Locally-made skis, snow terrain parks, backcountry awareness, winter events.
Yancy Caldwell pulls a tail grab nose bonk at the early season terrain park on River Run. Photograph: Mark Oliver
IN THIS SECTION
A NEW ERA OF SKIS
MTN Approach skis [pg. 2]
5B Ski Factory [pg. 3]
Smith Optics backcountry terrain park [pg. 4]
Sun Valley Company ramps things up [pg. 5]
Sawtooth Avalanche Center [pg. 6]
Galena Backcountry Patrol [pg. 7]
LIBERATING THE BACKCOUNTRY
Cory Smith’s new Approach skis
For decades now, just like grommets confined to the kiddie pool, snowboarders have pretty much been left behind, while skiers went out and played in Idaho’s big backcountry.
But those days, thanks to a Ketchumite named Cory Smith, may soon be over.
at least it isn’t anymore.” -Cory Smith
No, Cory hasn’t invented a suit full of super powers, it only looks like he can fly when he’s snowboarding. Instead, the former pro rider and current father of two girls and Smith Optics employee, is in the final stages of launching a new “approach ski” for snowboarders.
“What we’ve designed, well, they’re basically a float for the snow,” Cory explained, from his shed-turned-shop, at his house tucked below the slopes of Bald Mountain.
While scores of free-heeling skiers glide into the great white wilderness each winter, either on telemark skis or an alpine touring system for downhillers, snowboarders usually get stuck, literally, in the snow.
Sure, there are a few options for snowboarders wishing to access the backcountry, but they’re all far from ideal—more like floaties or water wings than surfboards. Options include split-boards, which are snowboards designed to split into two skis for climbing. But they’re heavy and, when re-attached as a single board for the ride downhill, tend to be shaky on anything other than powder. Snowshoes are also used by snowboarders as a way to get off the beaten path, but are built more for the pace of a turtle than a snowshoe hare, which is why, in backcountry jargon, they call it “slow-shoeing.”
“You can fly in these things. They’re so light,” Smith said while lifting up a demo pair of MTN Approach skis, as they’re being called. “It feels like there’s nothing on your feet.” Each ski folds into thirds and fits perfectly into most backpacks. The bindings are specifically designed to fit a wide range of snowboard boots and perform like a pair of normal skis with climbing skins attached. A pair of MTN Approach skis weighs a mere six pounds; about a third the weight of the average split-board. The skins needed to grab the snow for climbing don’t have to be removed on Approach skis either. Meaning they save time in the transition from hiking uphill to flying down it, and there’s no messy glue to deal with. Instead, you just swap out the MTN Approach skis in your backpack with your board, and you’re ready to rip.
“A pound on your foot is equal to about five pounds on your back, and the one thing you don’t want when you’re hiking through snow is more weight,” Cory said. He explained that after messing around with a few homemade versions, he eventually sought out an engineer to help.
“A real designer came up with the final design. This isn’t just some kid trying to make three-piece skis in his garage . . . at least it isn’t anymore,” Smith joked.
But there’s no joke about what he’s helped create. There’s an ever-expanding market for approach skis for snowboarders. “The backcountry movement is definitely growing and these can really help open things up,” Cory said, adding that snowboarders who’ve long felt left out, won’t have to feel that way for long.
“For snowboarders who want to explore the backcountry,” Cory said with a smile, “it’s liberating.”
-Photograph Tal Roberts
BUILT FOR BALDY
Locals inspired to make their own skis
Since it first opened for skiing back in 1939, Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain has been the inspiration for athletes, moviemakers and craftsmen nationwide. Whether it was providing the perfect backdrop for a film, or acting as the training ground for celebrated skiers, “the mountain” has been cited as being the motivation, even the muse, for many creations.
This winter, Baldy’s impact on innovation will surface again with the release of a new line of skis. The 5B Ski Factory began three years ago as a side project of local skiers, Brandon Doan and A.B. Wescott. After joining up with ski racer Caleb Baukol, and getting help from ex-K2 contractor Bob Boice and designer Jack Weekes, the team set out building and testing ski after ski in an attempt to create the best all-mountain ski for Baldy.
After a few years of ripping apart skis, testing and tweaking various cores, top sheets and edges, the Factory, as it’s simply called, settled on a tip-to-tail wood core, an early rise rocker and a carbon fiber cage for the Bootlegger, their first all-mountain ski. The Bootlegger and a powder ski are for sale now, and the Factory has a mogul ski in the works.
Both Doan and Baukol had been involved in ski construction and tuning for about 10 years prior to starting the Factory and said Sun Valley is the best place for building skis.
“If you get a ski to work on this mountain, you have a ski that will work anywhere,” Baukol said. “This town is loaded with awesome skiers who know what an awesome ski feels like. You can’t just slap something together and sell it as a good ski.”
Baukol doesn’t seem to be the only person with this mindset. The Valley has a history of ski bums building skis in their basements, testing them on the mountain and later making it big in the industry.
In 1974, Bobbie Burns emerged as the trailblazer for Ketchum-built skis with his classic planks,“The Ski,” which became a common name in the freestyle mogul world throughout the decade. A year later, ski bum Mike Brunetto began Research Dynamics in his Ketchum garage, which would eventually sell close to a quarter million skis per year.
Brunetto later left the growing business in the early ’90s for another small, local ski-making endeavor that would become Wolf Skis. Wolf Skis are still known for their Makwai and Cold Smoke models, which were inspired by slopes on Baldy.
As for now, the 5B Ski Factory produces their skis in batches of 25, with a goal of producing 300 pairs a year, including a special 75th anniversary ski for Sun Valley. They hope to someday join the legacy of local ski boutiques and open up a ski shop in downtown Ketchum.
-Photograph Todd Kaplan
WEB EXTRA: Photo Gallery
Left Olympic Bronze medalist, Scotty Lago, goes huge on one of the many jumps constructed by Pete Colombo last winter.
Right Ben Verge executes a perfect 360° at The Secret Stash.
THE SECRET STASH
Smith's private backcountry park
The folks over at Smith Optics in Ketchum have a secret. And, like most secrets in small mountain towns, it’s lasting about as long as it takes to drink a schooner over at Grumpy’s.
Of course, bringing in some of the top snowboarders in the industry to shoot movies and ad campaigns at their confidential confines doesn’t really keep things hush-hush.
“It was a secret,” explained J.P. Collett, Smith’s Board Sports Promotions manager. “But it’s tough to keep something this cool a secret for long.”
“The Secret Stash,” as it’s sometimes called, was first discovered eight years ago by former professional snowboarder Cory Smith. Nestled in a secluded spot in central Idaho, Cory found an ideal place to shoot snow industry movies. After getting permission from the owners to use the perfectly-pitched, private land while it was snow-covered, Cory called up his moviemaking buddies at Robot Food.
They showed up. Were blown away, and ever since that first day of filming, the industry has been flooded with movies and breathtaking photos from a place usually referred to simply as “Somewhere in Idaho.”
“It’s just a really cool spot,” said Cory, the Senior Promotions manager for Smith (no relation).
“The Spot,” as it’s also called, offers 1,500 vertical feet, over 890 acres and is usually ride-able for about two months each winter. It’s full of technical lines and tends to receive more white gold than other spots in the Northern Rockies. “It’s in a snow belt. It gets way more snow than we do in Ketchum,” Cory said.
Last year, Smith Optics was allowed to bring in a snowcat. So snow terrain park builder, Pete Colombo, came in and built 35 jumps for them. “That place was just ridiculous,” Pete laughed.
Smith then invited some of the world’s finest winter athletes to come for some photo and filmmaking shoots, and the result has been the stuff of legends.
“What happens there is just incredibly unique. No other company or brand has anything like it. And the people lucky enough to go there—and willing enough to trek there, it’s definitely an off-the-grid type place—really understand how special it is,” J.P. said.
“We do what we love to do and actually use what we sell,” J.P. said about the crew at Smith Optics. “The reason we can’t always answer the phone is usually because we’re out doing something incredible like riding our own private backcountry stash.”
The crew at Smith now has another reason not to want to answer the phone—so they can avoid people asking them how to find The Secret Stash.
-Photography - Scotty Lago & Prospecting Idaho: Courtesy Smith Optics / Ben Verge: Tal Roberts
Smith Optics shows off their own private Idaho backcountry terrain park with these short "webisodes". Showcasing the creative work of terrain park builder Pete Colombo, the film details the making of the park and the talents of a handful of handpicked pros like Scotty Lago and Scott Stevens who were invited to come ride it last winter.
Check back often for new episodes on vimeo.com
Left Chris Logan ducks to avoid the force of the rotorwash while getting towed up to the drop in during the filming of “Eye Trip” on Warm Springs (Photograph: Mark Oliver); Right Tai Barrymore takes advantage of one of the many new features at Sun Valley’s Freestyle Park (Photograph: Tal Roberts).
RAISING (and Riding) THE BAR
Sun Valley makes its mark on the freestyle scene
You know it’s getting serious when they call in Colombo.
Not to be confused with Peter Falk’s famous TV detective, “Columbo,” Pete Colombo is one of the most highly-respected snow terrain park builders in the country. Last winter, Sun Valley brought Colombo to town to help put America’s oldest ski resort on the terrain park map.
“Maybe that area had been overlooked a bit, especially by younger people and families, because people didn’t think Sun Valley had enough park terrain to entice the kids. Well, they do now,” Pete explained.
Pete came to Ketchum as part of the dream team assembled by Snow Park Technologies (SPT) out of Truckee, California. The premier terrain park and event course designer in the world, SPT’s résumé includes the annual X-Games, and their clientele includes snowboarding hot spots like Aspen and Northstar-at-Tahoe.
SPT doesn’t just design snow terrain parks, however, they help train a team to maintain the park for years to come—and to keep it on the cutting edge of the terrain park scene. Brian Callahan, now in his second season as Sun Valley’s Terrain Parks manager, was part of the SPT team.
“Basically, what we were trying to do was put Sun Valley back on the radar,” Brian explained, about a resort that’s gone from having just a few freestyle features to now offering a top-notch terrain park system that boasts dozens of features, from rails and half-pipes to boxes and jumps of all kinds. “And, it’s working.”
According to Callahan, last season Dollar Mountain, which got the majority of the terrain park facelift, showed a significant increase in popularity. He also reports that more home-grown Idaho skiers and boarders, who would normally make treks outside the state in search of world-class terrain parks, were thrilled to get to stay (and spend their time and money) in the Gem State.
“There was a lot of hungry youth in that town that needed something like this. So it was really cool to be able to give the kids there something of really high quality and to see how stoked they were with it,” explained Colombo.
Andy Gilbert, the longtime Snowboard Team manager for Sun Valley, is the man in charge of a lot of that “hungry youth,” and he couldn’t agree more with Colombo.
“The extent of the traveling we used to have to do to find this level of terrain was ridiculous. Now, we can sleep in our own beds and still be able to access (park terrain) quality as good as anything we compete on anywhere,” Andy said, adding, “this has opened up opportunities for our kids to show they’re not just ‘halfpipe jocks,’ as people used to describe them, but they’re as good as anybody. In the next few years you’re going to start seeing a lot of kids from Sun Valley making a name for themselves on the freestyle and slopestyle scenes.”
Pete said he expects Sun Valley to become a serious player in the park terrain landscape as well. And he should know. Pete’s spent most of the last decade helping to keep California’s terrain park meccas, Mammoth and June Mountains, atop the terrain park scene. He’s also “The Man,” as they call him at Smith Optics, who built the gear company’s infamous private terrain park “somewhere” in central Idaho.
“As a destination resort, Sun Valley really has a lot to offer. There’s just a class and style there that you can’t get anywhere else. There’s a great town right there, full of awesome places to eat and lots of really neat people,” Colombo said. “It’s beautiful. There are never any crowds there, and now they have the type of park terrain that will get the kids excited and give the locals some cred.”
While the kids may love the new terrain parks now protruding from the slopes of Sun Valley, older folks will still have plenty of room to enjoy the resort’s unrivaled groomers. After all, the terrain parks that Pete Colombo builds are not for the weak of heart—or old of knees or wrists. Basically, they’re not designed for those old enough to even know who the other Columbo is, let alone repeat one of his classic lines after getting pummeled in the terrain park, “Oh, don’t mind that, that’s just my lunch, that doesn’t mean anything.”
Rail Skier (Brian Callahan): Hillary Maybery
IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN SUN VALLEY
Mark Oliver does it again with the second installment of his video series, “It’s Always Sunny in Sun Valley”. This time featuring local riders like Wyatt and Yancy Caldwell, A.J. Ogden, Josh Keefer, and Olympian Graham Watanabe. Check it out here.
Turn out, tune on, and drop in! Visually stunning, “Eye Trip” is the latest ode to skiing’s counterculture by the crew at Level 1 Productions. Starring pro skiers like Tom Wallisch and Parker White, “Eye Trip” highlights everything from the largest gap jump ever built in Sun Valley, to record snowfalls in Helsinki, Finland, to the epic backcountry of Alaska.
Left Blase Reardon examining snow crystals.
Right Blase Reardon and Chris Lundy assessing snow conditions in the Galena Pass area.
Keeping safe in the backcountry
The rewards of backcountry skiing are undeniable—no lift lines, fresh tracks, indescribable views and the feeling of escape. But like most outdoor activities, the bliss of the backcountry comes with risks.
The wrong weather conditions can easily turn fresh powder into an unstable slope and a dangerous place to be. But with proper education and awareness about avalanche danger, the backcountry can be a lot safer. With the goal of safety in mind, the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center began in 1994.
The center, which is technically part of the U.S. Forest Service-Ketchum Ranger District, puts out daily avalanche advisories, and covers the mountains between Bellevue and Galena Summit, and the Sawtooth Valley and Fairfield areas.
Each morning, a member of the team goes out into the field to look for signs of recent avalanches or weakening of the snowpack. They often dig pits to study the layers of snow that have accumulated and, as Chris Lundy, the center’s director said, to look for “slabs” and “weak layers.”
“Weak layers here are usually caused by extended periods of time without snow,” Lundy said. “Usually, you get warmer days and cold nights which turn the whole snowpack into loose snow. It’s the kind of snow that feels like sugar. It’ll just pour out of your hand.”
Combine this with a “slab,” which is one layer of snow sitting atop a weaker layer, and you get what international backcountry ski guide and the owner of Sierra Mountain Guides, Neil Satterfield, calls “the Oreo cookie effect.” “You need something hard sitting on something soft that’s on top of something else hard to slide on…and maybe a little milk,” Satterfield joked, while presenting at a High Sierra seminar on avalanches a couple of winters ago.
If digging a pit reveals this kind of layering, Lundy said, there is a good chance the slope could slide.
Satterfield also explained that the Oreo cookie effect is just one of three main ingredients that causes avalanches. Besides the dangerously layered snow, the other two components are: avalanche terrain, usually slopes angled between 35 to 45 degrees, and a trigger—“usually you,” he said.
The goal of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center is to alert—and educate—backcountry users to the snow conditions and dangers. After gathering observations in the field, the center combines the information from their notes with reports from a series of remote weather stations in order to create the avalanche forecast for the next day.
Aside from compiling the advisories, the center also hosts introductory-level avalanche safety courses, which range from snowmobiling-specific classes to general field sessions. It also puts together the free Avalanche Rescue Training Park, in the field along Sun Valley Road, which allows backcountry advocates a chance to practice using their avalanche beacons.
To help keep up with the ever-changing slope stability around town, observer reports are available online. Lundy encourages anyone who has been in the backcountry, whether the snow was safe or not, to fill out a report so the rest of the community can be aware of what is going on.
-Photography Craig Wolfrom
The goal of Galena Backcountry Patrol
In winter wonderlands like the rugged and remote Northern Rockies, sometimes the only thing that separates having fun from having a near fatality is one wrong move.
Luckily for those who love to play in the snow-covered terrain of Blaine County, the crew at Galena Backcountry Patrol (GBCP) isn’t there just to help save people, but to help folks avoid problems in the first place.
Since the dawn of the DayGlo ski suit era in 1980, GBCP has been operating under one basic theory—make the backcountry safer!
“Anyway we can help, that’s what we’re trying to do,” explained Bruce Smith, who’s been a member of the volunteer-based GBCP for 20 years.
There are three basic ways in which the GBCP helps out. First, the 40 members (all of whom are certified National Ski Patrollers) are on call to assist Blaine County Search and Rescue and the Ketchum Fire District with any winter emergencies like avalanches, lost skiers or off-road accidents. They also regularly pzrovide basic first-aid services for events like the Boulder Mountain Tour and the Northern Rockies Folk Festival.
But their big focus is really on education. “We’d rather train you, than have to dig you out later,” Smith said.
Throughout the winter, GBCP offers avalanche awareness courses and refresher classes. They also provide intensive outdoor emergency care classes and maintain a yurt at Avalanche Peak up on Galena Summit, known as “The Fort,” for training.
“You never know what to expect in the backcountry. A blue bird day can turn pretty quickly in the Northern Rockies,” Smith said. “We try to help people prepare for the unexpected.”
-Photograph Craig Wolfrom