This was a transition day as we needed to drive to Bozeman and begin the second part of our winter adventure vacation. We wanted to be off the trail at 2pm so we could pack up camp and head back north at a decent hour. We decided to ski the Chittenden Rd Loop again figuring if we began early enough we’d get back in time and still get in 10.6 miles.

We started in the dark by headlamp. It was once again a cloudy day, but this time the winds were not fierce. We moved quickly along the track which barely had any new snow. This time we didn’t pause at Calcite Springs or Tower Falls. We just kept moving opting to once again go clockwise around the loop.

We did not see any wildlife, nor did we take time to stop for breaks. The trip ended up being an endurance test. How far and fast could we really go on xc skis? It turned out that the answer was 10.6 miles in 4 hours!We returned to camp and packed up our home. It’s always sad leaving especially when I knew were would not be at a hotel and not outside… but at least our vacation wasn’t over yet! Plus, Jan 20 marked the ten month Anniversary of Damien and I… something  to celebrate along with the fact that the next few days would be filled with climbing waterfall ice!

I’d never completed the entire Blacktail Plateau as an out and back. I have down the entire trail in in two sections. Last year I attempted an out and back with Adam only to have to race back when we saw a massive heard of bison coming our way a long the trail. We hoped to complete the 16 miles uninterrupted this time and we nearly did.

Clouds hung low in the ski as we began to ski just as light began to bath of snowy landscape… though the sun never did appear in the sky that morning. We began the trail at the east entrance which climbed to the high point known as “The Cut” in 2 miles and 900ft gain. Ski tracks were visible on the trek, though they were lightly covered by about 1.5 inches of fresh snow. The beginning of the trail is relatively wooded so we expected no bison issues during this part… but of course nature had other plans. Two bison were grazing right beside the trail in the woods. Com contemplated making an arc around them, but the snow as too deep and there were too many fallen trees to navigate off trail. We stood and awaited talking loudly. The bison stared at us and then continued their grazing… it took 15 minutes but eventually they did move far enough from the trail to pass safely. With a sigh of relief we continued on. The view from the cut wasn’t very vast since clouds hung low on the mountains and soft snowflakes fell from the sky. We didn’t mind though. It felt like the wilderness.

From here the track enters what I like to call “The funnel”. There is a steep slope on the right and a steep drop-off to the left. It is not a place you want to come across bison. Luckily we passed through this area without incident. From here the trail enters the high plains of the Plateau. It didn’t take long for a bison to appear on the trail. Out in the open now it was easy to navigate around him in a big circle. We passed by some distant elk as the trail traveled up and over slopes of the grasslands  with a net loss in elevation. For a moment I saw a distant creature too small to me an elk or bison. It moved like a canine, but was too big to be a coyote. I can only assume it was a wold because it disappeared swiftly on the other side of the ridge.  We came across another pair of bison grassing on the trail. We had to cut track over a steep slope to get around these two, but we manged it without too many problems. Now and then the ski tracks would vanish; windswept. But we did manage to stay on the trail  though it was tricky at times. Several bison herds grazed at a safe distance and the sun began to shine around 1:00pm. Near the “shortcut” junction we found fresh bison tracks on the trail, but the herd was no longer in sight.  We did see a nearby younger bison bolted unexpectedly into the forest even though we were rather far away. I don’t know if we startled him or he was running from something unseen by us.

About 1 mile from the trailhead we ran into another bison too close to the trail to pass. We had a decision to make. He would be in the area for some time it seemed and we’d have to deal with him on the way back. There wasn’t much interesting left on the trail as it follows near the road the final mile. We were discussing whether or not to call it at the 7 mile mark when the bison began meandering toward us. We opted to just turn around at that point and climb back up to the plateau. The sunshine did not last long. On the upper plateau we found ourselves immersed in the Yellowstone Winter.  Wind whipped around us creating deep drifts and covering our previous tracks from just 20 minutes earlier. Thick snowflakes fell from the darkened ski. It wasn’t completely like skiing in a ping pong ball, but it was close.

Luckily we did not run into any more bison on our return trip. However, I finally saw something I’d wanted to see for years! A coyote not far from the trail leaped high into the air and plunged face down into the snow. He camp up with a mouse!  I didn’t make the entire trail once again, but I came very close this time! We returned to camp in time for the sky to clear and reveal a beautiful sunset over Bunsen Peak. The night was still and starry. Was it the calm before the next storm?

Damien and I considered the possibly trying to AT ski to the summit of Sepulcher Peak. There wasn’t much beta on the ski but after discussing it the folks at the Bear Den Ski shop and the visitor center and the visitor center we decided to check it out. Considerable avalanche was in the forecast for wind loaded slopes, so we weren’t to confident on finding good conditions. However, the Snow Pass Trail route to the base of the peak trail beyond  was a nice outing within itself so would be worth heading to the area regardless. I had tried doing the un-groomed steep trail in xc skis before and it just wasn’t fun so I was excited to have AT skis this time around.

Damien skinned up the Upper Terrace Loop clockwise until we reach what appeared to be the cutoff trail that linked up with the Snow Pass Trail. It was unsigned and I think it wasn’t the exact turnoff, but we did begin to see the orange trail markers in the trees. We were on route. We followed the trail into the forest and up. AT skins made the whole ordeal of going up much more enjoyable. It was horrendous trying the herringbone two years ago.

Snow Pass is a little bit removed from a true wilderness feel since it has power line across it, but the weather more than made up for that. Frigid, wicked winds blasted over the pass and snow stung our faces as we left the forest and entered the open meadows. It truly felt like Yellowstone’s notoriously harsh winters. Damien has practically his entire face covered as we traveled over the deep snow drifts. It was clear looking at the snow patterns the the ridge we were supposed to follow up Sepulcher would be wind loaded with severe avalanche danger. Instead we would stay low.

After we headed down from the pass the wind tunnel effect lightened up, with the snow still fell heavily from the ski and winds continues to swirl the powder around us. Here on the open Swan Lake Flats we followed the trail pole to pole to a junction with the Sportman Lake Trail. We decided to go explore this other trail which headed into a small wooded canyon out of the wind. We took turns traversing along steep slopes…and then I saw a movement to my left.

A safe distance away trotting chest deep in snow along the creek was the cow moose we had startled. We froze and watched her and she stopped to look back at us. There aren’t many moose in Yellowstone. In fact this was the first I had ever seen there. It was an exciting moment for both Damien and I as we watched her go back to foraging. She was beautiful.

We couldn’t continue on the trail because the slope steepened making the area an avalanche concern. Instead we headed back to Swan Lake Flats and skied into the white out. The sun shined through he white clouds briefly and the whole scene reminded me of Antarctica. White Ski, white air, white ground and a faint sun. We skied back to Mammoth Hot Springs the same way we’d come arriving back at 3:15pm. It was time to take a bath!

I’d always wanted to swim in the Boiling River area in the winter, but never had for one reason or another. I convinced Damien what it would be fun. He was skeptical but followed me along the mile look trail. along the Gardiner River. The “Boiling River” is a boiling hot river of water that comes down the slope from the Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces where it meets up with the freezing cold Gardiner River. Where the two rivers merge the water t is jacuzzi temperature. The only problem is getting into  and out of the water. First Damien and I tried to go to the easy to access small pool off by instead. However, the rock wall of the “pool” did not block out enough of the freezing Gardiner River Water so it was lukewarm to cold. Thus, we opted to moved the bigger area where the other swimmers were. To access the larger pool on the left you have to wade though water that is searing hot on your left and ice cold on your right. Plus you have to contend with slippery sharp rocks. I’m pretty good over rocks and moved quickly to the nice warm temps of the far pool. Damien had a more difficult time, but made it.

The hard part is deciding to leave the pool. The air is cold and the long walk back to the clothes through either steaming or frigid water just does not sound appealing. But it had to be done. Evening set in and all of us decided slowly made the decision to emerge. Damien and I opted to just go through the cold Gardiner and avoid the medium rare feel of the boiling river. It actually wasn’t all that bad  as far as being exposed to the air and I felt pretty good with my towel around me.

Damien and I were the first to head back along the trail, but of course our path with blocked by a herd of bison heading our way. We quickly put on our headlamps and explained the situation to the folks behind us whole admitted that they would have walked right into the bison if I hadn’t seen them. Going into ranger mode, an instinct I can’t seem to shake, i led everyone up the hill and to the road. We took this detour back to the trail-head parking lot. Its always an adventure!

Adam and I may have gotten more than we bargained for when we set out to do the Blacktail Plateau for the second time on this trip. The plan was to start at the upper TH, ski to the lower TH and then back again for a total of 16 miles.

We began at 8am. Overnight it had snowed another foot and flakes still fell softly from the white sky. A white Christmas indeed. I broke track through the fresh powder for the first two miles and we reached “The Cut” in about 1.5 hours. No bad for setting the track up 900 ft of gain. Adam took over the lead for another hour as we descended slowly into the rolling hills and meadows. We saw a few bison a safe distance away and many tracks.
I took over leading again. We were about one or two miles from the lower TH and coming around a bend when I noticed movement further down the track. Bison! A large herd of bison seemed to be using the trail as a corridor and were heading toward us. Before I could fully evaluate their speed and other variable Adam was already turning around. I followed suit and we made haste the way we had come.

It did not appear that the bison were moving amazingly fast and I was hoping they we branch off into the surrounding meadows that surrounded us. After looking over our shoulders for 20 minutes and seeing nothing (though there were lots of bends and hills that decreased full visibility) we began to relax a bit, but kept moving just in case… its a good thing. I looked back one last time ten minutes later and saw in the far distances, but coming toward us, the same herd of bison spilling down a hill onto the track. At that point we booked it as fast as we could up the plateau. I was terrified. I remembered the herd that almost trampled Eric 4 years ago. I made game plans in my herd. Noted where we could hide if they overtook us. I kept the panic in my head though and stayed calm. It’s what I’ve been trained to do. Panic does not result in survival.

We hit the top of the “The Cut” and with relief double poled most of the way back to the TH. They never caught us. We escaped. But Adam’s already injured knee was messed up even more from the effort of the escape. We hadn’t eaten in 4 hours. We were overheated since we hadn’t stopped to remove down jackets in our haste.  Even though it was only 1:50pm we called it a day on the trail.

Instead we headed to Mammoth Hot Springs and had a quick look at the Terraces. On the way back to the Buffalo Ranch we saw a herd of 29 bison on the road near the Blacktail Plateau. We wondered if it was the same herd we had out run earlier.

Today was a multi-track day in that we kept moving from ski track to ski track in the Northeast Corner of Yellowstone NP. We began our day as the first hints of light flooded over Lamar Valley near Soda Butte making the snow glow blue under the cloudy, but clear ski. We parked the car and skied the unplowed road as Eric and I had down last year. There were some places were pavement showed, but Adam and I could easily avoid those area by crossing the street. There were so bison grazing a safe distance away as we followed the Lamar River watching the blue snow grow white as the sun rose in the valley (though we never saw the sun actually). We turned back after a mile and headed back to the car. There were more cars on the road now and the snowplows were coming soon too. Besides, we had more places to explore.

We tried to enter the Barronette Trail from the upper entrance but saw no way to cross the river. So we parked at the lower entrance. A trail was cut about 1/4 mile into the river basin, but then it turned left… the trail was supposed to go right. I shrugged and began to cut  trail following the river. It was relatively easy going through mostly flat terrain with some small dips. There were conifers in patches… some thick making visibility a challenge. About a mile in we came across two grazing bison. We were a safe distance to pass, but one male kept looking at us every time we moved. It was making me uneasy. After a few false attempt to continue and getting sketched each time by his stare I listened to my gut and turned around. Adam was relieved. He didn’t like that bison’s glare either. We explored the left side of the river until the trees got to thick. Then we headed back to the car.

From  here we drove to the Banndock TH (Warm Springs Picnic Area). This trail is ungroomed, but track was already well set so the going was easy. The trail led us through conifer forest and meadows. I was a bit nervous due to the moose known to wander the area. We saw none. After two miles the boundary of Yellowstone is Reached and we ended the Absorka Wilderness. The trail led us to Silver Gate, MT in 1 mile (where we saw moose tracks). From here we followed a snowmobile track toward Cooke City. We never made it too the city as I wanted to go back through the moose habitat before dusk. Moose terrify me more than bears.

Today we took a break from XC sking and headed to Cooke City. After last year snowmobiling the trails of West Yellowstone, MT I was looking forward to another fun experiencing using the snowmobiles to get into the backcountry for snowshoeing.

We rented a two-person sled from Cooke City Motorsports. Immediately we were warned that avalanche danger was extreme. The gentleman was comforted when I informed him I was AIRE trained and had becons, probes and shovels. He showed us on a map the places to avoid and suggested we visit some lakes where there was a warming hut. Adam and I suited up in heavy duty jackets, pants and helmets. Before we left the gentleman warned up to be careful of the sledding getting stuck since it would be impossible for only the two of us to get it out since the sled was massive. He said he’d look for us it we were out past 5:00pm.

Off we went down the Beartooth Hwy taking the turn off the wide main road by Colter Campground for the lakes…as it turned out we ended up somehow at Goose Lake which was not on the map at all (we were supposed to go the Mud Lakes). In my attempt to make a multi-Point U-turn the back end of the sled dug itself deep into the fresh powder. Shit!

I pulled forward into the snowbank on the other side. Then back. Then Forward. We dug in the snow. We stamped it down with out feet. We dug ramps. We picked up the back end and rotated it. We rotated the front end. Pulled back and forward. Repeated…. and eventually we got the sled free! It only took an hour!. Always fun to have an epic.

We decided to drive back to the Beartooth Hwy and stick to that road which was wide and groomed. The Bearooth Mountains were forbidding against the blue winter sky. Pilot Peak’s summit tower pierced the heavens like an arrow commanding the entirely of the craggy range. We turned around at the Junction with the Chief Joseph Hwy.

Adam took a break in town while I drove the road two more times passing a bison grazing near the track. It was good for me to be alone with my thoughts. I had recollections of Eric. Little things. Like how he used to say “I want to play” and “That sounds like a personal problems”. I remembered how much fun he had on the snowmobiles last year going through the deep powder and over bumps. How he got stuck and had just simply picked up his sled. These memories don’t make me sad. They make me smile. They are a part of me. They are gifts he gave to me. And he also gave to the gift of not forever living memories, but the drive to create new ones. And I discovered as I left the cold (coldest its been so far here) sear the bits of unprotected flesh on my face that the path I choose next will not be the path we would have taken together. It will be a new path. My path. Not our path. But a path along which I will still be guided by Eric. He brought me to where I am today and, though now I choose my own way, he will trail me.

And when Adam and I drove home today we passed a carcass in Lamar Valley. On the hill above us the Lamar Canyon Pack of wolves laid in the snow digesting their meal. “Thank you Eric” I thought to myself. The wolf is powerful, intelligent, fierce and compassionate. Eric was like the wolves. But wolves more forward. They move on to survive.  I am moving on too. I am following the herds of elk as they migrate to new land. And in that new place I will find my peace, happiness and my love again. A different love…. but still love. And I will be home again.

After leaving our car at the upper TH near Petrified Tree Marc dropped Adam and I off on the lower portion of The Blacktail Plateau. This is my favorite track in Yellowstone. It features gorgeous scenery, ample wildlife, rolling terrain and has a backcountry feel.

Today’s weather was more stable with mostly cloudy skies, light intermittent snow and a few patches of sunshine. The weather was colder as well and our skis did not stick to the fresh three inches of snow that had fallen overnight. We broke trail since the groomer hadn’t been by in awhile, but it wasn’t difficult. A few places had deep drifts and other areas had pavement exposed. These areas were short and few though. They could easily be navigated. We saw elk near the track and signs of coyotes. No bison or wolves like last winter. There were no other people around today.

It was only midday when we completed the traverse so we skis up and down the Petrified Tree Road to kills a little time. Then we drove the road to Cooke-City stopping at The Lamar Valley sign. Here we put on our snowshoes and walked to nowhere into the valley. It should be noted that only people that are good at navigation and understand land features should attempt this. You have to have good visibility of your surroundings at all times and use land features to make this happen. Never come over the top of a hill you cannot see around… there might be a hidden bison! Luckily, all the bison we saw were far off. We also saw signs of red foxes in the snow.

On our way back to the Buffalo Ranch we spotted three coyotes traveling across Lamar Valley.

Today our plan to to ski the Chittiden Loop passing Tower Fall along the way. Eric and I had only skied up to Calcite Springs last year and I was excited to do a new track. Things did not go exactly as planned. We skied in half snow, half wind and half sun up the closed Tower Fall Road. It has no been groomed in some time but the tracks as visible in the fresh powder. Almost immediately we found that due the the warm air we had to quick was our skis. It helped a little but they were still a bit on the sticky side. We passed the lovely view from the Calcite Springs Lookout and observed the hot springs below by the Yellowstone River.

Tower Fall was only half frozen and I had fantasies of climbing it with my ice tools… if i wouldn’t result in my getting killed on the rotten soft ice. We skied from the falls into the campground were we encountered a 12 point buck elk feeding on the dried grasses. We made a massive loop around him and found the Chittenden Road. We were getting more and more frustrated with our skis as we half glided half walked up the hill due the snow gathering on our skis. After about 1/2 mile we encountered a sign indicating that the road was closed to foot traffic so we turned back (Marc informed us that the sign was supposed to only be there in summer and should have been removed).

We decided to continue up the Tower Fall Road (also the other way to go around the Chittenden Loop). We got in about 2.5 miles before deciding to turn back. The snow was sticking to our skis in 3 inch chucks. Wax was not working at all. It was a trudge and just not fun anymore. So we skied back to the car stopping to release some of Eric’s ashes by the Calcite Springs. Last year he had skied from the springs to the car shirtless! All the while the weather kept changing it’s tune. We had blue skies, heavy snow, whiteout wind and clouds.

By then it was about 3:15 so we took a drive down Lamar Valley Road in search of wildlife. Whiteout conditions prevented most visibility, but we saw some bison. Hopefully tomorrow won’t be as sticky!

I’d been planning this trip since a week or so after my husband died in a climbing accident back in September. Eric and I began our journey together on a road trip to Yellowstone and I needed to go back to the place that I have always considered my home town to cleanse myself and begin my journey forward in life. Adam, a friend of both myself and my late husband Eric, agreed to join me on the journey even though he has never set foot in any kind of ski!

Adam and I left Washington at 1:30pm on Thursday, eastbound for Yellowstone National Park. We expected the Journey of 850ish miles would take until Saturday afternoon to complete. We slept in my CRV at a Walmart in Ceour D’Leane, ID on our first night. On Friday we continued east on I-90, pausing in Missoula to check out Freestone Climbing Gym. As it turned out the stop was well warranted after spending too long in the car. Plus the bouldering features at the gym were amazing. We stopped at Big Sky Brewing Company on our way out too. They give free samples!

The going was good on the road even over the passes since snow fall has been light this year. As it turned out we ended up arriving in Gardiner at 8:30pm. Thus we spent the night just outside the gates of Yellowstone curled up in the car. We would get an earlier start than expected.

We drove into Yellowstone just as the light began to touch Mt Everts. We were surprised at how light the snowfall was. In fact there was none until we reached the higher elevation of Mammoth Hot Springs. Even there it was spotty. Luckily, The Upper Terrace Loop was mostly covered with sufficient snow. It should be noted that the lower part of it only has a thin layer. We carried out skies until we reached deeper snow.

As I expected, Adam was a natural at skiing. No surprise since he is a grappler, cycles everywhere and is a lifeguard/swim instructor. He fell only twice on the long downhill potion of the track. I remember falling about ten times there last year!

Next I introduced Adam to snowshoeing on the trail of Golden Gate (accessed via Snowy Pass Trail). The trail was unbroken as usual and I am still uncertain why someone would want to ski it. We saw no wildlife along the way, but plenty of tracks.

We met up with Marc, my former NPS co-worker, at the Mammoth General Store. From there we headed into Gardiner to meet up my former supervisor’s supervisor, Katy, and some new folks I didn’t know. We all took the road to Jardin up into the hills and turned left on the road to Eagle Creek. After some issues with my car getting stuck in the snow, we all XC skied the Eagle Creek Loop which had good snow and excellent views. Adam kept up great with everyone to their surprise!

Marc stayed in town while we headed to his place at the Buffalo Ranch in Lamar Valley to clean up and have dinner. He is the  manager of the Yellowstone In is it I the now and lives in a log cabin that is rustic and beautiful. Marc didn’t return until after 9:30 since he drove his car off the road and down a hill just a mile away from the cabin. Luckily he is safe and the car seems to have faired well. They will be towing it out tomorrow morning.