Yellowstone Expeditions [wild comfort]
I'VE BEEN SWORN TO SECRECY, so I can't tell you the exact location where I slipped off my polypro and eased my ski-weary bones into a steaming river in Yellowstone National Park. It's mid-March, and I've spent the past four hours "ski-whacking" (one part ski touring, two parts bushwhacking) through a forest of timber, blackened by the massive 1988 fires that devastated more than 1.4 million acres in the greater Yellowstone area. Part of the time, I shouldered my skis and hiked through mazes of sulfur-burping mud pots coated with a disconcertingly thin, acid-green crust. And I scooted as stealthily as possible past a herd of irritable bison that seemed intent on goring me.
It's day two of my four-day tour with Yellowstone Expeditions, the only guide service to offer yurt-based backcountry ski trips in America's oldest national park. Founded in 1983 by geologist Arden Bailey, who still serves as lead guide and head chef, the company isn't new. Nor is it flashy. And it certainly doesn't come equipped with a fancy spa. What it does offer is backcountry balance: daily six- to ten-mile ski-and-snowshoe forays into remote wolf-and-grizzly territoryminus the backbreaking loads, snow-cave camping, and freeze-dried nibbles that usually come with overnight slogging. You'll work your quads to Jell-O, but each night, instead of digging a snow kitchen and hunkering over hot oatmeal-water, you'll be shuttled back to the yurt camp in an eighties conversion van with snowcat treads and skis in place of tires. The guides will have stoked the sauna, prepped the appetizers, and cracked open a fresh box of wine. After enjoying a shower (a five-gallon bucket is filled with wood-heated water that trickles out of a little tube), you'll eat in the dining yurt. If you're like me, when you finally limp back to your double-occupancy "yurtlet"a basic shelter with plywood floors, sleeping bags for duvet covers, and clotheslines for your soggy polyproyou'll be too tired to fully appreciate the total silence of the surrounding woods.
During the summer, about two million visitors clog Yellowstone's roads with RVs and campers. But between the months of October and May, only half this many venture inmost of them to watch the blur of the park from the seat of a noisy snowmobile. Sign on with Bailey, though, and he'll deliver nonstop one-of-a-kind experiences. Early one morning, while the coffee was still brewing, he herded us into a snowcoach called the Überschnecke ("Supersnail") and took us to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, an 1,800-foot-deep gash that rivals the beauty of the real Big Ditchon a much smaller scale. There, we searched for the Beam, an elusive sun pillar that appears on perfectly clear days when temperatures dip below zero. During such cold snaps, masses of ice crystals hover low in the canyon, and when the sun hits them just right . . . voilà: The Beam appears.
After breakfast, we ski on, climbing through charred wood and winding past hot springs until, exiting one valley, we come upon a circle of bloodstained snow. Wolves. Shifting quietly from ski to ski, we imagine a pack of them chasing, attacking, and killing the bison whose bones are laid out before us.
But ski touring isn't only about transcendental experiences. It's also about being cold, then hot, then cold again. It's about eating enough to keep moving but not so much that you stop. It's about using your own power to travel through places where your tracks soon disappear and no one can retrace your strides. Most of all, it's about skating away from the well-trodden path with no preconceptions about what you might find.