Skiing with Bison — Womens Backcountry Clinic, Yellowstone Ski Tours

Post by blogger | December 22, 2016      

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.

Share the road takes on new meaning when you partner with one of these fellows.

Share the road takes on new meaning when you partner with one of these fellows.

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:

  • Talk while you’re pinpointing the beacon signal, sometimes the victim can hear you.
  • Beacons don’t find people, probes find people.
  • Narrow the beacon search down to the low point, mark that point with a ski pole and then probe around it in defined pattern to find the victim.
  • Once found, switch out diggers every minute to preserve energy.
  • Caneoing is an effective and less tiring way to remove snow.
  • The simple takeaway: carry shovel, beacon, probe and practice. Leadership mitigates the chaos of a burial.
  • 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.

    Heading to the classroom.

    Heading to the classroom.

    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.

    Moss in the trees makes the forest all the more enchanting.

    Moss in the trees makes the forest all the more enchanting.

    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.

    Remains from forest fires in the 1990s.

    Remains from forest fires in the 1990s.

     Index Pk. is on the left, and Pilot Pk. is on looker's right.

    Index Peak on the left, and Pilot Peak on looker’s right.

    Skiing down glades opened by past wildfires.

    Skiing down glades opened by past wildfires.

    Snowpit discussions with views of Barronette Peak.

    Snowpit discussions with views of Barronette Peak.

    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.

    KT points out various ski routes.

    Kt points out the route of the first ski/snowboard descent of Abiathar, done in March 1999 by Hans Saari, Kris Erickson, and Stephen Koch.

    Hero pow does not disappoint.

    Hero pow does not disappoint.

    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.

    The girls.  "Another lap, yeah!"

    The girls. “Another lap? Yeah!”

    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!

    PhD ecologist Jesse Logan joins u

    PhD ecologist Jesse Logan (left) joins us on tour three and fills the day with interesting chats about Yellowstone’s natural history.

    Beauty as immense as the stone cliffs.

    Beauty as immense as the stone cliffs.

    Our escorts on the way home.  I hope to return someday soon.

    Our escorts on the way home. I hope to return someday soon.


    Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


    11 Responses to “Skiing with Bison — Womens Backcountry Clinic, Yellowstone Ski Tours”

    1. Ed December 22nd, 2016 4:51 pm

      This year, we seem to have a different problem with Ungulata in some of Alberta’s backcountry ski parking lots. Tongue marks all over the truck paint OK, but if it’s snowing really hard, don’t leave your vehicle’s windshield wipers up – the moose find the ends really salty chewy good! Not so great for your windshield on the drive back home though! And the resident cow with her calf does not like dogs, on leash or not.

    2. John Yates December 22nd, 2016 6:05 pm

      FYI, the link to Yellowstone Ski Tours at the top of the article seems to be broken.

      Nice article. I’ve been to Yellowstone once in the winter. It was great.

    3. Lisa Dawson December 22nd, 2016 6:33 pm

      John Yates,
      Thanks! I corrected the link.

    4. Lisa Dawson December 22nd, 2016 6:46 pm

      Ed, that’s quite a problem! Thanks for the links.

    5. Joe John December 23rd, 2016 12:53 am

      Sounds like a great tour! Thank you for sharing.

    6. Andrew December 23rd, 2016 6:18 am

      Wow, much better than crowding in with summer tourists. Definitely one to add to the bucket list.

    7. Wookie1974 December 23rd, 2016 6:22 am

      Oh man! First – really nice write-up! I’m the wrong gender, but I’d loved to have been there.

      Second: ROAD SALT! Thats why a big Moose Bull would constantly chew up all the rubber and lick my car when I briefly lived in Jackson! I never figured it out. This has solved an old question – thanks!

    8. Kt Miller December 23rd, 2016 7:39 am

      Wookie 1974, we have other options as well! Check out our ecology or ski mountaineering courses. We also offer custom trips. Thanks for reading! 🙂

    9. Lisa Dawson December 23rd, 2016 8:38 am

      Wookie1974, I second what Kt says. Any of their courses would be grand.

      Since returning home I dream about returning. Yellowstone is such a fantasy land with so much to explore. Imagine skiing down to geysers and bubbling hot pots and then finishing the tour with a dip in natural hot springs. And then there’s Kt and Beau, two of the most enjoyable and knowledgeable guides I’ve skied with. Highly recommended on every front!

    10. Wookie December 24th, 2016 10:00 am

      I haven’t been back for about ten years. Travel like that is not only expensive (I live in Europe now) but kinda dicey. Last time I was in WY, I had only a week. -20 degrees and a beat snowpack made for an expensive week of resort skiing at the Hole. Nice enough, but I don’t have to fly intercontinentally for that.
      But I’ll put you on my list for sure. Next time over….I’ll buzz you.

    11. Jesse A. Logan December 24th, 2016 8:26 pm

      Nice write up, Lisa. Thanks. Note the detail in the photograph: essential safety gear for spring skiing in Yellowstone: Beacon, shovel, probe – And, Bear Spray!

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