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Carving Turns Along the River of No Return

Sun Valley natives Drew Stoecklein and Griffin Post float the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in search of fresh tracks.

Coated with a thick late-winter frost, an unusual combination of gear rests on the snow-freckled sand next to the river: rafts, ski boots, dry suits, and avalanche transponders. 

The mixture of gear may seem odd, but a first-ever fusion raft and ski trip through 100 miles of the “River of No Return,” the Middle Fork of the Salmon, in early April is anything but orthodox. Some would call it pioneering, while most would just call it crazy. But leave it to two young men born and raised in Sun Valley, Idaho, Drew Stoecklein and Griffin Post, to organize and take part in a truly wild adventure right in their own spectacular backyard.

A mischievous kid from the start, Drew Stoecklein is only in his mid-twenties, but long ago achieved local legend status in Ketchum. He’s a professional skier, a reputable photographer, and an organizer of adventure expeditions around the world—achievements that don’t come without hard work and a distinctly outrageous personality. 

In terms of character, high school accomplice Hannes Thum describes Drew as someone with “…an unspoken ethic and moral code with regard to certain situations. If there’s any sort of body of water, even if there’s a bunch of rocks, grass, and ice chunks in it, it’s not a choice, Drew has to pond-skim it. If there’s a giant boulder on the edge of a cliff, Drew has to push it off. If there’s a way to make an adventure harder, Drew will say that you should probably do it.”

Jeremy Benson captured through the eye of a tree on a rare sunny day.

 

Drew began his skiing career on Dollar Mountain at the age of two. It was love at first happening, as he immediately found skis to be the perfect means for carrying out the outrageous escapades that, for better or worse, are simply an innate part of his being. Stoecklein raced on the Sun Valley Downhill Ski Team until 10th grade when he discovered the world of big mountain freeskiing.

While skiing has been around for thousands of years, the competitive discipline of big mountain freeskiing didn’t develop until the late 1980s. Today, it has a worldwide circuit, with year-round competitions everywhere from Snowbird in Utah to Valle el Arpa in Chile. Each race venue presents extreme competitors with the canvas of a steep, un-groomed, cliffed, spined and corniced mountain face on which to paint the full expression of their skiing. Skiers are judged on creativity, fluidity, and style, and their runs boast straight-lines, double-stage cliff hucks, harrowing arcs over broken snow, and a bevy of tricks acquired in terrain parks and backyards alike. It is certainly a sport that prefers creativity and innovation over established structure. Stoecklein is considered one of the best big mountain skiers on the planet.

Anyone who knows Griffin Post, another born and bred Sun Valley native, usually pauses when asked to describe his skiing, and then answers, for lack of better words, “It’s beautiful.” Post has a quality to his skiing that no one can teach, and no amount of practice can instill.  

 

(Clockwise from left) The crew enjoys a refreshing waterfall from its icy landing spot. Support crew members Lynn Kennen and Fredrick Reimers launch the one-of-a-kind trip at Boundary Creek. Reimers and Post get pummeled on the last big rapid of the Middle Fork.

 

Tyler Roos, a friend and Sun Valley ski-partner-in-crime, reminisces about one of his early days with Griffin: “He was always the ballsiest of us all. One of those years when we got a lot of snow, the whole ski team was in a big group and looked at jumping this tree at the bottom of Lower College. Only two kids went off. The first double-ejected and crashed and the second, Griffin, stuck it. From that day on, in my mind, Griffin was on a course to do things that few people could do.”

Griffin raced on the Alpine Ski Team at Bowdoin College in Maine and then finished his college career at the University of Denver in Colorado. He has always had a drive to succeed, and Roos describes Griffin’s current situation as “…living the dream and being on the Pro-Leisure Tour.” This essentially means that Griffin has advanced in the industry to the point of getting paid to ski and compete all over the world, including skiing for Teton Gravity Research, the renowned ski film production outfit based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Griffin and Drew, respectively, could be considered the yin and yang of skiing, or the beauty and the beast, each excelling in his own style. They have both claimed high-standings and wins on the World Freeski Tour. Griffin is known for his consistent and clean technique, whereas Drew possesses a “win-or-crash-trying” mindset. Both share a drive and passion for skiing and adventure that few others can match, or even keep up with. Once they have a goal in mind, they put their heads down to achieve it.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon

River winds dramatically through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. Named after Frank Church, a Democratic Idaho Senator who stormed the U.S. Senate from 1957 to 1981, the area includes the truly awe-inspiring mountain ranges of the Salmon River Mountains, the Clearwater Mountains and the Bighorn Crags. With significant effort, Church ultimately secured the preservation of large swaths of irreplaceable public lands, and he also established and fought for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which preserves outstanding rivers in their natural state. Church specifically noted that these rivers “…shall be preserved in free-flowing condition for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.” 

As Post and Kennen can attest, the approaches in the sport of skrafting (ski-rafting) can be a bit rough.

 

Post and Stoecklein are members of the future generations Church spoke of, as well as a couple of the best thrill-seeking skiers Sun Valley has ever produced. So it makes sense that they would eventually turn their attention towards the steep canyons of the Middle Fork. It was inevitable that a random Baldy chairlift chat resulted in the idea to venture into the 3.3 million-acre roadless area resting in the heart of Idaho to attempt an unprecedented expedition.

After the idea to ski in the Frank Church Wilderness entered their brains, Stoecklein and Post were dead-set on preparing an excursion to take advantage of its wild, remote, and rugged beauty. While Griffin was primarily excited to get into the mountains of the Frank Church Wilderness, Drew was very captivated by the idea of a rafting and skiing combination. Stoecklein notes, “It’s an incredible concept because it’s the easiest way to get super deep into the woods and access extremely remote areas without having to hike all of your gear in.” 

The trip took two months to plan, and Stoecklein went to such lengths as having local pilot, Bob Stevens, fly him over the range to scope out a potential hit list of lines and check the snow levels. Despite all of the planning, including a dry suit pond-skim test session in a Sun Valley subdivision pond, Drew knew that no matter how much they prepared, things would change. In trip planning for any of his expeditions, Stoecklein ultimately just hopes that he has considered enough potential factors to not find himself and the group in an “oh s#%t” situation.

On a chilly April day, after two full days of transporting gear and athletes via snow machines 22 miles into the Boundary Creek put-in of the Middle Fork for what was most likely one of the earliest full descents of the river, Stoecklein and Post found themselves and their three-person support team in undesirable conditions to say the least. All five of them spent the first night nestled into Forest Service outhouses to hide from the slush spitting from the freezing air. Just for perspective, sleeping in an outhouse for a night is not even close to an ‘oh s#%t’ situation for these adventurers. In fact, it may even be a strange sort of luxury, as they typically possess an immense threshold for withstanding discomfort in exchange for doing something extraordinary.

In the morning, the team put on to the longest un-dammed river in the continental U.S., surrounded by rugged, untouched peaks. The primary goals were to hit up Big Soldier (8,970’) and Artillery Dome (9,295’), both of which could be reached in the first 20 miles of the river. Of course, they also just wanted to make it through 12 days of winter whitewater rafting.

Although the rafting-skiing concept is exceptional in its attempt to “purely” access remote terrain, it is extremely challenging to make it work in terms of lining up good ski conditions with passable river levels and livable environmental conditions. In the end, you just have to get lucky. 

(Clockwise from top left) The crew warms up in a snow-filled fire lookout. Lynn racing back to camp for a cold beer and a warm sleeping bag. This Bud’s for you! Griffin Post, Lynn Kennen and Jeremy Benson toast to another incredible day in Idaho as they de-thaw their bones at the Middle Fork Lodge.

 

One thing about running rivers in the winter is that most of the water that makes waterways swell in the spring and remain high through the summer is in the snow, so in early April, most of the year’s water is still in its frozen state. Subsequently, in order to go downstream, the team had to jump into the frigid water on countless occasions to push the heavy, wet rafts along the slippery rocks. At one point, the team even had to do a massive portage around avalanche debris that had run across the river.

On the second day of the trip, the skiers put on their climbing skins and the alpine trekking commenced. After only a few steps, the saturated late winter snow began to work itself into thick, concrete platforms of ice on the base of their skis. Ultimately, they slipped and kicked their way up to the ridge with only enough daylight to ski one run directly back to camp.

In the end, the team’s unprecedented trip yielded skiing that was fairly mediocre, but that’s not to say that the adventure was in any way unsuccessful. Both Post and Stoecklein skied worthy, steep lines and affirmed that the terrain is incredible—its magnificence amplified only by the views of endless expansive wilderness. With better snow conditions, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness has enormous potential for skiing, but any future adventurers hoping to access the terrain by raft will most likely be rolling the dice with snow conditions, just as Drew and Griffin did.

Drew Stoecklein and Griffin Post ski around the world for a living, but long after their raft and ski adventure on the Middle Fork, they keep coming back home to Idaho. When asked why, Stoecklein answers, “The remoteness. My mom gets super concerned about me going to Alaska and South America, but the skiing I’m doing in Idaho is just as remote and gnarly. We have a very rugged backyard.” 

Whether skiing, rafting, or simply seeking adventure, may all of those who reside in or visit Sun Valley indulge in its ruggedness with the same ridiculous and extraordinary spirit as these local legends.

 

For more images, be sure to visit www.drsphoto.net/drew/middlefork

 

 

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