From the first middle-school days that I clicked into a pair of skis, I started dreaming big. And I mean really big: fantasizing about remote ski expeditions to the Karakorum, Parim, Caucasus, and Himalaya. Even as a blue-square pizza-plower on a Minnesota bunny hill, far-off ranges captured my imagination. Beyond fast turns and big air, adventures at scale involved complex planning, remote travel, cultural nuances, language barriers, high-altitude weather, and untouched terrain, not to mention group dynamics, wildlife encounters, and limited outside support. They were inherently unpredictable and rarely successful, which made them all the more alluring.
I never imagined that everything I craved afar could be found in my backyard (provided I ante up and put in some late nights on Google Earth). In the current epoch of COVID, however, the search is a relatively small price to pay, especially when international ski expeditions aren’t worth much consideration thanks to travel bans, questionable ethics, and a general care for other human beings. So I looked closer to home and found a whole other mix of elements: horse-packing trains hauling skis, unbounded wilderness without manicured trails, sun-chapped lips, untouched corn, storm-induced down time, belly laughs, mountain goat sightings, and six friends who decided to write our own rules, pandemic be damned.
Horses & Skis
When my alarm went off at 3:15 a.m., I thought how this was a bad decision. Alpine starts are a common occurrence in this household, but 3 is bloody early. Still, I rolled out of bed, started a pot of coffee and threw a bagel in the toaster. Having packed all our food, camping gear, and skis the night before, the only thing I had to do was caffeinate enough to drive a few hours safely to the trailhead.
We arrived at the trailhead before 6, spending the last of the drive on dirt. This close to the solstice, it was already full daylight. Our three horse-packing guides were up and done with breakfast, already getting the horses saddled and organized. Unloading the duffels and skis from the truck, this was the moment I had been waiting for almost a half-year. Sometime in the depths of last winter, two of us, co-planners and best friends, had envisioned the ultimate Wyoming adventure—take horses far into the backcountry, set up a basecamp around snowline for a handful of days, and catch the last corn turns of the season in a place so remote we wouldn’t see another soul. So far, it was working out.
Almost two hours later, we finally started down the trail. Nine humans, 16 horses, and three dogs marching single file into the wilderness. The early miles were steady and easy going, with a firm and developed trail below our feet. I’m not terribly interested in sharing specifics of the place—if you are like me and value the last remnants of true wilderness, you should be able to find this location, or something like it. All I will say is that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, despite seeing over 5 million tourists each summer, still has some empty places left.
We marched onward for the rest of the morning and early part of the afternoon, following a long and windy river valley into a hidden part of the range. Each time we crossed an open meadow, we could see the snow-capped skyline get closer, building excitement for what was to come. Eventually we got to a spot in the trail that the horses couldn’t pass. It was rough and rocky, with cliffs forming a steep gorge down to the river. From that spot we would have to hoof it ourselves, carrying our heavy tent, not-so-lightweight meals, and beer up to a lake that appeared to be an ideal basecamp on the maps.
Groppel & Card Games
Despite the hike being just less than three miles, it quickly became apparent to the entire group that it would take us the rest of the day. The “trail” was a large misnomer—very few humans had ventured this far into the range. Scrambling up scree slopes and fighting over downed trees with 80-pound packs on our backs, we sweated buckets in the afternoon sun. I kept reminding myself it would be worth it, day-dreaming of alpine swims and corn turns for the next four days.
Sure enough, the hard moments always pass. It took two full laps up and down, but eventually we had all of our gear at the lake and dinner underway. Toasting beers, we laughed about the last 500 feet of vertical ascent, post-holing in soft snow and somehow stumbling into a dry, open patch of dirt adjacent to the lake. It was a dream campsite—views of the cirque above, easy access to water, a nice place to cook, and no signs of other humans.
The next morning our luck flipped. Over the headwall, we saw dark clouds rolling in and could feel the temps palpably change. These were sure signs of an incoming storm. Wanting to move our bodies and get a lay of the land, we threw on our skis and skins and headed out for a quick lap, knowing that we could bunker in the tent when the precip started.
Climbing up to the socked-in cloud layer, we didn’t see much. However, the glimpses we did get displayed some incredible ski terrain, teasing us for what was to come. After just one lap the groppel started to fall–small balls of snow and ice that sit on a spectrum between hail and snowflakes. We headed home and clambered into the tent, spending the afternoon playing cards, napping, and reading.
Sunburn & Soul Turns
Up with the sun the next morning, we drank coffee and watched the skim ice on the lake slowly break up. Bunkered in the large dome tent, we stayed quite warm while outside temps dropped well below freezing. The snow around our camp was frozen solid, a good sign for us and the prospects of skiing. This time of year, in early June, it can be hard to find good corn snow, because you need the confluence of a number of things, which revolves around luck. With a basecamp above 9,000 feet and a sun-protected cirque that faced north, we’d done our best to set ourselves up for success. The rest was up to the gods.
In the next few hours the sun would heat up the surface of the snow, creating a groomer-like texture that’s ideal to ski. However, “corn” often is short-lived. We wanted to catch the short window between the ice flipping to corn and the corn turning to mash-potato snow, usually just a few hours of good skiing. We started skinning uphill with the snow still still bulletproof, hoping to ascend a few thousand feet as it slowly warmed up. And sure enough, our plan worked.
Summiting the ridge and looking into the eastern and southern parts of the range for the first time, we could feel the snow under our feet flip. The views were surreal; I’d seen many of these peaks from the valley floor, but never from this perspective. It was like being in a in-between world, one that felt both unfamiliar and somehow still my home.
Mid-morning temps were already flirting with 70 degrees—we had struck ski mountaineering gold. We could ski in T-shirts and shorts if we wanted, getting a tan while ripping big turns.
We spent an hour or two farming a northeast-facing bowl until the snow got heavy and was trending toward wet slides, then rotated around the peak and found a west-facing aspect to continue skiing until mid-afternoon. Without a soul in sight, we lapped the ridgeline again and again, skiing big GS turns down and boot-packing back up.
It probably goes without saying, but skiing rarely gets as good as this.
Homeward Bound, Lessons Learned
After three days and countless turns, my lips were so sunburnt I almost didn’t want to eat. But I didn’t let that stop me from getting in one last lap before we packed up all our gear and started hiking down the mountain, and back along the river valley to the truck. For five days we lived at that lake, no cell service, social media distractions, or idea of what was going on in the world. It was true bliss.
We spotted a porcupine and some mountain goats on an adjacent ridge, woke up to bird calls, and watched small schools of trout swim around the lake. And damn did we laugh a lot, with or without whiskey in hand. I spent a lot of the hike out walking by myself, digesting the trip and realizing that my childhood dream was never about skiing far off peaks at all.
No, what I was really searching for was the camaraderie, solitude, and novelty of making up my own route and seeing if it was possible. And all that is more than possible just a few hours from my home.
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