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So, why do they call this place Sun Valley?

Playgrounds: Sun Valley

Story by Max Ritter

That’s the question I’m still asking myself on day three of the storm cycle. We haven’t seen anything remotely like the sun since Sunday, with inches of snow piling up as we looked on. The town is absolutely buried – cars are unrecognizable, roofs are sliding, and every skier in Ketchum is frothing to finally get after it after a particularly dry start to the season. One skier in particular – Karl Fostvedt – is beyond excited for the fresh coat of paint in order to show us around his stomping grounds.

Born and raised in Ketchum, Idaho, Karl has honed his craft as a backcountry freeride skier in the surrounding peaks, making it his mission to explore and steward the land. The unique combination of easy resort access and hundreds of square miles of pristine backcountry terrain make for one of the most unique winter playgrounds in the lower 48.

With early season conditions finally getting buried deep under this heavy January snowfall, I’m excited to spend this week exploring the best of Sun Valley with a TGR production crew and Karl himself. Sitting in front of the interview camera, Karl tells us his story and why he cherishes the opportunity to make a living as a skier in Sun Valley. “It’s usually sunny here,” he assures us, and we’re happy to take him at his word.


Note: This trip was taken in January 2020, pre-pandemic. Please understand that many Sun Valley businesses are only offering street-side pickup for orders, and encouraging all guests to practice social distancing. As of January 2021, you are required to wear a mask by law in public places, including the ski resort.

Ketchum 1880-2021

The twin towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley are vastly different but might as well be joined at the hip. Nestled in Idaho’s Wood River Valley, between the Sawtooth, Boulder, and Smoky Mountains, both towns live and breathe mountain culture – albeit of different flavors. Ketchum is a vibrant 3,000-person town, featuring a main street filled with shops and restaurants, while just up the road, the community of Sun Valley exists as a quiet luxury retreat for those looking to relax and take it easy in the stunning landscape. Deeply rooted in the area’s early mining economy, Ketchum’s contemporary culture still echoes its pioneer days, with restaurants like the ‘Pio’ Saloon and annual events like the Wagon Days festival celebrating the past and continuing to foster a Wild West spirit today. Meanwhile, Sun Valley is a true resort town – with an eye towards perfection on every little detail to make guests’ stays as comfortable as humanly possible. The thing that relates the two is pretty obvious. Skiing.

Over the years, Ernest Hemingway and many other highly influential celebrities made their home in Sun Valley. In fact, the hallways of the Sun Valley Lodge are adorned with portraits of the rich and famous hanging out on the slopes and in the Lodge, perfecting their ski turns in this inspirational landscape. One thing that quickly becomes clear though, is that this isn’t just some haven for the elite. Everyone seems to embrace this colorful heritage, because, in fact, we’re all here for the same thing – connecting with ourselves and our friends out on the slopes. The sense of community is strong here, no matter who you are. Throughout our week in town, whether it’s running into Karl’s friends on the street, meeting friendly restaurant owners, or fraternizing with mountain guides after a successful day in the mountains, we learn how strongly that spirit lives on today.

Hot Dogging Around

On our first morning in Sun Valley, we woke up to the sound of bombs going off above town. Coming from a place like Jackson Hole, we know that the sound of avalanche munitions means it snowed a lot the night before, and there is no time to waste. Groggy from the drive over the night before, I pack up my camera gear and join the rest of our crew for breakfast at Java on Fourth. The go-to here is the Macho Burrito and the Bowl of Soul – a delicious mocha creation that the locals swear by. Top the mocha with some house-made whipped cream and we’re all set for the day.

We were scheduled for early ups on the gondola and hustled over to the River Run base area to meet with Karl and his close friend and ski partner Barrett Cincotta. These two grew up together, pushing their limits as young skiers inbounds before taking their skills into the bigger and badder mountains around town.

Powder days at Sun Valley Resort are a funny sight to behold – it’s rather civilized compared to what we’re used to back home. Sure, there is a sense of urgency on the lift, but nothing like the frenzied madhouse on a 10-inch day at some other mountains around the country. It’s a nice change of pace – especially when Karl and Barrett know exactly where to find the goods. We start our day by  ripping a few powder laps under the Mayday Chair (replaced this season by the Broadway high-speed quad chair as part of Sun Valley's Sunrise terrain expansion), before making our way up the classic Cold Springs two-seater for a quick hike up to the top of some powder stashes beyond the rope line. The boys lace smooth turns down the bottomless powder we find here, whooping and hollering like the kids they are (deep down). Then it’s right back up for another round, and another, and another.

After a few hours of hunting stashes and hitting classic airs all over the mountain, it’s time to grub down again. Fostvedt leads us over to the Warm Springs base and introduces us to an old friend of his: Jill Rubin, the owner and operator of Irving’s Red Hots. The bright-red hot dog stand at the base of the ski area has been around since 1977, serving up delicious and inexpensive Chicago-style hot dogs for hungry skiers and riders. Karl introduces Jill to the crew, telling us how she fed him (and legions of other groms) during his formative years. These days, Karl still swears by the Chili dog. We sit down on the rickety picnic tables nearby, and he smiles, pulling two spicy peppers out of his massively overfilled hot dog bun. “It’s the real sign that you’re a local here – Jill puts two peppers in your dog!” Karl says. Even with our single peppers, the dogs are still damn good.

A Day For the Birds

Finally, after three days of snow, we get a break in the storm. Sure, resort riding and ski touring are cool, but what better way to spend a bluebird day than getting some heli time in with Sun Valley Heli? The mountains around here seem to go on forever, and as Karl puts it, “Whether you’re the most beast-mode hiker or the best snowmobiler, there’s still places you can’t get to. That’s when you call the team at Sun Valley Heli.”

Sun Valley Heli introduced the concept of heli skiing to North America half a century ago and has held its own as one of the premiere operations in the lower 48. These days, their tenure includes access to 750,000 skiable acres in the Boulder, Smoky, and Pioneer Ranges, making it the largest heli op outside of Alaska.

We start our morning briefing with a safety talk from our guides Alex Kitrell and Matt Scrivner before making a plan for where we want to ski that day. Unfortunately, the snowfall the previous three days has sent the avalanche danger skyrocketing, so we are forced to stick to low-angle terrain. Luckily for us, that means skiing bottomless powder in a zone with some of the best views of the craggy mountains around town. Before we gear up, I get a glimpse at the guide’s map library and I make some mental notes about where to go next time we come back.

Loading into a helicopter on a bluebird pow day is an indescribable feeling, and even though I can’t see anyone’s faces behind their buffs, I can sense the ear-to-ear grins on everyone’s face. Karl and the crew are frothing at the faceshots and pow slashes we know are in store for the rest of the day. Zipping over the trees towards our first drop, we get a glimpse of just how far the mountains stretch in this part of the country – the vastness is incredible.

We spend the day making the most of the incredible snow, and I finally understand why this place is called Sun Valley. Under clear skies, the mountains go on forever, glistening and sparkling under the sun. It’s an incredible place to play, and with amenities like Sun Valley Heli, it couldn’t be easier.

Endless Access

We made the drive to Sun Valley with three snowmobiles in tow, and we’re damn well going to use them. Over the past few years, Karl has taken sled-access skiing to a whole new level in the Sun Valley area, pioneering new zones around Galena Pass, Baker Creek, and in some secret stashes that he says “you’ll just have to go find yourself.” On our final day together, we opt to ride out to a jump zone Karl and Barrett are familiar with and dig ourselves a private backcountry terrain park to play around in.

Anyone familiar with Karl’s career trajectory might know that his favorite place to be is in the air, spinning like a top and laying down the style. After a few hours of digging and waiting for the takeoffs to set up, Karl and Barrett start putting on a show over the road gap we’ve built. The three days of snow have made for some super soft landings, so the boys aren’t holding back – 3s turn into 5s, 5s turn into 7s, 7s turn into flips.

After spinning more rotations than we care to count, Karl and Barrett call it a day. We have a few miles to cover back to the trucks anyway, and it’s beginning to get dark. As we motor back towards the highway, we’re treated to one of most incredible sunsets we’ve ever seen. Karl peels off the sled track and starts putting in some perfect powder turns in a massive meadow – with the terrain we had heliskied yesterday in the background. After a week of chasing these guys around their home turf, we drop our heavy camera packs and join the fun, brapping up and down the hill as the light fades. It evokes thoughts of how the first pioneers to set foot in the area must have felt: free.

That night, we celebrate our week together with a night on the town. Karl recommends we join him for dinner at Warfield’s Distillery and Brewery, a local pub featuring creative and locally-sourced fare and an extensive cocktail and draft beer list. With an ever-changing menu, there's never a shortage of things to indulge in, including lots of veggie options.

After dinner, our party continues down the road at Lefty’s Bar and Grill – a true locals haunt complete with pool tables, Big Buck Hunter, and enough beer for everyone in town. More pitchers somehow keep appearing on our table, until we look around and see Alex – one of our heli guides from the day before – beaming at us from across the room. The warm and welcoming small-town vibes are genuine here. Alex joins us for another round, and we spend the rest of the evening swapping stories amongst the crew about adventures past and hatching plans for the future.

When it comes time to head home for the night, it’s snowing again. Hard. I check the forecast and see winter weather warnings for our whole drive home tomorrow, and heavy snow for local mountains. So much for the name – maybe we’ll get to play more in the sun next time. 

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