Remembering Caleb Baukol

Founder of Sun Valley's Big Wood Skis lived larger than life

Marquee Image: Caleb Baukol, right, believed in the power of skiing and community and welcomed all walks of life into his Ketchum shop. PHOTO: Tal Roberts

Recently, the Intermountain West lost a legendary character. On August 30, Caleb Baukol took an early exit and left countless friends and followers in disbelief, a feeling that eventually gave way to sadness and then all those unanswerable questions that offer no resignation. He was 47.

I first met Caleb playing ice hockey about 20 years ago. ‘Lebber,’ as he was known around the rink, moved to Sun Valley from Whitefish, Montana, where he learned to appreciate the mountains. He was boldly adventurous, extremely charismatic, and outrageously funny. His nude Gelande jumping days were proof of that. It was clear from the beginning that he didn’t have much in the way of inhibitions—even amongst hockey players. This guy was all about having fun and he wanted nothing more than to share it with friends. More than a few of us jumped on board and hung on tight.

Most emblematic of Caleb was ‘The Garage,’ home to Big Wood Skis and Snowboards near downtown Ketchum. Caleb was the founder, engineer, shaper, and CMO (aka “Check Me Out,” he’d remind us in a self-deprecating tone). Named after the Big Wood River, which runs through the Sun Valley area and drains some of the most fabled peaks in America, Caleb’s custom boards were revered for his craftsmanship and classic hand-finished wood veneers. In 2010, Sun Valley commissioned Caleb to build the resort’s 75th anniversary ski.

Caleb Baukol and his life partner, Bex. PHOTO: Tal Roberts
Caleb Baukol and his life partner, Bex.
PHOTO: Tal Roberts

Big Wood was much more than a factory for boutique boards. It was a gathering place for mountain folk and a ski shop for the commoners. Having tuned bikes and skis for many years, Caleb knew how often local stokers would inundate shop space, interrupting the flow of business, borrowing tools to fix their personal gear before leaving behind insufficient trade value in 12 domestic beers. The Garage took pressure off local service providers by making the space, tools, and resident expertise (Caleb) available to all the DIY-ers who might like to enjoy cold beers from his kegerator while dialing in their gear to the sound of his music and laughter.

Big Wood was as functional as it was stylish, and I’m not just talking about the standalone coat rack Caleb built using classic Bad Bitch and Bad Dog skis, made in the early 1980s by another former Sun Valley brand, RD. Once you walked in the front door and hung your coat on a piece of Sun Valley history you need not look further than the nearest wall to see more of Caleb’s collection of relics, classic posters of American ski heroes and, of course, your favorite Lange Girls. Those waiting for a bench or a bike-stand could enjoy a game of foosball or dome hockey (a favorite amongst kids) or maybe a seat on the old leather couch beside a coffee table stacked full of vintage magazines.

In an age when corporate takeovers and money-grubbing executives have dirtied the snow sports industry more than ever, Caleb had been keeping it real. The business of building skis was never about making money for him. He simply loved doing it. And he loved sharing his craft with everyone else.

The next room back was where ‘preferred members’ stored their extra toys in lockers; boots on the dryer rack, boards next to the belt grinder or inside the hotbox closet for an overnight soak in a layer of fast wax. As an aside, the hotbox also doubled as an end-up for wounded soldiers, (usually Caleb) looking for a warm place to sleep on a cold winter night after a big night on the town. Perhaps this was a questionable decision for a guy who lived with a woman who loved him dearly, but he would always insist it was a better choice than getting in his car and driving the gauntlet. Perhaps so.

Just beyond the locker room is where the real magic happened. In a large three-bay garage was all the sophisticated equipment he needed to build the most beautiful skis. Caleb was wildly creative with an innovative mind and he owned the most bitchin’ set of tools that could fix just about anything and build whatever he pleased. And the best part was he was always eager to share his passion with others. If you wandered into the depths of The Garage you’d likely be invited into the process. “Hey, a little help here?” he’d say with a smirk knowing that he wanted to share his craft more than he needed the help. Whether it was showing a friend around the shop, teaching them how to build their own skis, or just to provide some basic maintenance instruction, his selfless attitude was motivated by an open heart and true love for skiing.

His followers extended well beyond the local population of hard-core adventure seekers. He gave ski-building workshops to kids and allowed the most novice outdoor participants the opportunity to be involved in the process or at least observe.

The Garage was a place where anyone could come and get an unfiltered POV on Sun Valley’s mountain culture. It was where you could expect to find people returning from an outstanding day, willing to share their tales. And that’s exactly what Caleb had in mind.

Big Wood Skis became a place for local Sun Valley skiers to gather as much as it was for Caleb Baukol to handcraft beautiful skis. PHOTO: Tal Roberts
Big Wood Skis became a place for local Sun Valley skiers to gather as much as it was for Caleb Baukol to handcraft beautiful skis. PHOTO: Tal Roberts

In an age when corporate takeovers and money-grubbing executives have dirtied the snow sports industry more than ever, Caleb had been keeping it real. The business of building skis was never about making money for him. He simply loved doing it. And he loved sharing his craft with everyone else.

He was the guy you could always call upon whether you needed help fixing a blown-out edge or if you just needed an honest opinion about life matters. He would diffuse any kind of stress by reaffirming that everything was going according to plan, “right on time as per usual.” He was often sarcastic, but always genuine. The moment you walked through his door, he would stop whatever he was doing and deliver a big, boisterous “Howdy!” It was obvious that you had his fullest attention—such a lost art these days.

When I needed a partner for a mission into the mountains he was always keen and a very competent teammate. He wasn’t usually the fastest guy to the top, but he wasn’t afraid to send it on the way down. And if anything happened that we were hoping wouldn’t, he was well prepared to deal with just about any situation. He was always the most enthusiastic member of the group and the most vocal, sharing his stoke with frequent cowboy-like hollers of “Waaah-hoooo!” and “We’re doin it!” Upon safely arriving back at the car, he would claim it once more with a high pitch: “Nailed it!”

So how could a bright, shining light harbor such darkness? He took his own life during a moment of intense anxiety, but surely the dust would have settled down, because it always does. For whatever reason, he couldn’t see past that moment and he made a decision with permanent consequences that deeply affected all those who knew him.

All I can say is, “FOC!”

Friends of Caleb! Don’t hang your heads for long because he wouldn’t approve of that. FOCers should carry on and live life with a bit more enthusiasm because there’s no better way to honor that man than to get out in the mountains, on the ice, and down the rivers. Remember the words of Dr. Suess: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”