familiar. The park and ride lot, the granite quarry, the Great White Icicle, Y Couloir, Hogum Fork, Red and White Pine canyons, the dangerous Seven Turns area of the road, and finally the three entrances to Snowbird. We took the second, the one that leads to the tram.

I've said it before, but I'll repeat myself: the tram is the signature of Snowbird. One blue car and one red car, the tram so perfectly paraphrases the mountains here, rising quickly from a rough concrete and glass tram house across massive lift towers as a view as wide as the whole world opens up: the mountains, the snow so deep it's burying trees, the red and yellow-rocked cliffs blanketed in snow.

We boarded the tram at about 5:30, just as the most pale hint of sunrise outlined the high peaks of the Uintas, 50 miles to the east. At the top by 5:45 - where it was a shocking 22 degrees - it was light enough to see where the sun would rise. The service started. It was just a matter of minutes.

Sunrises in the Salt Lake Valley are muted - we don't get a true sunrise down here. The sun is actually pretty high in the sky by the time it breaks over the Wasatch. Sunrise - in the valley it is just warming light that swings back at the night. It's up in the mountains that you get a true sunrise, one where the sun rises on an equal plane with you or, in the case of Hidden Peak, rises below you.

Perhaps the most special sunrise of all for us is the Easter sunrise, one where you can spend a moment in quiet reflection with good company around you. Sun up, a Baptist-sounding church group led the mountaintop congregation through a shortened service. Eventually, even with two bonfires burning, everyone got pretty cold, and they ran out of hot chocolate, and by then the sun was way up and the service over. Laura and I and our friend Art, who has a sort of Santa Clause beard, had hung back from the rest of the group, watching a nearly full moon set over the Pfeifferhorn, watching pink light envelope Snowbird's massive south-facing Mineral Basin, watching another Easter moment pause then go. We had breakfast at Snowbird's Fork Lift, then parted ways. Laura and I went backcountry skiing while the spring snow was still firm.

Later that day, I was helping Laura move out of her apartment. In the valley it was one of those touching spring days, a kind of day delicate and airless and so rare it makes you think something is going away, or being lost. That afternoon hung on in perfection like that for a few hours, then sunset drew and the air cooled and it was time to put on a jacket.

It was such a perfect day everyone was outside, and it was one of those days when it seemed like everyone was moving. Laura's apartment was on First Avenue in Salt Lake City - the historic Avenues neighborhood, the greatest neighborhood in the city. When we were close to being done I walked out into the street, carrying a load of movables to her truck, and it seemed like everyone at that moment was carrying a load to their cars or trucks. Up in the mountains, slumbering under spring snow, it was still Easter.

And the mountains? They weren't going anywhere.

Check out this week's photo gallery.

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