This is an article I wrote about my May trip across Yellowstone. Initials inquiries have not panned out, so I’m turning it loose. It is not short. I might send it off somewhere else, so anyone who makes it to the end, please leave any feedback you might have.
Acting on desire
A faint textured swath of snow snaked off into the distance, promising a smooth path onward. Remnants of an animals’ passage, a fluke of wind or of water, I’d been seeing similar windings paths for the last hour, and they’d proven to be islands of safe passage from the rain-saturated, rotten, bottomless snow. Following past precedent, I skied along the edge of the raised, slightly grey snow. For 20 feet I kicked and glided with ease, making forward progress tantalizingly fast, until I fully weighted my left ski at the apex of one stride and it punched through. Instantly my left leg dropped two feet. In the next instant the snow under my heel collapsed further and the ski slid backwards. My front foot became my rear foot in short order as I stabbed both poles into the snow for balance to fight the instant lunge I’d been obliged to execute. Coming to rest a half second after the mess started, I reset my right foot and began the vigorous kicks necessary to unbury my left ski. Once a big enough hole had been created I leaned forward, swung the ski up, out and back in front of me, and begin striding forward. Four feet later, my right foot punched through and the whole thing happened all over again. This time, I paused in my lunge to ask the question that every backpacker asks at least once on any big trip: what the hell am I doing here?
The idea that brought me to the meadows of rotten snow on Atlantic Creek, south of Yellowstone National Park, had come about simply enough. Starting in June of 2009 I had decided to visit the park at least once a month for the next 12. On that late June backpack, sitting on a sandy beach next to the Yellowstone River with my wife, such a project seemed like a grand idea. And for the most part the routine of driving 5 hours from Missoula to Yellowstone became enjoyable. The expected hazards of cold, crap weather did not materialize; my October visit was much colder than my January trip. What did materialize was the occasionally titanic stress of my last year in graduate school. More than one trip seemed like it would create more pressure than it would resolve, and while February and March proved to be great ski trips undertaken with my wife’s encouragement, I did have to give April a miss. All of which is to say that by early May I was staring down two major life events: graduation, and the end of my yellowstone project.
The two had evolved in concert, and the logistical and emotional investment I had in both was formidable. I devised a plan to unite them, in a trip whose intensity and solitude would give me distance from grad school and intimacy with Yellowstone. All year, circumstance and commitments had kept me from doing a trip in Yellowstone any longer than an overnight, and what knowledge I had gained of the park only served to highlight the superficial dimension of such short trips. A solo traverse of the park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem seemed like just the thing.
The possibilities of snow
The trip had to be in mid-May, in the small window between graduation festivities and the necessity of employment. May is spring in Yellowstone, but the way in which this corner of the earth understands spring is at best idiosyncratic compared to other places. I could expect snowstorms, snowpack, rain, and high streams along with migratory birds, green shoots, animals on the move, and temps not too far below freezing. While spring meant a lighter physical pack, with a 20 oz synthetic quilt in place of a 40 oz down sleeping bag, it meant a heavier mental pack, in the form of big unknowns. How much snow would I find up high? Would the creeks be wadable, or require swimming? How much snow would I find down low? Would the bears be more or less interested in their first human of a new year? How much snow would I find in the trees?
Snow is in many ways what creates Yellowstone. The Snake River originates along the park’s southern edge, and the generous plain it creates as it wends southwest in Idaho serves as a prodigious funnel for winter moisture. Yellowstone gets a lot of snow, the melting of which not only makes it a summer magnate for migratory animals, but fuels the rivers and geysers. Yellowstone is late June is amazingly green, the critters abundant, relaxed, and occupied with eating. Geysers, springs, and pools that in late autumn merely fix and sputter roil and spew when infused with spring runoff. Snow also guards the park during winter, turning the disneyland of summer into the emptiness of winter. While groomed roads, snow coaches, and snow machines leave the park far from empty, the added difficulty of cold and snow vastly expand the backcountry.
The full complement of pre-Columbian megavertebrates, the largest collection of geothermal features on earth, and the expanse of Yellowstone’s wildness are all enabled by snow, so it made sense that snow was the primary obstacles when I pulled out the maps and set about route planning. I owned snowshoes and skis, and thus had options for dealing with snow. Some were just less desirable (heavier and/or slower) than others.
I soon realized that bears were a more immediate problem. Not the necessity of traveling, cooking, and camping smart in grizzly country; the rules for which I had in the last year become quite familiar. The difficulty rather lay in the 16 bear management areas that carpet choice areas of the park. Beginning in 1983 the park service sought to minimize backpacker-bear conflicts by barring hikers from certain areas during certain times of year. Several of these were highly relevant to my plans. Pelican Valley, just north of Yellowstone Lake, provides a natural access point to the upper Lamar Valley, over the gentle (and quick to melt out) Mist Creek Pass. Because it is so low, sunny, and therefore lush, Pelican Valley is very popular with many of the parks animals during the spring. It is closed to human traffic from April 1 to July 4, and thus the Mist Creek to Lamar route was off the table.
I dealt with the snow problem by purchasing a short pair of downhill skis at a ski swap, carving out a fishscale base with a dremel tool, and manufacturing bindings that would allow me to ski in my trail runners. Ideally, I would be able to ski (faster than snowshoeing) or hike with equal effectiveness. I dealt with the bear problem by taking the path of least resistance. I would start in Turpin Meadows on the outskirts of Teton National Park, hike up the Buffalo Fork drainage, over a low pass into the Yellowstone River drainage, and follow the Yellowstone out of the park, detouring around the rugged Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by skiing over Mount Washburn. The first half of my route was a traditional elk migration corridor, and the second had been used by Euro-Americans since they first laid ski tracks in the park during the 19th century. It is remarkable that a river valley as broad, gentle and scenic as the Yellowstone south of the lake exists road free. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the segments from Yellowstone Lake to north of Washburn. For 11 miles I’d be just across the river from the road, and even over Washburn the road would be fairly close by. I decided to embrace that aspect of the route as giving me the full range of the modern park experience. Besides, I had little choice.
The certainty of wet feet
Difficult snow stayed with me all the way down into Two Ocean Pass, then only got more deeply rotten as I gradually lost elevation down Atlantic Creek towards the Yellowstone River. Two Ocean Pass is a peculiar place. Well eroded by generous snowfall, it barely resembles a pass at all. It is a broad valley running east-west, and in it’s mile-long apex sits a extensive bog, out of which Pacific Creek flows west, and Atlantic Creek flows east. All of this was frozen under 2-8 feet of snow, and I snapped a picture of the trail sign before moving on over the Continental Divide. I knew that if snow conditions did not improve, I was in for a long day. I was already making around a mile an hour under hard effort, and had no reason to expect any different until I got under the snow line.
What haunted me was the thought of ski-necessitating snow down in the Yellowstone River valley, on the Thorofare trail. I had been mostly hiking on the Buffalo Fork trail the day before. Though treed sections had plenty of postholing, the south facing sections had been snow-free, even at 8000 feet. It was only in the upper reaches, when it curved to the east, that the skis had come out. Around noon I was crossing the Two Ocean, and my energy began to flag. I pulled over under a old Whitebark Pine, to eat my breakfast cereal and brew coffee on my esbit stove. I relaxed under the shelter of the tangled tree, as it had begun to rain here at over 8000 feet, and pulled out the maps. The Thorofare was mostly as low or lower than the snow-free reaches of the Buffalo Fork, and the trail looked to be primarily out of the trees and of a favorable, south facing aspect. Sitting out of the rain, with a full belly and sipping hot coffee, I could allow myself a reasonable amount of comfort. My slow trudge would not last forever, and this really was a pretty cool spot. I was better off than the postholing moose and grizzly I had followed over the pass from the Buffalo Fork. In numerous places the moose had sunk its leg five feet deep, leaving belly troughs as it wallowed along. Besides, the moose had no coffee, hot or cold. I packed up and continued, cheerfully resigned to my fate, however miserable it might be.
A key to success on backpacking trips in tough conditions is knowing how to effectively manipulate yourself, and my swing in mood was largely due to a technique Kevin Sawchuck and I had discovered during Le Parcour de Wild wilderness race across the Bob Marshall the previous fall. On cold mornings eating breakfast in camp is no fun. Better to pack up quick and scarf snacks on the go, then stop for brunch in the late morning. Resting the feet after 5 hours on the go is expedient for both mind and body, and lets you sit and relax in warmer conditions. I also get a thrill out of breakfasting on Reese Cups and Halvah, something I couldn’t justify under any other circumstances.
The other key to success on shoulder season trips is happy feet. Conventional footwear systems, light or heavy, would not have excelled as I headed down Atlantic Creek. For expedience I made several knee-deep stream crossings with skis on. In addition to insta-lunging through the wet snow, on several occasions while skiing I broke through a rotten layer of snow into overflow, the peculiar phenomena where a stream in its impatience flows over a winters worth of ice on its way to warmer and faster waters. Again, being knee deep in frigid water while wearing skis was a not uncommon experience, and because of my footwear I was able to savor it for the peculiar circumstance that is was.
I wore New Balance MT100 trail runners, a very light and fast draining shoe, and two pairs of socks: first a very liner, then NRS Hydroskins. Hydroskins are a thin neoprene sock with a fuzzy lining laminated to the inside. They provide the warmth retention of neoprene, so long as your feet are creating heat, with the flexibility and low-bulk necessary to function blister-free with conventional trail shoes. To complete the system, I wore low-cut spandura gaiters, affixed to the shoes with a lace hook and a generous (2″ by 2″) patch of velcro on the heel. Together with quick-drying stretch polyester pants and pertex windpants, I was able to tackle the wet snow and thigh-deep creek crossings without concern or hesitation. A few of the colder creek crossings, like Mountain Creek early on day three, did engender ice cream headaches, but with this footwear and dry sleep socks my feet were remarkably comfortable the whole trip.
Broken bindings, broken routes
That is not to say that all went according to plan. Early on day two I noticed that the screws on the right ski binding had loosened quite a lot. Should have used locktite, I thought, as I pulled out the allen wrench and cranked them back down. This happened twice more, and the third time I noticed that one of the T-nuts I had installed into the skis had been pushed down and out, lost somewhere in the snow. Should have use better epoxy, I thought blandly. When tightened the two remaining bolts held the binding fine, but through my effort-glazed eyes I could see that things were starting to unravel with my homemade bindings. Shortly thereafter my right heel began to drift, a breakdown in tracking that heretofore had signaled a loose screw. This time, inspection revealed that the screws were tight, but the epoxied plastic layers that gave the binding structure and let me control the skis on side hills had cracked laterally, right behind the mounting screws. Not good.
There was nothing to be done about that besides continue slogging through rotten snow and overflow, across creeks, through willow thickets, and around tree wells melted six feet deep in the forest. Progress remained slow, and got even slower an hour later when the stress of thrashing through a particularly bottomless section of snow broke my left binding in a manner identical to what my right had already suffered. By then I had already descended the last significant hill on the Atlantic Creek trail, had seen dry ground in the distance, and knew it was only a matter of time before I could get the accursed skis back on my pack where they belonged.
The Thorofare is a truly tremendous place, an apt reward for so much work. The Yellowstone flowed by the trail, monolithic and impassive. I was glad I had a bridge to cross it. A hundred yards across a meadow a bear interrupted its rooting to stand up and stare, trying to figure out what I was. With skis sticking up above my head I imagined I might resemble a strange elk, and it wasn’t until the bear got my wind that he figured out I was a human and took off at a full run. I had been quite worried about bears prior to the trip, enough to purchase my first ever can of pepper spray, but all three bears I saw turned and ran as soon as they figured out who I was. I can only presume I was the first human any of them had seen since waking up that spring.
It remained cold as I hiked north towards the Thorofare trail, and as I had all day, I kept my rain gear and wool hat on. It must have been just warm enough for the many melt-water fed ponds and bogs to not freeze, and I had plenty of time to get used to the knee deep wades that would occur every 30 minutes or so for most of the rest of the hike. Coming out of one especially deep and long and cold seasonal pond, I noticed a post in the distance. I knew what this meant, and revealed in the ability to accelerate against dry ground and rush towards my intermediate destination. I had made it into Yellowstone National Park the best way, on my own feet. I set up my camera on my pack and took pictures with the self timer to celebrate. Not only had I passed through the crux of my route with only isolated equipment failure and vivid memories to show for it, I had made it into the park which had, over the course of a year’s exploring and contemplation, started to feel very much like home.
I was also starting to think that given how poorly my broken bindings functioned over anything but utterly flat snow, the rest of my trip might need to be altered or cut short. Other concerns were more immediate, as it was highly unlikely that I’d be able to hike fast enough now to make the camp near Mountain Creek that was on my permit. I wasn’t concerned with getting a ticket for using another site, but I did want to make miles such that I could make it to Park Point to camp tomorrow evening, as I had been assured that it was a camp not to be missed. My other concern lay less than a mile ahead, the first of at least two major stream crossings: Thorofare Creek.
Ending before the beginning
Every trip into the backcountry has two distinction endings, perhaps only distantly related. The first is the physical end of the trip, stepping out into the trailhead and the world of beer and pizza. The second is the ineffable moment when physical and psychological progress along the route moves beyond the halfway point. Suddenly unknowns become invigorating rather than intimidating, and the trip itself becomes a fait accompli, the execution of which can be savored, not looked upon with trepidation. On the Thorofare trip, that moment came three minutes after the ford of Thorofare Creek, when walking had finally faded the cold from my feet and brain enough to realize that, even in the worst case scenario, I would see pavement in 36 hours. It’s something of a sad testament to realize how reassuring signs of civilization can be, and the power those signs hold for me on trips whose purpose hinges around being as distant from civilization as is possible. This returns to the love/hate dynamic which so often governs wilderness travel, I love it precisely because it can be so stressful.
Prior to the start of the trip I had planned on crossing Thorofare and Mountain Creeks rigged for a swim, and even after I had scouted what appeared to be a solid crossing of Thorofare I still made sure my dry bags were well sealed, my pack was well cinched, and put firestarter, food, and my Spot unit in the pocket of my anorak. This all seemed comical as I cruised diagonally downstream across three braids of the creek, with the only section deeper than my knees coming right against the far bank. As I postholed at top speed (to get feeling back in my feet) through the wooded section towards the juncture with the Thorofare trail, I knew that I had seen, assessed, and dealt with all the route’s major hazards. The snow had been about as bad as could be imagined, and did little besides slow me down and break some gear. Inconvenient, but far from debilitating. I had seen two bears, and more bear sign than I ever had before, and not yet been eaten. I had crossed the biggest creek on the route, and had no reason to suppose that the other crossings would be anything but well within the range of my past experience. In short, baring bad luck or flagrant stupidity, I was going to make it. This thought made me very happy.
The first two days had been enjoyable, but with an edge of toil and uncertainty. The last two, though still featuring sore feet, plenty of postholing, and a rather intense sleet storm, were much more relaxed, and two of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever spent in the woods. My second nights camp had a warm fire, tasty food (not a particular distinguishing comment given my hunger), and my shelter pitched on the edge of a pine grove with a tremendous view back up the Thorofare valley from whence I had come. The morning of day three dawned clear and frost-rimmed, and the scenery did not disappoint. The Thorofare trail along the Yellowstone River is superlative in every respect, and it was here that Yellowstone’s role as “America’s serengeti” seemed well earned. The profusion of waterfowl stood out in contrast to the unfriendly, snowy mountains on all sides, and even absent the herds on herbivores that had not yet migrated in the valley seemed to be teeming with life. On several occasions a pair of Sandhill Cranes objected to my presence with sufficient vociferation and abruptness that I jumped further than I ever have during any bear encounter.
Once I came out of the Yellowstone River valley and drew even with the lake the trail did retreat into the thick spruce, which made for plenty of shade and thus lots of postholing, though thankfully the drifts were irregular and intermittent enough that the skis and their dreadful bindings stayed on the pack. Observing the various animal tracks in the snow, including the amusingly duck footed waddle of the Griz, kept my sense of wonder operational, and soon enough I was in the Columbine Creek drainage, whose thermal soils not only changed the flora significantly, but made things as snow free as they’d been since the trip began, 48 hours and one long eternity before.
By that point I had decided that my trip would end at the road. I have a near pathological need to catalogue successes in my life, born out of my high achieving family and the early death of my father. The sense of my own mortality I carry daily is most effectively satiated by taking carpe diem to the extreme, and historically stopping to smell the roses has not fit into that approach. This used to make stopping or shortening a trip a non0starter, irrespective of conditions, extenuating circumstances, or the wisdom of lingering in lovely places. I’ve slowly gotten older and wiser, enough to realize that road walking over Mount Washburn on the first weekend it was open to cars would not make for a fun or satisfying trip.
This decision was made all the more easy as I neared Park Point, and what would now be my final camp. The trail disappeared as it entered a vast meadow, and a quarter mile away, imperturbably feed on spring grass, was the trips’ first bison. Over the year I’d grown enthralled with bison and their role in Yellowstone, both as a crucial part of the ecosystem and as the primary symbol of the park as ecological island. Moreso even than wolves and bears, bison would have ceased to exist as a wild species had it not been for Yellowstone. Even though the mountain bison of Yellowstone are not representative of how the vast majority of their ancestors lived two centuries ago, their direct genetic and spiritual link with the wild bison of the past have made bison, in my mind, uniquely special. I took this bison as a good omen for my trips’ final night.
Another lone male bison greeted me as I exited the tress onto the shore of Yellowstone Lake, and came out into one of the most spectacular campsites I’ve ever seen. The still frozen lake spread out towards the horizon, the low sun reflecting off its corrugated surface. The mountains of Yellowstone and further off the Grand Teton stood clearly against the clear sky. As I made camp and drank tea around my fire, hiding from the cold 40 mph wind behind a huge old log, I could not help thinking about the past. I’d grown up backpacking, before transitioning to climbing as a teenager. I had been chased off the summit of the Grand Teton by lightening seven years before, an ascent that was one of the pinnacles of my climbing career. Yet all of that had been a prolegomena to this trip. For all the physical difficulties of this spring Thorofare traverse, and essential training had been the confidence built over decades in the woods. I may have had the physical abilities and technical knowledge to do this trip years ago, but until I believed that I could do it, the idea would never have come. The essential work was done well before the trip, in the mind. Once I dared to think up the route, and had the confidence in myself to plan for and start out on it, the traverse itself was almost a foregone conclusion.
This video might still be my favorite.
Everything that happened on day 4 was a coming down from that tremendous evening sitting fireside with my soul open besides Yellowstone Lake. I woke, packed, made coffee, ate breakfast, and walked six miles to the road. The snowdrifts were frozen solid and supported body weight after what had been the coldest night of the trip by a significant margin, cold enough that I donned my rain jacket around midnight to stay warm. Streams and puddles were frozen with a 1/4″ skim of ice, but my mind and feet had grown so used to such terrain that soaked feet with weather below freezing seemed entirely unremarkable. The final miles of trail curved and meandered through a burned area, and I slowed to a saunter, admiring the collective edifice that thousands of dead and limbless trees formed against the cloudy sky. Once again I was wearing a hat and all my shell clothing, and as the sound of cars filtered through the forest I began to wonder just how peculiar and frightening I looked, and what my prospects for hitching might be.
The hitchhiking might be the most remarkable part of the whole trip. I thought that with luck I might make it to West Yellowstone, Gardiner, or perhaps even Livingston in a few rides, where I could call Meredith, my wife, and assess my options. I could hole up in a hotel until she had time to fetch me, or if I made it to the interstate 90 corridor I could take the Greyhound bus back to Missoula.
Instead, the trip continued to exceed expectations. I walked most of the way to Fishing Bridge along the park road, smiling with my thumb out as pickup after clean pickup with out-of-west plates and two inhabitants passed me while assiduously avoiding eye contact. Ascribe what motive you like, but the fact that the average American tourist does not look kindly upon hitchhikers cannot be argued. In the end a park employee birding on his day off saved me the last few miles of walking to the Fishing Bridge gas station, where I immediately got a ride all the way home to Missoula with four guys from Miami, Florida, driving an RV to Anchorage, Alaska. They were zig zagging widely across the lower 48, taking in as many Major League Baseball games as they could, and on top of that insisted on fitting Yellowstone into their tight schedule. I lectured on park zoology, weather, and geology, and played tour guide at Old Faithful, which in keeping with my luck all week erupted 10 minutes after our arrival. For the next five hours we five ate BBQ ribs, chatted about everything under the sun, and delivered me to my wife’s work (I had no house key) almost before she saw the message that I would be arriving. I drove home, unpacked, showered, and was in bed with tea and cookies before dark, marveling at how all outward traces of my trip had been erased with such efficiency. The inward traces were, of course, indelible.