Keep The Stoke Alive

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Searching for water sports in all the wrong places

My friend Pius and I set out in early June this past summer to Surf The Tetons. We were looking to ride H2O in all its surf-able forms: first in a solid state as snow (our favorite). Then we planned to seek out liquid water in the form of stationary melted snow and finally, as rapidly-moving melted snow. We immediately realized we were doing a mini working-man’s version of The Fourth Phase, Travis Rice’s 2016 water-based Earth-surfing film. 

We didn’t have helicopters and catamarans of course—just simple tools: hiking boots, climbing harnesses, snowboards, wetsuits, and the Aerial Tram. Instead of chasing the cycle of water across oceans and continents, we tracked the cycle of water down from the crown of the Tetons to where it meets the Snake River.

Pius and I met up with our friends Sophia, Nick, and Turner at JHMR for the first phase. It was early summer so the resort was closed to snowboarding, but we knew the high alpine slopes still held vast reserves of solid H2O It felt strange to walk across the dry black pavement and green grass in Teton Village with our snowboards in hand. Tourists gawked at us and peppered us with questions while riding up the Tram. “Is there snow up there?”

Clouds wisped over the craggy ridge top of a distant peak: our destination. We started down a slope we had ridden many times in the past, now a snowless rock scree field. No first phase here. Only vapor drifted above us as we marched along the edge of the cliffs.

We stopped to peer down into a legendary side-country line known for being steep. Packed between the walls of the couloir, we found it:  sheltered snow. The line intrigued us—what could go wrong? 

I had sandbagged Pius. He hadn’t snowboarded in over a year (and he had never rappelled in his life). Thankfully, our crew had the skills to help him, and he proved capable. We lowered him down the rappel and put him on a ski belay for the firm snow and intimidating line. After some tenuous moments, Pius made it to safety, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. I put away the rope and surfed a little earth for myself. It proved to be icy, steep, choppy, and terrible. But surfable nonetheless.

The sun-baked snow continued down the open bowl below. We navigated around a couple of cliff bands, traversed another slope, and came into view of our next objective. At the bottom of a cirque sat a pond filled with beautiful electric blue water surrounded by snowy slopes. We had found the second phase: stationary melted snow. 

Our plan was to set up a pond skim. We wanted to ride down the snowy slopes and out across the water on our snowboards. But the snow surrounding the pond was just as suncupped and terrible as the earlier stuff had been. All five of us started snow-plowing down to create a smooth run-in, until I just couldn’t wait any longer. I pointed it straight downhill with no speed checks. The thought crossed my mind that if I didn’t go fast enough, I’d have to swim. 

It felt like how I imagine riding a bull must feel. It took everything I had not to get bucked off when I hit the water. Gravity just turned off for a while and I was floating. I wasn’t sure if I could even attempt a turn, but who needs turns in a moment like that? We rode the pond for hours. We all got wet, and our boots were sopping by the end. The second phase had been a ton of fun, despite the bright blue meltwater tasting nothing like Powerade.

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Treetops drifted past as we descended 4,000 vertical feet on the Tram to the valley floor below. The mountain portion of our water molecule chase had ended. Pius and I said goodbye to the rest of our functional group and continued our mission to locate the third phase: rapidly-moving melted snow.

We raced down the Snake River Canyon in Pius’ van and changed into our wetsuits on the pavement of the Lunch Counter pullout, and we knew surfboards would be the best tool for this phase. During the spring runoff a standing wave forms at the Lunch Counter rapid, and the swell is on. Pius is an ocean guy, so I figured surfing a river wouldn’t be beyond him. He likes to suffer. We dove into the frigid water and those recently-melted water molecules took our breath away as the current ripped us down the river. 

It’s a scary feeling when the river has control over you. Pius began paddling hard, and I paddled behind to assist if needed. After just a tiny bit of panic we made it into the eddy against the opposite bank. We were ready for the third phase.

I jumped from a rock into the wave, body-boarded into position, and popped up. The water zipped underneath, and rafts floated by. I danced, turning left and right, waving my hands for balance. It’s a feeling that I love—it’s on par with pow turns. Perhaps some of the same H2O molecules from my deep February runs were actually flowing by under my surfboard.

Next it was Pius’ turn. Before I even made it out of the river, he floated up next to me in the downstream eddy. He had been eager to get his first try out of the way. We walked back up to go one more time right as the exhaustion from our big day started to kick in. Pius jumped into the wave for his last go. He paddled hard, bodyboarded for a few moments, and was washed out the back. He retreated back across the river and I followed shortly thereafter to congratulate him. Catching the wave and body boarding on it was an impressive feat.

Our Earth-surfing that day was a tremendous success. We had even literally surfed. Pius had taken on every obstacle and survived. We had chased excited water molecules on the downhill leg of their journey as they took the path of least resistance back towards the ocean. We completed the three phases of the spring water cycle in the Tetons: ice that looks like snow, water that looks like ice, and snow that looks like water.

– JS

Joey Sackett writes a lot of articles for this magazine, huh?


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