Diversion Magazine

Rocky Mountain Winter: Huffing and puffing through the backwoods of Yellowstone

Something was wrong with the picture in front of me.

It wasn’t that the scenery wasn’t beautiful.  The close-packed spruce and fir forest we had cross-country skied through was gradually clearing, hinting at the hot springs located just over the ridge.  Intermittent clouds sifted more snow on top of six inches of fresh powder, then whisked aside so that the flakes sparkled in the sun.  Other than our backtrack, there was no trail to mar the view, no signs, no indication of humans.

Nor had I heard anything suspicious.  In fact, other than the soft “thwomp!” when one of the trees unloaded its burden of snow, there was no sound at all. 

Then I realized that I was staring at a large snow-covered brownish bush standing about 30 feet away.  And just as I thought, “That’s odd.  I didn’t realize any shrubs still had leaves on them,” the “shrub” swung around and gazed at us with the mournful look of a bison distracted from its mid-morning snack.  Sheltering behind its mother was her 300-pound baby.  As 11 skiers let out a collective “Oooh!,” another “shrub” shifted position farther up the slope.

Bison sightings are an everyday occurrence with Yellowstone Expeditions, a 16-year-old company offering cross-country ski camping trips in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park.  So are elk, snow geese, trumpeter swans, eagles and views so vast that they stretch your peripheral vision.  The one thing you won’t see is snowmobiles.  Despite a daily invasion of the park by the vrooming, exhaust-belching hordes, Yellowstone Expeditions avoids the snowmobiles by going where they don’t—literally, into the woods.  For good measure, they usually avoid marked or broken trails, too.   There is nothing to dilute a close encounter with the forest primeval.

Until, that is, you return to Canyon Skiers’ Camp, the base camp located a quick ski from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  When the snowcoach—a big Dodge van mounted on skis and caterpillar treads that shuttled me and two other trippers from the town of West Yellowstone—lurched up the driveway, I saw a thicket of Nordic skis sticking out of a snowbank.  Down below, in a snow-covered meadow, was a horseshoe of what looked like eight large doghouses.  The doghouses turned out to be wood-floored tent cabins, kept cozy with propane heaters with adjustable thermostats.  Eight-feet square doesn’t sound like a lot of room, but each contained a double platform or two single beds piled with sheets, pillowcases and two thick comforters, a clothesline and plenty of hooks, sills on which to place camera, toilet kit and other personal items, and an oil lantern, filled, trimmed and ready to be lit.  I’ve slept in hotel rooms that were colder and dimmer.

The central gathering place is the dining yurt, a large round canvas tent with wooden floors modeled after the portable homes of Mongolian nomads.  The temperature outside was cold enough to make the snow squeak underfoot but a wood-burning stove kept the yurt toasty enough so that I could sit around wearing only a turtleneck. 

But the real differentiator between Yellowstone Expeditions and even, say, the snazzy huts on Colorado’s Tenth Mountain Trail, are the other amenities.  Sure, the pit toilet is in an outhouse, but the outhouse had a lit lantern—no need to clench a flashlight between your teeth—and oh, bliss! a kerosene heater that keeps you from literally freezing your butt off.  There is a home-made cedar sauna big enough to squeeze four that is fired up every afternoon.  And just in case you don’t want to scrub off in a snowbank, another structure houses a shower, supplied with hot water from the stove. 

That night, I peeked out of my yurtlet.  The stars formed a glittering crust in the sky, mirroring the glittering snow below.  The white canvas top of the dining yurt glowed faintly, like an alien spaceship.  The silence sang.

I had signed up for a five-day trip, as had the other New Yorker, a Brooklynite who confessed that her cross-country skiing experience was limited to shuffling around Prospect Park before collapsing in a booth at Starbucks.  Wendy, a fire chief from Arizona, came in with us but would be staying a few days longer.  The Minnesota Five—two couples and a friend—liked their previous trip with Yellowstone Expeditions so much that they had come back for an encore and were there for a full week. 

We quickly fell into a routine. Every morning, Arden Bailey, the company’s founder, gave the weather report:  “Still and clear.”  As in, he translated, “Still snowing clear up to your ears.”  Canyon Camp gets between 200 and 250 inches of snowfall each year, with the greatest amount coming down in February and March.  It was the middle of February and Mother Nature was right on target.

Breakfast was always a four-course affair, starting with “yurt-o-meal,” a proprietary carbo-packing combo of hot cereal, dried fruit, maple syrup and condensed milk, then moving on to pancakes, sausage, eggs and fresh fruit.   On my second day, Erica Hutchings, the company’s co-owner, looked me over consideringly and said, “I’ve just decided what my goal for you is on this trip.”  Oh, dear, I thought.  She’s going to tell me I need to nail my kick turns.  Ski harder, faster, longer.  Stop being so squeamish on exposed slopes even if my right ski is three feet from a 4,000-foot drop.  “My goal is for you to gain five pounds,” Erica announced.  “You look awfully skinny.  Have seconds.”

Then we’d pack up our lunches, gather our gear, and decide where we were going to ski each day.  With two snow coaches and three guides, all in touch by radio, we could break up into different groups and plan trips that took us all over the northern half of the park.

One day we took a long loop that led to the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where Arden coached me along a one-mile section of trail with a drop-off so sheer that I skied it with my right eye squeezed shut.  Another day, we broke trail through 20 inches of fresh powder to climb Dunraven Pass, then used a sheet of folding plastic to luge down the slopes of Mt. Washburn.  But my favorite day was our trip to Violet Hot Springs.

From the long, open meadows along Otter Creek, we crossed a snow bridge and turned into forest so trackless that the only way to navigate was by compass. In addition to being PSIA-certified backcountry guides and nordic ski instructors, Arden and Erica also both have years of experience working as rangers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.  Bill, our third guide, worked for the U.S. Forest Service. As we skied along, he pointed out the difference between a whitebark pine, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and sub-alpine fir, also known as a “piss fir” because of how it smells when you burn it.  It was like having your own private naturalist.

Arden called for a snack break on Gingersnap Hill, a ridge that looked absolutely identical to every other ridge in the featureless forest but which he claimed was the third ridge in a series and the last before the hot springs.  And in between nibbles of—what else?—gingersnaps, we could faintly smell the sulphur fumes.  As we got closer, we could hear the fumaroles hissing and see how the escaping steam had condensed on the trees, forming weirdly shaped icicles on the branches.

I had expected an oasis in the middle of winter, but instead the geothermal landscape was other-worldly.  Mud pots plopped, hot springs bubbled and an occasional geyser spat boiling water into pools colored blue, green and yellow from the minerals.  We took off our skis and tiptoed across the mud, gingerly testing the ground with our ski poles.  Arden knelt down next to a stream trickling out of the geyser run-off and dug a pH kit out of his pack.  “Anywhere else, this would be a HAZMAT site,” he said.  “This run-off is pure sulphuric acid.”

When the wind blew the steam clouds clear, we saw a small herd of bison huddled on the warm ground.  Life at the spa may be more comfortable in the short term but it’s ultimately deadly, Erica explained.  The minerals and silica impregnate the grass and grind down the bison’s teeth.  Bison that hang out by hot springs live one-third less long than their cousins who tough it out on the tundra.

Then it was our turn to taste the tundra.  We huffed up a ridge, dipped down and climbed another ridge and there, spreading out in front of us, was a view that took my breath away.  I had seen the Hayden Valley in the summer, an immense green bowl with herds of bison and elk drifting beside a blue stream.  It had looked like the Happy Hunting Grounds.

Now the meadows were white, and the Valley looked like a snowy sea, covered with waves upon waves of white undulating all the way to the horizon.  Scattered clusters of black dots indicated where bison or elk huddled against the wind.  The sun angled low in the sky behind us, its harsh light heightening the magnificent desolation.

There was no other way to have experienced this except as we did—on skis, coming through the backcountry of the Yellowstone.

                     

BOX:

Yellowstone Expeditions offers trips from mid-December through mid-March.  Four-, five-, and eight-day packages are offered for $568.65, $688.25 and $927.45 (TK 1999/2000 prices) per person, double occupancy.  The package rate includes all meals, lodging in the sleeping huts, snowcoach transportation from West Yellowstone and shuttles to the trailheads. 

Groups of six or more may request a 10 percent discount.  Groups of nine or more people can book the camp for their exclusive use.  Customized tours, including winter photography workshops, winter ecology and Yellowstone geology (with a focus on geysers), are also available.

The closest airport to West Yellowstone is Bozeman, Montana.  Van and mini-bus shuttle service is available from the airport to West Yellowstone.  There is a wide selection of accommodations in West Yellowstone.

For information, contact Yellowstone Expeditions:  P.O. Box 865, West Yellowstone, MT  59758; 800-728-9333 or 406-646-9333.  The Internet address is:  www.yellowstoneexpeditions.com; send e-mail to ye@yellowstoneexpeditions.com.