Below is the full version of David Schipper’s account of ski traversing across Yellowstone National Park. We ran a version of the story in our January–February 2011 Backcountry issue. Read it HERE.
The Final Push
Starting this trip was like skiing into a dream. Everything radiated classic winter Yellowstone: buffalo grazed in the leeward sides of rolling hills, rivers meandered through the wide, flat valleys and the skies promised change.
My history with Yellowstone Park goes back to my earliest memories. My parents tell me another Dave Schipper, my grandfather, made trips through the park each spring and fall for as long as they can remember. My father, another Montana boy, introduced the “big sky” concept to a gregarious gal from Michigan in this same area—she later became my mother.
I asked a few friends if they were interested in joining me over the months proceeding the trip but only James Healy really stepped up to the plate. We climbed Denali’s Upper West Rib together in 2000 and I knew he was solid in every way. Most importantly, he could provision and cook like only a winter outdoor instructor could!
We used all our friendly favors and logistical skills to park a car to Flagg Ranch for our exit and get a ride to Cooke City for our departure. We would not have gone skiing were it not for our generous friends.
Our route had us moving up the Lamar Valley, over Mist Creek Pass and into the Serengeti of Yellowstone – Pelican Valley. Then across the lake and south… The first day was promising with 5 miles in 4 hours. But the following days encountered numerous wet river crossings as thermal warmed streams liquidated our natural snow bridges over the water, steep side hills pulled our sleds awkwardly down the fall line, and we side-stepped lots of buffalo. Before exiting the Lamar we had a few days with less than 4 miles of headway in 8 hours of skiing.
The Lamar proved to be the coldest weather of our trip. For some Freudian reason neither James nor I took a thermometer. We didn’t forget anything else so there is a chance we both knew we would know it was cold when it was and warm when it wasn’t. The only problem it caused was changing the fit our boots with ice build up between our liners and shells after numerous stream crossings.
Mist Creek Pass was our way out of the Lamar Valley. From the pass we overlooked the wildlife-rich Pelican Valley and the expanse of Lake Yellowstone. According to our map reading skills we ‘could’ be halfway through our journey at the lake. Pulling a sled in easy terrain was generally workable but even moderate terrain was strenuous and difficult. In the five days so far it was evident every mile was earned. If the lake, a long day away, was ski-able – without thermal water openings or knee deep slush – we would avoid an additional week of detours through impossible sled-pulling woods.
James rationed 14 days of food and fuel. We ate like diner patrons with a fetish for fats. Butter fried bagels with Spam and melted cheese… and butter was my favorite. At the end of each day we did a funny dance around who would make the first hint that our exhaustion warranted pitching camp. I usually caved-in first and found enough flat snow for a tent platform and James’s roving kitchen. Our transition became tradition instantly. We dropped our sleds, then I would drop my pack and skis. From our sleds we each pulled two food bags, stoves, down pants and camp boots…. and bourbon. We toasted our blisters and cursed our pains with language appropriate only in the backcountry as James built his kitchen and I put up the tent and laid out our sleeping gear.
Pelican Valley proved to be better than the hype we researched. Flat, open country – absent of river crossings, relentless side hills, and thick underbrush. The valley floor was loaded with buffalo. Thermals along the river’s edge eased steam into the air. Warmer weather was moving in from the west and the sun was brilliant. It just felt alive.
Midway through the miles of flats James and I had spread out by ten minutes, the isolation was a simple treat in the wake of our intense first week. To the right, about the distance of my visual perception, several dots worked as a pack across the undulating hills across the river. My compact binos gave it little justice but I could make out three, no six, nine wolves trotting north. I turned to alert James in time to see a lone coyote cross behind him. Suddenly life was everywhere. The wolves materialized and disappeared with undeniable communication as the pack worked its way to the cover of woods.
Coyotes, buffalo and fox watched as we turned left to find the lake. The aspirin were is rare form with my knee – I had found my stride. The topo made the descent to the lake look gradual. Instead of following the summer trail we opted for the short cut to Sedge Bay along the drainage. It didn’t take long to realize the easy part of the day was behind us. I pushed through countless backtracks around deep feeder ravines. The snow was deep and unconsolidated causing over a foot of consolidation under my skis with each step. James was not humored with our choice so I stayed in front. I felt possessed by the lure of the lake. This was our biggest mileage day by far and the exhaustion was at the surface. We were in a race with dusk.
Early cold weather had produced a lot of frost inside our tent and on our sleeping bags. They were getting damp to the point of compromised intent. Colder days found them frozen compressed as I set up camp. It was questionable whether they’re decline would outpace our trip plans.
I was sketched about being on the lake. It turned out to be hard packed and perfectly flat – or perfect sled pulling conditions. We made excellent time, always eyeing the shore with its inherent difficulties in reserve. Even with a 10:00A start we made the twelve miles without much incidence. A few hours from our camp the surface changed slightly and I found myself in knee deep slush only couple times. James even saw a water opening. It didn’t help my outlook on the lake but it must have been funny to see me sprinting through the slush with a sled in tow!!
It started snowing heavily as we set up camp.
By morning we had several inches of snow and high winds causing the far shoreline to drift in and out of view. I had plotted GPS waypoint in case of whiteouts and recorded them on TOPO maps. Temperatures were climbing but the wind was cutting. Five hours later we stepped off the ice at the south end of the lake – to my great relief.
At this point we were on the last of three maps, the end was close enough to sense but not close enough to discuss. I lead the way through increasing temps and sticky snow to the nebulous camp seven. I was never lost but it was hard to pin point our location because of low visibility and difficult to read physical features. Inevitably I had always overestimated our mileage when we could determine our location.
I had been hoping the last few days would go faster as a result of our conditioning, easier terrain and force of will. But I wasn’t really optimistic enough to think this would be our second to last night out. Camp the following morning was plastered with snow by really strong winds. Snow was forced into everywhere and it was impossible to cook. We loaded up in a sour mood and pushed our way through challenging underbrush and steep valley walls.
Early on the snow began to stick to us and melt. It mush have been just above freezing. In no time we were soaked to the skin – still warm from exertion – but humidity permeated EVERYTHING.
I begged the map for its secrets. It showed a shortcut across Heart Lake that saved a few miles and routed us through flatter looking topo lines. We had been lucky at every step thus far – weather broke at the right times, the lake was perfect, and we had no major detours. On questionable lake surface James’s wide skis packed down a trail, solidified with his sled that set up enough to allow me to ski over slush I would have been wading through without his tracks. As I followed his tracks over Heart Lake, I fell into a trance removing me from myself without going anywhere. I existed without time or space or concern.
Camp that night was grim. James’s anemic sleeping bag was soaked and mine bled water as I wrung it out. Down pants, camp boots and jackets were heavy with moisture. Still, like each day before, there was no complaining and lots of laughing. With 13 miles left in the park and 2 more to our car we both had our eyes on the prize.
It was snowing again on the tenth morning. It had not frozen overnight and water pooled in the bottom of my sled. James joked about being wetter in his bag than out. I looked at him and said I would start crying if we had to camp out another night. ‘Oh that is NOT gunna happen’….
The map showed undulating terrain for six miles to the Snake River Valley. The valley showed flat with the river winding from side to side. It took us until 2:00P to get to the river, it looked like I might be crying. AND the valley was not the burned out trees of the past but heavily forested, impossible to effectively navigate. We were hosed.
The river was frozen in most spots where we entered the valley but the map showed hot springs everywhere indicating it would not last long. Again, we ran into full-on good luck. Not ten minutes into the valley we found an old ski track that eliminated the time consuming navigation and reduced each step’s compression from a foot to two inches!
Then luck shifted again – the tracks disappeared into a field of mud and fumerals. We skied across the grass clumps and then carried our sleds across rocks for a quarter mile. This happened several more times as the day elongated but the tracks held at the far end of each thawed patch.
As the sun neared the treetops I asked James where we were on the map. The first elk we saw grazed with indifference as James pointed out the roof line of the visitor’s center. Unfortunately it was on the other side of the river and it looked both swift and deep. We opted to head downstream and found a USPS marker possibly indicating a crossing.
James wasted no time dividing the remainder of his load into two parcels and forded across with the first. The water was cold but far from bothersome. I was much more concerned with falling down, loosing my gear and having to deal with drying off in the dark an hour from our car.
There was a second river crossing on the far side of the river bed. James was on auto-pilot, it was the last I saw of him until the Flagg Ranch parking lot. We simply changed our clothes into jeans and piled our crap into the back of the car. We were eating pizza with Jon, James’s cousin, within the hour in Jackson. —David Schipper
Dave Schipper is a gear designer and adventurer based out of Moab, Utah.