A splitboard crossing through America’s largest road-free zone

The author, shredding Murphy’s law. Photo: Jess Asmussen


Editor’s Note: Author Sam Thackeray is the lead avalanche instructor in our Essential guide to backcountry basics and avalanche awareness with Inspire courses. It helps viewers learn to make smart and safe decisions in their quest for unhunted powder. The class is currently on sale for the holiday season. Learn more, here.

Brian is the type of guy with overwhelming enthusiasm and positivity. He is particularly passionate about skiing, and skiing tenfold in remote and wild places that involve a lot of work and suffering. Ultimately, that’s the kind of personality you look for in a partner for the kind of trip we’re about to embark on: a 16-day crossing, covering 130 miles and 67,000 vertical feet across the sea. largest road-free area of ​​the lower 48 states, the Church’s Frank Desert.

I don’t remember where I met Brian. Maybe a forecast for the local Avalanche Center or via Payette Powder Guides, or maybe at a local event. Regardless, we had skied together several times over the past few seasons. This past spring, we teamed up to stage a local classic at our McCall, Idaho home. And Brian invited his friend Jess.

Jess is sweet, friendly, thoughtful, a bit of a philosopher, and as fit and strong as possible. 15-year-old ultramarathoner and former climbing ranger. Brian skis in the backcountry most days of the week – an average day for him is 6,000 vertical feet. Jess trains endurance six days a week.

I was fit and strong after a season as a splitboard guide and spent my fair share of days in the mountains; but I am still the weak link. Snowboarding has guided my life since I was eight years old. I have developed a thirst for distant, obscure adventure, which involves a lot of suffering. A colleague once told me, “You are a mental and emotional heavyweight. I don’t know exactly what he meant; I don’t think that’s a compliment. It was probably this quality that made me think that a Frank Church Wilderness ski trip was not only a good idea, but could actually be fun.

So that day last spring, as the three of us were climbing a skin trail, I mentioned that I had been thinking about trying to splitboard through Frank Church.

“I thought of a trip like that too! Brian responded by launching into a detailed description of all the peaks he wanted to ski. Jess was intrigued by the idea. He had run trails and rafted in “The Frank”, but had never skied there.

So what is Frank Church? At 2.3 million acres, it is the largest wilderness outside of Alaska. It stretches across a significant portion of central Idaho and is bordered on all sides by thousands of additional acres of national forest and other wilderness. It is home to many of the largest multi-day whitewater trips in the country thanks to the Salmon River running its length, the second deepest canyon in North America, herds of elk, deer, bighorn sheep, d black bear, wolf, wolverine, cougar, osprey, bald eagle, salmon, trout… .and not much else. Set aside in 1980 by Congress as part of the Wilderness Act, it is named after its champion, Idaho Senator Frank Church, who risked his iconic political career to see this area sidelined. In its entirety it’s called The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, but for those who cherish it it’s “The Frank”.

The statistics do not do the place justice. There is a mystique out there who is so wild, so distant, so ruthless, so uninhabited. And that is the allure.

“The chore” was to cross the Salmon River and climb several times from river level to the summit. Photo: Brian Peters

So we made a plan to ski and snowboard in my case, from west to east across the expanse of The Frank (from Yellow Pine to southeast of McCall to Panther Creek near Challis), down as many great ski lines as possible, and just exploring what was there. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

In any fortune telling, the plans are constantly changing. In the middle of our planning process, we learned that an avalanche had blocked our access road and the county had no plans to clear it until late spring. Ok, no problem, just add a day and a 15 mile trip. On the day of our departure, I stopped by Brian’s to pick it up for him and Jess and was immediately faced with news that the airline that was refueling us could not land on our planned airstrip due to the bad conditions. conditions. Instead, Plan B took us further south to a different strip and more time walking the land. No problem, we were fully engaged.

We stopped where we were about to leave civilization with two machine operators slowly working to clear the avalanche debris. With lots of grunts and moans, we shouldered our over 65-pound bags, said goodbye to our friends, and, one foot in front of the other, headed east.

Our ability to adjust plans based on what the mountain has given us has played a major role in our success. The second morning was an opportunity for us to make an unforeseen adjustment to climb and ski a couloir that will prove to be one of the most aesthetic lines of the trip and without a doubt the best snow. So, we made the most of it! It wouldn’t be the last time we made an adjustment.

Always be on the move. Photo: Brian Peters

That gorgeous, tight line set the tone: roll for a morning or a day, then move camp. We stuck to this routine as much as possible, but the ground did not always lend itself to this ideology. We ran in slogging days. Sixty miles an hour winds that left trees strewn like toothpicks across the mountains. Regenerating such thick polar pines, crossing them was extremely difficult. So steep terrain and snow so icy, skinning was impossible, but unstable enough that we couldn’t support our weight while folding the boots, leaving us sinking into our waists with every step. Logs and sharp granite, which created obstacles that threatened to destroy equipment (and ACLs). Shocking ski conditions with heavy bags. Dense brush and stream crossings that tore our clothes and slowed our pace to slow motion. Long days walking on rock and dirt with all our possessions on our backs, carrying our bags at 80 pounds.

Every obstacle took a toll. I damaged or destroyed almost everything I brought. Worst of all was breaking the baseplate of my splitboard binding on day 12. As a must-have piece for moving in the mountains at any capacity, I had to get creative. I tied it up with Voile rubber ski poles and straps which allowed me to complete the trip but ended my ability to confidently snowboard everything that matters.

The generosity of the turns off Rainbow Peak. Photo: Jess Asmussen

What challenges never do is break our spirit or our positivity. Without a doubt, we all went to dark places sometimes as we were physically and mentally pushed during those 16 days. But no one cracked, no one melted. At one point, the position you’ve put yourself in is so ridiculous you just have to laugh.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all beating. We did 10 notable runs, each with their own distinct character. The aesthetic snow and five stars of Murphy’s Law Couloir. The thrill of tearing apart the giant spins on the open face of Rainbow Peak. I went straight to camp after descending Nautilus Falls, then looked back at the face which easily had ten more lines in it. Party by low angle skiing to Brush Creek which seemed like forever. Descent from the top of the highest peak in the chain. Brian’s absolute enthusiasm and gratitude after riding the Lucky 13 Corridor. Highlights I won’t soon forget and everyone just got sweeter knowing this might be the only time I’ve ridden them.

Brian Peters, throwing tricks in Murphy’s Law. Photo: Jess Asmussen

In the end, the crossing took the entire time of those 16 days. The numbers, however, are insignificant. Growth, learning, appreciation and experience were not.

When you go on a trip like this, you don’t know how it will affect or change you, but you know it will. This trip was all about gratitude and legacy.

Gratitude for mountains, rivers, peaks, valleys and lakes; the place. Gratitude for friends, family, girlfriends and wives, ski partners. The ancestors had the foresight to set this place aside as “A place unimpeded by man, where man himself is a visitor”. And those who continue to manage it as such. Gratitude for living in a time and place where it is possible. Be of such social and economic status to be able to undertake such an enterprise. Having the choice to push yourself and to suffer, not to be forced to. Luck.

The team.

The Frank is the legacy of millions of people who came before him. Lawmakers and activists who sought to see him protected. Hunting, fishing and river guides who have built their lives around sharing with others and managing the land. The miners and mining companies who scared the land and poisoned the fisheries without any intention on their part. Another era, another ethics, another knowledge. A forest management ethic that has pushed for the suppression of forest fires, which in turn has led to previously undocumented fuel loads and forest fire activities. The Native Americans who lived off the land and the rivers, who had a more intimate knowledge of the place than we could ever hope for. The intrepid adventurers who have attempted and succeeded on similar journeys. All of them had their impact.

As we walked through, we asked ourselves, what would be our heritage?

About Patricia Kilgore

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