Editor’s note: give the gift of experience to the person who has everything. My favorite adventure in 2016 was ski touring through Yellowstone National Park with a group of wonderful ladies. I highly recommend Yellowstone Ski Tours who hosted the trip.
Not sure which turn to take in the dim evening light, I idle the truck and study the road map on my lap. I look up to see massive hairy beasts appear suddenly in the beam of my headlights. Mere feet away, they gaze at me and lumber on. A fiesty young bull trots into the glow and gives the bumper a little kick as if to say, “Watch it, you’re in our kingdom now.” As magically as they emerged, they fade away into the dark night.
The invitation had come a few weeks before, and it was irresistible: join a group of gals for a women’s backcountry ski clinic, with Yellowstone Ski Tours. I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to hone my backcountry skills while exploring the wild wonders of one of our nation’s most spectacular national parks.
During spring, summer and fall, Yellowstone is overrun by millions of tourists and the thought of inching along its narrow roads in an ant line of loitering RVs isn’t too appealing. But in winter the crowds evaporate. Herds of bison and elk come out of the forests to graze in Lamar Valley. Abundant snow fall and cold temperatures make the storms come in like cold smoke. Everything points to a winter wonderland ideal for backcountry ski touring.
Yellowstone’s North Entrance via Gardiner is the only road entrance to the national park that is plowed for cars in the winter. Other entrances are open as well, but groomed for oversnow vehicles (like snowcoaches and snowmobiles). From Colorado, it is a long day on the road to get there. I drive a big loop: going north on I25 to 90, then west to Livingston and south on 89 to the entrance at Gardiner. For the return trip I’ll drive down the west side of the park thru Jackson Hole, breaking up the drive to ski with friends in the Tetons.
The drive north goes smoothly. Wyoming greets me with clear skies and wide open vistas of rolling grasslands dotted with herds of antelope. I enter Yellowstone at dusk and the narrow two lane road is nearly deserted. After a few hours I arrive at the quiet hamlet of Silver Gate and find our cabin. The other girls are already there with a welcoming pot of tea on the stove. After a friendly chat to get acquainted, we retire, anxious for the start of the course the following morning.
Kt Miller meets us early and we go over our gear, the area forecast and the general plan for the day. A tip I’ll embrace: every morning, read the weather and avalanche forecast and make it a daily ritual. Treat the avalanche report like a page of a book, which builds into an encyclopedia of information. Current weather and snowpack influences future avalanche condition and understanding conditions is key for safe backcountry travel.
We go outside to refresh our rescue skills and spent an hour doing beacon drills. Even after years of practice, it’s always helpful to be reminded of vital points:
After the drill, we drive down the road a few miles to the Pebble Creek drainage. The first turnout is filled with a few cars and skiers are already gliding across a meadow. A testimony to her knowlege of Yellowstone’s backcountry, Kt knows where to go to avoid the “crowds.” We drive a little farther to another turnout that is empty. We skin up a trail, a ridge over from where we guessed the other skiers are going, and don’t see another soul for the rest of the day.
Along the way, Kt points out various animal tracks: rabbit, wolverine, elk and bison. The cloven hoof of the bison looks similar to the elk but it’s rounder and closed in the front, almost like a horse hoof. As I ski tour through the forest, I hear wind blow through branches, or is it the breath of large beasts? Hyper-aware that we’re trudging through their territory, I look around but don’t spy anything, yet.
We travel up thru lodge pole pines to a clearing that leads to spectacular meadows in upper Pebble Creek. We climb a ridge of skeletal trees stripped bare from previous forest fires. Openings cleared by the fires make perfect glades for skiing. After a quick snack, we switch to downhill mode and make blissful turns down sweeping slopes of condensed powder.
It is tempting to put skins on and do it again but dusk is near so we head back. The unseasonably warm weather makes the snow in the lower forest isothermic. We practice stem christie and kick turns, making slow but careful progress and arrive back to the car with knees intact.
The forecast for the next day predicts a cold morning with warming temperatures in the afternoon. We leave early for the day’s objective, Abiathar Peak. We head up a clearing along a creek, watchful for bison that like to graze by the bushes. We skin up through a lovely green forest where again we find soft snow that will probably become mush later in the day. To practice route findings, we switch off trail breaking. Periodically we estimate snow slope angle, check our guesses with a inclimometer, and discuss avalanche potential.
The apron below the ridge holds solid snow and we ski snow so good that we have to do another lap. We debate doing a third lap but with evening near, we decide to call it a day and head back to the car. It is a good call because the snow in the forest has again become isothermic and we use our last reserve of energy to plow through a thousand feet of muck.
Yellowstone is delivering lovely ski touring with breathtaking vistas but not descents in legendary cold smoke powder that is common in the region. Challenging snow makes a better classroom so it’s all good.
For the next two days we ski tour through more breathtaking terrain, with interesting discussions of wildlife, terrain, geology, history. The conversations allow us to immerse ourselves so deeply into this special place that cherished memories are vivid in my mind to this day.
If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal. One I recommend is ski touring in Yellowstone with Kt Miller and Beau Fredlund.
Best wishes for a fabulous and full 2017 from your friends at WildSnow!