Since my first middle school days clicking on a pair of skates, I’ve started dreaming big. And I mean really big: imagine teleports trips to Karakorum, Parim, Caucasus, and Himalaya. Even as I plowed a square-shaped pizza on a rabbit hill in Minnesota, the distant ranges captured my imagination. Besides fast turns and big air, adventures on a large scale included intricate planning, remote travel, cultural nuances, language barriers, high-altitude weather, and pristine terrain, not to mention group dynamics, wildlife encounters, and limited outside support. She was by nature unpredictable and rarely successful, which made her even more attractive.
I never would have imagined that everything I longed for far away could be found in my backyard (provided I parked some late nights on Google Earth). However, in the current era of COVID, research is a relatively small price to pay, especially when international ski trips don’t deserve much attention thanks to travel bans, questionable ethics, and general care for other humans. So I looked closely at the house and found a whole other mix of elements: horse-packing sleigh trains, boundless wilderness with no manicured tracks, lips chapped with sunshine, untouched corn, storm downtime, belly laughter, watching mountain goats, Six friends decided to write our own rules, damn pestilence.
Horses and sleds
When the alarm went off at 3:15 am, I thought how bad this was a decision. Alpine beginnings are common in this family, but 3 are bloody early. However, I rolled out of bed, started making a pot of coffee and tossed the bread into the toaster. After I packed all of our food, camping gear, and skis the night before, the only thing I had to do was have enough caffeine to drive safely a few hours to the road.
We got to the road before 6, and spent the last ride on the dirt. This was near the solstice, it was already daylight. Our three horse packing guides were set up with breakfast, the horses were already installed and organized. Unloading the truck from the duffel and sleds, this was the moment I had been waiting for for nearly half a year. Sometime in the depths of last winter, the two of us, co-planners and best friends, imagined the ultimate Wyoming adventure – take the horses away into the backcountry, base camp around the snowline for a few days, and catch the last corn of the season so far that we won’t see Another soul. So far, it has been working.
After about two hours, we finally started down the road. Nine humans, 16 horses, and three dogs walking in a row in the wild. The first miles were steady and easy, with a steady, developing path under our feet. I’m not too interested in sharing the details of the place – if you’re like me and appreciate the last remnants of real wildlife, you should be able to find this site, or something. All I will say is that the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, despite seeing over 5 million tourists each summer, still has some empty spots left.
We walked forward for the rest of the morning and early afternoon, following a long and windy river valley to a hidden part of the range. Each time we crossed an open meadow, we could see the approaching snow-covered horizon, building excitement for what was to come. Eventually we hit a spot on the trail that the horses couldn’t get past. It was rough and rocky, and the cliffs form a steep gorge down to the river. From here, we had to dig it ourselves, hauling our heavy tent, snacks, and beer to a lake that looked like a perfect base camp on the maps.
Grubel and card games
Although the altitude was less than three miles, it soon became clear to the whole group that it would take us the rest of the day. “Path” was a big misnomer – very few humans would have ventured this far into the range. We climbed rocky cliffs and battle over fallen trees with 80-pound packs on our backs, sweating buckets in the midday sun. I kept reminding myself that it was worth it, daydreaming about alpine swimming and corn swings for the next four days.
Tough moments are sure to always pass. It took two full cycles up and down, but in the end we had all our gear in the lake and dinner was going on. As we roasted a beer, we laughed at the last 500 feet of vertical climb, past the hole in the soft snow and somehow stumbled into a dry, open patch of dirt next to the lake. It was a dream camping site – views of the circus above, easy access to water, nice place to cook, no signs of other humans.
The next morning our luck reversed. Above the front wall, we saw dark clouds rolling in and we could feel the temperatures changing appreciably. These were sure signs of a coming storm. Wanting to move our bodies and get on the ground, we threw on our skis and skins and headed into a quick lap, knowing we could hide in the tent when it started raining.
Climbing to the pinned cloud layer, we didn’t see much. However, the glimpses we got did show off some great ski terrain, provoking us of what’s to come. After just one lap, the worm started flaking – little balls of snow and ice lying on a spectrum between hail and snow. We headed home and climbed into the tent, and spent the afternoon playing cards, napping, and reading.
Sunburn & Soul Turns
We woke up with the sunrise the next morning, drank coffee and watched the skim ice on the lake slowly disintegrate. Shielded in the large dome tent, we stayed perfectly warm while outside temperatures dropped below freezing. The snow around our camp froze, which is a good sign for us and our ski prospects. At this time of year, in early June, it can be difficult to find good corn snow, because you need to meet a number of things, which are all about luck. With the base camp at over 9,000 feet and the sun sheltered circus facing north, we did our best to set ourselves up for success. The rest was up to the gods.
In the next few hours, the sun will heat the surface of the snow, creating a hairdresser-like texture, perfect for skiing. However, “corn” is often short-lived. We wanted to capture the short window between flipping ice into corn and turning corn into mashed snow-potatoes, usually just a few hours of good skiing. We started climbing uphill with the snow still bulletproof, hoping to climb a few thousand feet while it slowly warmed up. And sure enough, our plan worked.
Summing up the hills and looking at the eastern and southern parts of the range for the first time, we can feel the snow under our feet. The opinions were surreal. I’ve seen many of these peaks from the valley floor, but never from this perspective. It was like being in a world in between, a world where I felt unfamiliar and at the same time still my home.
Mid-morning temps were already flirting at 70 degrees – we were hit ضرب mountain climbing ski Go. We can skate in T-shirts and shorts if we want, and get a tan while shredding big turns.
We spent an hour or two planting a northeast facing pot until the snow was thick and it was heading into the wet slides, then we turned around the summit and found a west facing side to continue skiing until mid afternoon. With no soul in sight, we cycled the ridgeline over and over, sledding off the big GS and packing the trunk back up.
It probably goes without saying, but skateboarding is rarely as good as this.
Back home, lessons learned
After three days and countless transformations, my lips were so burnt that I didn’t want to eat. But I didn’t let that stop me from getting into one last course before we packed up all our gear and started hiking down the mountain, back along the river valley to the truck. We lived for five days in that lake, and there was no cell service, no social media distractions, no idea what was going on in the world. It was a real blessing.
We spotted a porcupine and some mountain goats on a nearby ridge, woke up to bird calls, and spotted small groups of trout swimming around the lake. And we didn’t laugh much, with or without whiskey in our hands. I spent a lot of hiking on my own, absorbed the trip and realized that my childhood dream was never about skiing off the tops at all.
No, what I was really looking for was camaraderie, solitude, the novelty of making my own way and seeing if that was possible. And all of this is more than possible just a few hours from my home.
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