The Fair Warning Business
My father’s allegorical “Do as I say, not as I do.” admonition adhered so well to my young-person psyche that I’m about the say the same to you. When it comes to winter adventuring in Yellowstone National Park, do as we say, not as we did. I mean to say that this was a most exquisite endeavor, but it is not for everyone. Real danger exists because of several winter environmental conditions, and travelers need to be equipped. We found doing the high-energy activity of snowshoe running and hiking with a weighted pack in very cold temperatures and in the remote wilderness to be challenging from a body temperature management standpoint. I hope these warning signs, red flashing lights, and whistling alarms aren’t inspiration erasing, and that you’ll still get out and choose the adventure that is right for you.
The Background Stuff
“The Interior” is the name given to the winter wilderness of Yellowstone National Park. Winter is serious business in Yellowstone, from the perspectives of both high snow volume and cold temperatures. Just about everything inside the park shuts tight from late October through early April, and few intrepid over-snow travelers negotiate the interior during this time. Most of these winter explorers visit via guided snowmobile or snowcoach, the fascinating rubber-tracked vehicle with a heated passenger compartment that slices and dices its way around the interior. Perhaps the least common winter travel mode is that which is accomplished on foot, because, I suppose, of that whole “winter is serious business” thing.
It was logical, then, that we chose to travel by foot in winter about 50 miles across the interior of Yellowstone National Park. I can’t help myself, really. Like a mosquito to a bug zapper, I am attracted to that which appears harsh and hard. I’m learning, though, that what seems challenging is often filled with equal parts celebration and joy. Maybe that’s the real appeal of trips like this one?
Thus, on a long January weekend, Bryon and I snowshoe ran and hiked from West Yellowstone, MT to Mammoth Hot Springs, WY carrying packs that weighed in at a respective 23 and 17 pounds. Because I am a former Yellowstone inhabitant and employee, we received marked aid from local friends and former co-workers that enhanced our travels in multiple ways. We are so grateful for and indebted to these people, thank you! At about 2 pm on our third day of travel, we arrived smiling and bounding into our final destination. I’m calling our adventure a grand success, and here a few excerpts from our trip:
Day 1, January 17th, 2009, 7pm
Due to a series of logistical setbacks (Thanks, Frontier Airlines, for losing that bag.), we had departed West Yellowstone well after the sunset’s last encore. The scene through which we were running was simultaneously serene and sinister. The night’s exarches were an insidious cold, a pervasive silence, and the oxymoronic light of darkness. The freakiest part of the night was that, as we ran east, we were chasing our own planet shadows cast by Venus, lingering low on the western horizon. Further, Venus lit the night sky enough that we felt as if we were being watched by more than just that heavenly orb. 3 1/2 hours and 15 miles later, we would conclude this late night jaunt inside the warmth of a borrowed shelter by sipping hot cocoa, Jet Boil-ing water for dehydrated dinners, and yarning with each other the night’s details.
Day 2, January 18th, 2009, about 1:30pm
Beryl Spring is a showy thermal feature at any time of the year. She has a broiling, frothing hot pool or two, fissures from which smelly, sulfur gasses escape in pressured, jet-engine fashion, and she exudes enough water vapor into the air to create small clouds that lift into the sky. In winter, then, the show improves, mostly because everything surrounding the thermal feature is coated with thick layers of rime and hoarfrost. Trees bow and bend under heavy rime, and nearby snow flashes with huge, ornate hoarfrost crystals that form when Beryl Spring’s water vapor freezes on any and all available surface area. In this moment, my breath catches and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Of course, I’m still unsure if my breath caught because of Beryl Spring’s beauty or the bronchiole-damaging cold air. Either way, this is an excellent example of how challenge and bliss co-exist in wild cacophony.
Day 2, January 18th, 2009, 6:30pm
Darkness has arrived; we have a few more miles to travel through Yellowstone’s winter wilderness; the conditions are harsh; and we are experiencing acute caloric depletion. Part of this trip’s impetus was Marathon des Sables (MdS) training. We searched without success to find Sahara Desert-like, with its heat and sand, training grounds in the continental United States, in winter. So, we found the next best thing: the exact opposite with Yellowstone National Park’s winter cold and snow. I consider these moments to be a test of mental and physical strength, perfect MdS training. This was a difficult part of the journey for us both, and our night’s destination never looked so good. I feel certain that after enjoying food, drink, and insulating clothes and sleeping bags, we were both reduced for the night to a state of torpor, the instinctual mammalian response to the rigorous environmental conditions of winter.
Day 3, January 19th, 2009, about 8:30am
The sun has just climbed above the nearby ridge, and we are celebrating its arrival. Tiny, glinty crystals of frozen water are falling out of a clear blue sky (We later learned that this meteorological phenomenon, colloquially called “diamond dust,” is more common on the Antarctic continent. Perhaps this is why we didn’t know what it was at the time?). We take a gander at the thermometer, and it reads -14 degrees Fahrenheit. A herd of about 40 bison seem to care little about the cold as they migrate by about 200 meters in the distance. Their fur is frosty, their hot breath condenses in the air, and they seem to glimmer in the morning light.
The bison are headed north towards the green grasses of the almost snow-less, lower elevation Paradise Valley. I find sad irony in that name when it comes to the bison. Yellowstone National Park’s boundary lies at the geomorphologic gateway of Paradise Valley, the point where the tumbling, descending Gardner River Canyon opens into the valley’s wide expanse. There, the bison will leave their protection inside the park and become hunters’ desired subjects. In addition, they may be rounded up and shipped off for slaughter because of state and federal regulations established to protect cattle populations on private land. This is a complex can of worms that I’ve opened up wide enough for now. Suffice it to say, their dawn passage is sweet and endearing, but I also lament it.
Day 3, January 19th, 2009, about 2pm
We have spent the late morning and early afternoon crossing Swan Lake Flats, gawking at the scenery and wildlife as we traveled. We arrive at the Golden Gate, and, without too much ado, we skip downhill towards windswept Mammoth Hot Springs. I have often joked that the wind is so fierce here that, when snow falls, it doesn’t land until it reaches one of the Dakotas. Today is brilliant with its sun and calm breeze, but even the hardy sagebrush looks tired from previous winds.
We arrive at the perimeter of my old neighborhood and take off our snowshoes to walk down the snow-less blacktop of my old street. We ring the doorbell of some of my friends. They are awaiting our arrival with vegetarian chili and cornbread, conversation, a singing dog, and a ride to the evening’s recovery grounds, Chico Hot Springs Resort (Thank you for your kindness!). This little party is a surreal ending to an almost illusory trip, but it fits. While there were a few moments of suffering, the experience was also about as enjoyable and festive as it can get.
The Not-Ending Ending
I’ll be honest, I wrote some of this whilst indulging in my second pint of local-brewed oatmeal stout inside the Bozeman, Montana airport’s lone bar, watching through the window as alpenglow lit the Bridger Mountains a preposterous series of cotton candy pinks and purples, and awaiting a homebound, post-Yellowstone flight. Some might call this a carbohydrate-reloading and glory-basking endeavor. Others might call it an attempt to limber for writing the pallium and its synapses. I’ll baptize it what it is for me: the place where dreams are born. I’m convinced that the hallucinogenic haze of post-adventure, combined with a little alcohol and some fine scenery, sublimates enough sagacity and sponsors the senselessness that inspires future expeditions. I’ve just now crafted a prospective summer adventure, anyone in?