An epic 10-day ski trek across Yellowstone National Park runs into its biggest difficulties in the last days.

We were on the last of three maps. The end was close enough to sense—but not close enough to discuss. Our epic ski traverse route through Yellowstone National Park had taken us on a series of adventures up the Lamar Valley, over Mist Creek Pass and into the Serengeti of Yellowstone—Pelican Valley. Then we had made our way across Yellowstone Lake towards our car at Flagg Ranch. I was traveling with my friend James Healy. 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, James followed as I led the way through increasing temps and sticky snow to the nebulous camp seven. After more than a week in the wild, things got challenging fast. I was never lost, but it was hard to pinpoint our exact location because of low visibility. Inevitably I had always overestimated our mileage when we could determine our location.

The top of Mist Creek Pass overlooking Pelican Valley

I had been hoping the last few days would go faster as a result of our conditioning, easier terrain and sheer force of will. But I wasn’t really optimistic enough to think this truly would be our second to last night out. Things looked ugly. 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 muscled our way through challenging underbrush and steep valley walls.

Early on the snow began to stick to us and melt. It must have been just above freezing. In no time we were soaked to the skin—still warm from exertion—but humidity permeated everything.

Entering the Lamar Valley

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 the 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 him 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.

James Healy and the author on a 10-degree night

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 simply looked at him and said I would start crying if we had to camp out another night. “Oh that is not gonna happen….” he promised. We laughed.

The map showed undulating terrain for six miles to the Snake River Valley. It took us until 2:00 p.m. to get to the river. 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.

Healy waits for water to boil

Then our luck shifted again—the tracks disappeared into a field of mud and steaming fumaroles. We skied across the grass clumps and then carried our sleds across rocks for a quarter mile. This happened over and over as the day grew late.

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.

Healy crosses a thermal-warmed stream

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 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. No crying. Within the hour, we were eating pizza in Jackson. •

Dave Schipper is a gear designer and adventurer based out of Moab, Utah. To read the entire account of his Yellowstone traverse click HERE