The Best-Laid Plans: A Weeklong Ski Traverse in Yellowstone… and a Monster Snowstorm
By Michael Lanza
The bison swings his massive, battering-ram head in our direction. Steam issues from his nostrils in short bursts. I’m not sure whether bison actually glare, but this 2,000-pound beef bulldozer with horns distinctly appears to be glaring at us. He looks perturbed.
Right behind me, my friends Jerry Hapgood and David Ports peer around me and try to take a measure of the first traffic of any kind, wild or human, that we’ve encountered so far, on the second morning of a seven-day, early March ski traverse in Yellowstone National Park. We are crossing an unnamed geyser basin several miles southwest of Old Faithful. The bison is grazing in grassy patches where the heat from thermal activity has melted away the snow. Then we notice two more bison lurking in the tightly spaced lodgepole pine trees to either side of the narrow trail.
So he’s brought friends. It’s three on three, but they collectively have a good 5,000 pounds on us—not a very fair fight. I silently curse the fact that I randomly happened to be the one skiing out front breaking trail through the snow at this moment.
David, Jerry, and I are each carrying a backpack and towing a sled loaded with winter camping gear, food, and—full disclosure—a survival ration of beer. (Hey, sleds have plenty of space, so why not?) We are not exactly light and nimble. Weaving through the close trees to get around the bison seems as likely as one of these beasts executing a backflip.
Fifteen minutes or more crawl past. The bison don’t move. I don’t feel like challenging them on that. From the back of the line, David suggests, “Mike, why don’t you just ski past him?”
As I’m thinking about how to suggest to David that perhaps he could come show me how to do that, the bison in front of me abruptly turns and ambles toward us.
Stumbling and tripping, struggling to backpedal with our sled cabooses, the three of us look like Moe, Larry, and Curly trying to get out of the way. But before getting close enough to trample us into the snow, the bison detours off the trail toward another patch of grass.
We hurry down the now-clear trail as quickly as we can drag our sleds, not pausing until the bison are long out of sight.
David, Jerry, and I are skiing across the southwest corner of Yellowstone, from Old Faithful to the park’s Bechler River entrance, camping on snow each night. The area is known for backcountry thermal features like the Shoshone Geyser Basin and for a multitude of waterfalls in and around Bechler Canyon. We’ve planned seven days to ski 32 miles. We figured we could easily cover four to five miles in three or four hours each day, even if breaking trail through deep snow, leaving plenty of down time to soak in creeks made into natural hot tubs by water spilling from countless thermal features. (We wouldn’t soak directly in thermal features—that’s illegal, and they’re deadly hot.)
Venture deep into the backcountry of the world’s first national park in winter and you enter a vast wilderness of lodgepole pine forests hushed by deep cold and a smothering comforter of snow. You ski along wild rivers and past geysers and other thermal features. You may bump into the local bison, elk, coyotes, and wolves.
And you will probably not see any other people—discovering a degree of solitude that’s rare in the backcountry of most national parks in summertime. To obtain our permit at Old Faithful, we had to reach the ranger by phone and ask him to come to the backcountry office—they’re not used to anyone actually showing up there during winter. He told us, “You’re the only party to take out a permit for that area all winter.”
Grinning at each other, we took that as a good sign. We would have the hot tubs and wilderness all to ourselves. We’d see this place almost as John Colter, mountain man and veteran of the Lewis and Clark expedition, saw it when he became the first white man to explore the Yellowstone region in 1807.
We didn’t expect it to be easy, of course. We knew that Yellowstone, at an average elevation of about 8,000 feet, is one of the notoriously coldest places in the country. The record low here of -66° F is the third-coldest temperature ever recorded in the contiguous United States. In fact, of the 15 coldest temperatures on record in the Lower 48, six occurred in the Greater Yellowstone region.
We knew, too, that this corner of Yellowstone, sitting at a unique confluence of weather systems abetted by high elevation, has a reputation for colossal snowstorms. While other parts of the park receive 150 inches of snow annually, the Bechler Canyon area averages 400 inches. But there is no weather forecast specific to such a remote locale, and the general park forecast paints with a broad brush over an area where daily weather and snowfall varies enormously. So we set out not knowing our meteorological fate.
One park ranger I spoke with before this trip issued a portentous warning: “It could go really smoothly for you guys,” he told me. “Or you could get a storm that dumps several feet of snow.”
Regarding the cold, we got lucky—relatively speaking: Although the nights right before our trip had plunged to a marrow-hardening -30° to -40° F, the chilliest we’d see this week would be just several notches below zero.
But we were about to acquire an intimate knowledge of how much snow can fall here.
Moving through an absolutely still forest as fat, multi-pronged snowflakes float down silently out of a white sky is one of the most beautiful experiences in nature. Pine boughs bend under the weight of clean, white shawls. The scene is so peaceful it’s hard to muster a trace of concern over how incredibly hard the snow is coming down.
On our first two cold but blindingly sunny days out here, we skied over expanses of untracked snow, crossing thick snow bridges that had formed over creeks. We passed cone-shaped Lone Star Geyser, which looks like a little volcano several feet tall and shoots steam and hot water as much as 40 feet into the air when it erupts every few hours—though we were not lucky enough to catch an eruption. But we saw mud pots burping and belching small clouds of hot air. On our first two, below-zero nights, we huddled around a campfire below a sky riddled with stars and the long smear of the Milky Way, sipping slushy beer—sort of chewing it, actually—and burying the unopened cans in the snow overnight to insulate them from freezing solid.
Now, on our third afternoon, snow has begun falling steadily, piling up on our hats, shoulders, backpacks, and sleds, and limiting visibility. Reaching the edge of the lodgepole forest and a broad meadow, we stop and peer ahead at… nothing. Whiteout engulfs the open terrain before us—a cloud, a giant bed sheet held up over our world.
Although high mountains surround Yellowstone, much of the park, including this southwest corner of it, sits atop a vast, rolling plateau. Lodgepole pines blanket almost 80 percent of it. While it’s easy enough to find your way through the backcountry on the park’s marked and well-maintained trails in summertime, those trails and signs are now buried under several feet of snow. Navigating through a seemingly endless forest without any terrain features that are easily identifiable on a map is no simple trick. In a whiteout, it grows exponentially trickier.
Having at least an approximate idea of our location, we pull out a map and compass and ski into the blankness, following a compass bearing in the direction we believe we should be heading. We cross the meadow, then lay down a track through a forest of ghost-like trees materializing out of and disappearing back into the fog. By late afternoon, we stop for the night—which comes early at this time of year—on the edge of another, smaller meadow, and commence our evening routine.
First, with our skis still on and packs and sleds off to the side, we spend more than an hour stomping on the light powder snow: we have to pack out a platform large enough for our tent, gear, and cooking area, and firm enough that we don’t posthole thigh-deep when standing on it without our skis on. Then we split up duties. Someone fires up our two white-gas stoves and constantly shovels snow into cook pots to melt enough for cooking, hot drinks tonight, and tomorrow’s drinking water—a task that keeps the stoves roaring for a couple of hours. The other two pitch the tent, lay out bags and pads inside, and perform various other mundane campsite chores. Only hours after we stop skiing every day have we eaten and crawled into our sleeping bags to fall hard asleep.
David, Jerry and I have shared many adventures, partly out of confidence in one another’s abilities and attitude, but mostly because we inevitably spend much of the time, no matter how difficult the situation, laughing—over recollections of past trips, and over our present circumstances. I wouldn’t head out on a trip that could push your physical limits and test your calm with companions who lacked that quality.
So even as the snow keeps coming throughout the evening in a quiet, peaceful, ominous blizzard, we are more like three buddies in a warm, dry pub—thankfully, our beers have not frozen solid—than we are like three people days into the empty backcountry of Yellowstone, wondering when this storm will let up.
My eyes blink open but register only blackness. There is no sound but the muffled, rhythmic, unconscious breathing of Jerry and David—who, like me, are zipped snugly inside their winter sleeping bags, with only a small opening for eyes and nose. I can no longer hear the patter of snowflakes softly, hypnotically brushing the tent. It’s as dark as the inside of a cave. After a moment of waking up, the reason for the absence of light and sound hits me: we’re buried.
It’s our fourth night. We spent our fourth day skiing through the intensifying storm, navigating at times in whiteout conditions, but finding our way across the plateau of ubiquitous lodgepole forest and down into one of the upper branches of Bechler Canyon. We had nervous moments. We paused and thought hard before crossing, one at a time, a snow bridge at least 15 feet thick over a narrow side canyon. Although the sight of it inspired a horrifying vision of sinking into that huge snowball like it was quicksand, the bridge proved dense enough to hold our weight. We also backed off traversing one steep slope that we feared was so loaded with new snow that it could avalanche. Instead, we made a long climb up and around it, wading strenuously uphill through the deep, unconsolidated new snow.
Late that afternoon, we glided easily downhill through forest to reach Three River Junction, where the Phillips, Gregg, and Ferris Forks merge to form the Bechler River entering the main stem of Bechler Canyon. The spot has a sort of Middle Earth ambiance—Middle Earth locked in winter, that is. Steam bursts from numerous hot springs pouring into shallow but fast, rocky streams. The airborne moisture has frozen in a sugary crust on the pine boughs all around us. Cliffs of dark stone soar skyward.
Now, lying there in the dark, I resign myself to what has to be done: going out into the storm to dig us out. I unzip and crawl from my bag, turn on my headlamp, and pull on my damp ski pants and shell jacket. As Jerry and David awaken to my noise, realize what I’m doing, and cheer me on, I unzip the door, push snow out of the doorway, and step outside.
Falling flakes swirl in my headlamp’s beam. Since we stomped out this platform just several hours ago, another foot of powder has fallen, burying our sleds and piling up atop and beside our tent, transforming them all to white mounds. I grab a shovel—wisely, we had left all of them standing upright—and spend the next 30 minutes digging out the tent and sleds. It will become a regular chore for the next two nights and mornings in camp, with each of us taking alternating shifts.
Somewhere not far from our tent is Mr. Bubble, a somewhat legendary backcountry pool in a creek heated by hot springs. It was supposed to be the marquis destination of this trip—possibly enticing us to layover for a day of soaking and exploring this area, if we were ahead of schedule.
That doesn’t seem likely now.
We have three days to cover 14 miles to the Bechler River ranger station, at the end of Cave Falls Road. I’ve arranged for the owner of a local shuttle service to meet us there with snowmobiles at noon on our seventh day. He will transport us 20 miles down that unplowed road to Ashton, Idaho, and then drive us back to my car in West Yellowstone, Montana. If we miss that midday Saturday rendezvous, it will take us at least another day to ski down that road.
In more favorable conditions, we could ski those mostly flat 14 miles to the ranger station in one big day or two easy days. But the storm has shown no signs of abating, and the deepening snow has slowed us down significantly. We don’t have the luxury of lounging around in a natural hot tub.
Standing at the edge of the Bechler River, atop a snow bank that drops dead vertically seven feet to the water, it is eminently clear that just getting to the other side will require a construction project.
On our fifth morning, the storm continues into its third day. Minutes from our Three River Junction campsite, we reach the river, which we must cross. In some 30 minutes of kicking into the snow bank with our skis, we pack out a ramp down to the water. Then we pull off our ski boots, remove the insulating liners and our socks and stuff them into our backpacks, and put our bare feet back into the plastic boot shells. In this fashion, so that we’ll theoretically have dry liners and socks to put back on after fording the knee-deep river, the three of us make five trips across—over and back, over and back, and then over again—carrying each gear sled one at a time.
Fortunately, the Bechler River here contains so much water from hot springs that it’s bathtub warm. Unfortunately, given how heavily the snow is falling, it’s impossible to dry our feet and plastic shells before putting everything back on. For the rest of this trip, I’ll wear damp socks in damp boot liners.
What’s more, so much new, light snow has fallen that it has become literally impossible to move forward while pulling a sled. We sink to our thighs with our skis on. So David, Jerry, and I take turns leaving our sled behind, breaking trail ahead of the other two to advance perhaps 200 or 300 feet in 10 strenuous minutes, then turning back to retrieve the sled while someone else takes over breaking trail. And we face more river fords—seven more this day.
At this determined crawl, we slowly leapfrog down the broad, flat floor of Bechler Canyon. Far off to either side, dark cliffs and steep, white slopes rise into the oatmeal overcast that seems unwilling to relent in its onslaught.
In many years of backpacking and climbing, few times have I felt so deeply immersed in wilderness—days from any road, certain to not run into anyone else, completely on our own.
As the afternoon light dims toward the gloaming of another winter evening, my legs feel about as tired as I’ve ever known. We park for the night and begin the 90-minute project of simply stomping out a tent platform in the snow. As we’re clomping around in an area of about 100 square feet, I look up and recognize, back in the direction we came from, the cliffs we camped below last night.
In several hours of hard effort today, we moved about a whopping mile and a half down the canyon.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier to see the sun shining. The temperature as we step outside on our sixth morning is a bracing 6° F, but a clear sky greets us. The storm has finally passed. Realizing progress will still be slow—we figure we’ll be breaking trail through at least five feet of new powder—we set out early, determined to not miss our shuttle driver.
Named by a member of the Hayden Expedition of 1872 for the party’s topographer, Gustavus R. Bechler, the Bechler River spills and hollers over a series of cascades and waterfalls in its canyon. Lodgepole pine trees wear thick, white capes this morning. At numerous tributary creeks, we drag the sleds across snow bridges that sag frightfully, with our sleds sometimes sliding sideways toward a 10-foot-deep hole with the rushing stream at its bottom. For what we hope will be our last night out here, we exit the canyon mouth to where the Bechler River meanders calmly across vast Bechler Meadows, today a calm sea of fresh snowflakes piled deep.
On our seventh morning, another sunny one, we ski across the sprawling, Arctic-like white plain, trying to aim toward a small building several miles away. To the south, the Teton Range glows a gleaming white against the cloudless blue sky; at this distance of many miles, its jagged peaks looking sharp-edged in the dry, clear air. David’s cell phone picks up the first signal we’ve had in a week; we call our shuttle guy to explain that we expect to reach our rendezvous spot several hours later than planned—but we will get there today. And to our relief, he says he will be there.
We came looking an adventure of the deepest and most rare kind, and found it. It didn’t go quite as planned—the wilderness has a way of changing your plans, especially in winter. But we’ve seen Yellowstone as few people alive ever have. No, it’s not like John Colter’s experience almost 200 years ago, of course. But it’s as close as you can get today.
At dusk settles on the still forest and the temperature plummets toward zero, we stand on a snow-covered road, waiting and hoping, hungry, almost out of food, and physically running on fumes. After a little while, we begin to talk reluctantly about setting up the tent. Then the faint whine of snowmobiles reaches our ears, growing louder as they approach up the road.
NOTE: To read about the best cross-country ski trails in Yellowstone that are accessible on day trips by skiers of all abilities, including families, see my story “Cross-Country Skiing Yellowstone.”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR only very fit people with expert skills in winter camping, navigating off-trail, evaluating avalanche hazard, and avalanche rescue. While this trip is more of a tour across gentle terrain, not requiring advanced downhill technique, you should possess at least solid intermediate skiing ability. Navigation is challenging even in clear weather, storms can bring several feet of new snow, and nights of -20° to -40° F are not uncommon. (See my book, Winter Hiking and Camping—Managing Cold for Comfort and Safety, from The Mountaineers Books.) In summer, this trip is entirely on good, marked trails suitable for most backpackers, even beginners.
Make It Happen
Season While the park remains open year-round, the West, South, and East entrances close in November while most park roads are being groomed for snow machines; those same entrances close again from mid-March until mid-April, while the roads are being plowed. (Only the North and Northeast entrances remain open to private motor vehicles in winter; the road connecting those two entrances across the northern tier of the park is plowed.) The park’s winter season, when interior areas like Old Faithful—where this traverse begins—are accessible by snow machine, commences once there’s enough snow on the roads, usually by mid- or late December, and it ends in mid-March.
Snowfall varies greatly across the park, with the Bechler Canyon and southwest corner averaging about 400 inches per winter. Early March, before the park closes for the winter season, is an ideal time for a multi-day backcountry trip, with longer and slightly warmer days. The average March high and low temperatures are 40° and 17° F, compared to January’s averages of 28° and 9° F.
The Itinerary The 32-mile traverse from Old Faithful to the park’s Bechler River entrance links up the Lone Star Geyser, Shoshone Lake, Bechler River, and Bechler Meadows trails. Do it in that direction to travel generally downhill. Plan at least six days in winter, and four to five days in summer to allow time for soaking in hot springs-fed creeks and visiting waterfalls.
Getting There From West Yellowstone, MT, take a snowcoach (with all of your gear) to Old Faithful. I’ve used Buffalo Bus Touring Co./Yellowstone Vacations (800-426-7669, yellowstonevacations.com), which uses luxury snowcoaches, but there are numerous commercial snowcoach operators; see a complete listing at nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/wintbusn.htm. From the trip’s terminus at the Bechler Ranger Station, get a snowmobile shuttle to Ashton, ID, and a ride back to West Yellowstone from Jerry Funke at Backcountry Sports, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Permit In winter, it’s easy to obtain a backcountry permit first-come; no need for a reservation. Backcountry campsites should be reserved for summer trips; applications are accepted from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31 of each calendar year. See nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm.
Map Trails Illustrated Yellowstone map no. 201, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
• Temperatures can drop to -30° to -40° F in a Yellowstone winter. Top winter-camping skills, gear, and clothing are essential.
• While following the well-marked trails in summer is straightforward, navigating in winter demands top map-and-compass skills; carry a GPS and have a strong command of how to use it.
• While much of the terrain is flat to gently rolling, there are slopes steep enough to avalanche, so a winter party should have the skills and equipment to evaluate avalanche hazard and perform a rescue.
• Do not enter any thermal features—it’s illegal and their scalding water is deadly.
• You will likely encounter bison and elk; park regulations require that you keep a distance of at least 25 yards/meters from them.
Contact Yellowstone National Park, (307) 344-7381, nps.gov/yell.