Feature December 27, 2021

Going Big

Sun Valley’s ski elite master the world’s big mountains

When skiers sleep, they dream of steep, powder-laden slopes, puffy pillows, and untracked, gladed bowls. In their dreams, they ski it all effortlessly, feeling no nagging pain in their joints, jumping and twisting through the air, never missing a landing. Upon waking, however, most must make peace with the fact that their bodies will never permit them to experience this level of sublime joy on skis in real life. They must instead rely on inspiration drawn from the exploits of ski heroes, who take to the screen, providing ski-dream fodder through the sport’s most extreme manifestation: big mountain skiing.

While ski racing, moguls, and park competitions take place on manicured courses, designed specifically to ensure that all competitors are judged against an identical course, big mountain skiing is all about taming the wild untouched steeps of a mountain. Competitors must not only possess flawless technique but also a keen vision and awareness as they must select their own lines to make best use of a slope’s natural features, transposing a route drawn with their mind’s eye while staring up at the mountain from over a thousand feet below. As they execute their run at unnerving speeds, big mountain skiers must also incorporate huge air and tricks into their runs.

Since its advent in the early 1990s, big mountain skiing has shared a symbiotic relationship with ski movies. Looking back over the years, it is hard to imagine each progressing to where they are today without the other’s influence. Known in the early years as “extreme skiing,” big mountain skiing not only changed the game for the ski films themselves, but it also turned immensely talented daredevil skiers into household names. And as each season passed, the bar was set for the next crop of skiers and filmmakers to top. Meeting the insatiable appetite for the next bigger, faster, crazier ski feat took an athlete with a very particular skillset, and few places have consistently turned out more exceptionally gifted big mountain skiers than Sun Valley.

At first glance, one might not notice many similarities between Bald Mountain and the towering white spines that feature prominently in today’s ski movies. While Baldy is certainly less extreme, it is steep, and it is long. Dedicated skiers that call Sun Valley’s slopes home build foundational skills essential to becoming a world-class skier: technique, speed, and stamina. The steep pitch and seemingly endless vertical of Bald Mountain, along with access to world-class side country and backcountry, have made Sun Valley a perennial producer of premier ski talent.

Over the course of two decades of big mountain skiing, Sun Valley locals continue to find themselves at the top of the skiing world, skiing the impossible and going bigger and better than ever before.

The Pioneer

Kent Ereilter in Engelberg, Switzerland, in 2008.

One of the earliest members of big mountain skiing’s elite to hail from Ketchum, Kent Kreitler was part of a group of skiers who changed the notion of what is possible. Along with other legendary names like Shane McConkey and Doug Coombs, Kreitler explored and skied a ludicrous number of first descents. Prior to the explorations that he and his cohorts documented, the now famous ski mecca of Haines, Alaska, was a complete unknown. “Of all the things I’ve accomplished over my career, pioneering those peaks and lines in Haines is still the highlight that stands out for me,” Kreitler says.

Kent Kreitler

Kreitler describes one of the biggest progressions he saw was the major shift from straight airs and drops to the long, extreme lines and huge tricks we associate with big mountain skiing today. “Earlier ski films were all mini golf shots,” Kreitler says of the shorter takes that made up the ski films when he started climbing the ranks. “Once [Teton Gravity Research] started making their movies, we saw that change to scouting and shooting super long lines.”

Accessing these new lines and aspects meant becoming well versed in mountaineering skills and avalanche terrain navigation. Kreitler points out that “everyone involved had to develop a whole new set of skills and get super savvy in avalanche safety and technical climbing.”

Today, Kreitler is still proud to call Sun Valley home, and he notes that few other mountain towns can compete with the backcountry options and the solitude that can be found here. And though skiing in the movies is better left to the youth, Kreitler still feels the drive to find the line no one has ever skied. “I still look for the occasional first descent, even just down through some of the cliffs [on Baldy] into town.”

The Groundbreaker

Lynsey Dyer skiing in Jackson Hole, WY.

A product of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF), Ketchum native Lynsey Dyer credits the training she received in the program for giving her the skills to take on the biggest mountains. “Raised as a ski racer, I honed my technique with the absolute best coaches in the world,” says Dyer.

First Ascent shoot at Eagle Pass Heli nearby Revelstoke, BC with Lynsey Dyer.

Her rise to the top was somewhat circuitous and included an extensive break from skiing, during which Dyer traveled to Italy to study art. “I took a break from skiing, and being away from the sport really helped to reinvigorate my passion,” says Dyer. With the encouragement of her cousin, fellow big mountain skiing legend A.J. Cargill, Dyer decided to jump into the sport, winning her first Big Mountain Freeski Tour as a senior in college.

Early in her career, the ski film industry was still mostly devoid of female athletes, with the only feminine presence being that of the over-sexed ski bunny. The only exception at that time was Ingrid Backstrom, and Dyer made it her goal to get into ski movies. Enter the familiar story line of so many women, elite in their fields: be told no, fight discrimination, break down the walls, and finally achieve. Dyer did just that, becoming one of the first women featured in a ski film while also becoming the first female athlete to grace the cover of Freeskier Magazine. And she didn’t waste her chance. “I just went out and found the biggest thing I could jump off of.” After breaking in, Dyer’s line stylings became a mainstay.

Today, Dyer is always looking for ways to give back. She co-founded SheJumps, an organization dedicated to increasing the accessibility of the outdoors for girls and women from all backgrounds. She isn’t done skiing either. With a recent successful drop off of “Fat Bastard,” a famed 75-foot cliff in Wyoming’s Tetons, Dyer has other huge cliffs in her sights as she continues to lay waste to the belief that “women can’t do that.”

The King

Karl Fostvedt doing a sunset 360 in the southern Idaho backcountry.

During an early morning of working with his teammates to prepare the bumps on the mogul course, Karl Fostvedt came to the realization that freestyle skiing wasn’t his calling. At that time, Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) hadn’t begun to offer a formal Big Mountain/Freeski program. So, at the age of 13, Fostvedt ventured to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to train in Steamboat Mountain School’s Freeski program and master the art of the big mountain line.

Fast forward 17 years to today, and Fostvedt is the current crowned King of Corbet’s, Jackson Hole’s legendary big mountain competition that features athletes hucking their bodies into a mercilessly steep chute, flipping and twisting with reckless abandon. To be named the best at that task among a field of so many other talented skiers is no small feat, and for Fostvedt, this is the second time he’s donned the crown.

Karl Fostvedt

Asked to define big mountain skiing, Fostvedt says, “It’s all about freedom. Once you taste it, you get hooked.” He is also quick to point out the inherent dangers that come with skiing the stuff of dreams. When we watch a skier at the top of their game descending in some far-flung location, it’s easy to forget how many other people are involved in making that happen. Teamwork and avalanche terrain navigation skills are mandatory when it comes to skiing the untamed steeps. When attempting to accomplish any new skiing goal, Fostvedt says patience is paramount: “You have to respect the mountains. They will be there long after we’re gone.”

Growing up in Ketchum, Fostvedt describes how he can always look out from the top of Bald Mountain at all the peaks and bowls of the Pioneer and Smoky Mountains, imagining all the infinite lines out there to be skied. It’s that limitless freedom of the alpine that keeps him always looking for the next great challenge to be scouted and subsequently shredded in style.

The Captain

McKenna Peterson, on a sunset ski mission in West Fjiords of Iceland.

Another proud SVSEF alum, McKenna Peterson grew up racing, which imparted in her skiing perfect form and a supreme comfort with speed. Though once she discovered big mountain skiing competitions in college, it cemented her love of life off-piste.

For Peterson, the joy of skiing was passed down to her by her parents and has been the common thread that has kept her family bound tightly together over the years. “My family is incredibly important to me,” says Peterson, “and we all love to ski.”

McKenna Peterson

Like so many others, Peterson is quick to credit SVSEF for the prowess she has developed into a professional skiing career. “My favorite part about growing up skiing in Sun Valley was skiing with SVSEF and getting the opportunity to travel all over the West.” She adds, “The ski community everywhere is special, but here in Sun Valley, people truly dedicate their lives to skiing.”

In summer, Peterson can be found navigating the swells of the Inside Passage aboard her family’s fishing vessel Atlantis, hot on the trail of the season’s salmon run. When the physical abuse of life at sea becomes nearly overwhelming, she shifts her gaze from the foaming sea up to the jagged peaks that flank her fishing grounds. “I just imagine dropping in and which lines I will shred next season,” she says. In a few short months, she will be standing on top of those peaks, shielding her eyes as the sun reflects off the very same water she navigated all summer.

To see some of these skiers in action, check out these recent ski films screened in Sun Valley in the fall of 2021:

† Karl Fostvedt’s debut independent film “Brap Ski – Volume 1,” featuring McKenna Peterson, Collin Collins, Harlan Collins, Dirt Franco, Matt Guyer, Barrett Cincotta, Lexi Dupont, Thayne Rich, Blaine Gallivan, and Olympian Chase Josey
† Matchstick Productions’ “The Stomping Grounds,” featuring Karl Fostvedt, McKenna Peterson, Banks Gilberti, Collin Collins, and Wing Tai Barrymore

This article appears in the Winter 2021 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.