The first half of my life was spent on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Despite an abundance of snow for much of the year, the highest peak on the Island is a not-so-staggering 450 feet, so downhill skiing was not part of the equation, although touring on cross-country gear was an occasional pastime. It wasn’t until I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, for work in the early 1990s and started dating an avid skier that I began to explore serious downhill momentum. My debut backcountry ski adventure took place on our honeymoon, spent at a small hut in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. The fact that we stayed married after that week and remain so to this day is a true testament to our love of the outdoors and each other.
Since that time, we have spent numerous days in the mountains on either alpine randonee or cross-country touring gear. Over the years, our escapades have included a winter traverse of the Haute Route, traveling hut-to-hut from Chamonix, France, to Saas-Fee, Switzerland, over a period of eight days; five days skiing from cabin to cabin in the Canadian Rockies; and, most recently, spending a week dragging an 80-pound pulk loaded with tent and all the necessities from the Wyoming end of the Beartooth Highway across the high plateau of the Beartooth Mountains and down Mount Maurice into Red Lodge, Montana.
While I enjoy any chance to spend a day skiing laps up and down gnarly slopes, my real love for the sport comes in those multi-day treks into the wilderness, pushing up and over obstacles for the chance to see a vast, mountainous landscape devoid of manmade structures. In the early days, I would always have a small point-and-shoot along to record the journey. In the last few years, I have started carrying my DSLR equipped with a 24-105mm lens in my pack, as well as a GoPro that fits on my helmet mount. It wasn’t until I purchased an F-Stop camera backpack that I felt comfortable skiing big slopes on day trips with my camera. Its original Loka pack fits me better than any backpack I have owned, and there is just enough room for the necessary shovel, probe, water, lunch and a warm layer, in addition to camera gear. Its “internal camera unit” provides extra protection for the camera and lens, and the small pockets for batteries, cards and filters are in the side of the pack resting against my back so I don’t worry about batteries getting cold. There are plenty of external straps to tie on my jacket if I am climbing or even to connect my skis if I have to boot-pack. A couple years ago, I designed and constructed a sling that attaches to the front of my pack and allows me to trek with my camera in easy reach.
When my husband and I moved to northwest Wyoming two decades ago, most of our friends assumed we would be skiing right outside our front door. But the reality is that the Bighorn Basin, containing some of the lowest land in the state, is a semi-arid plateau with an average annual rainfall of between 6 and 10 inches. It is a rare winter when we see more than a dusting of white stuff in our yard.
Luckily for us, the basin is surrounded by mountain ranges, and we can be in some of the finest powder in North America within a couple hours. Cooke City, Montana, is located just 50 miles away as the crow flies. Often described as a “catcher’s mitt” for weather, the area gets about 300 inches of snow every winter. From early November to early May, the rustic town can only be accessed by automobile via Yellowstone National Park. But from our side of the Beartooth Mountain Range, we can drive up and over Chief Joseph Highway to a large parking area at Pilot Creek, and from there we have the option of strapping on our skis for a tour of the Beartooth Plateau or jumping on snowmobiles and carrying our randonee gear into some of the best back-county ski terrain I have ever experienced.
Day trips are a great option, and a lot of landscape can be accessed relatively quickly if you have a snowmobile to get you to the starting point. If your goal is a tour rather than the thrill of the hills, you can ski right out of Cooke or take your snowmobile or car another four miles to Silver Gate, where you leave the mechanical gear and head off into the northeast corner of Yellowstone for what often turns out to be a private visit to the nation’s oldest national park.
If, on the other hand, earning your turns is the objective, your best bet is to ride your machine to the edge of the National Forest Wilderness boundary and head off from there to find your thrills. The Cooke City area has long been a mecca for snowmobilers, and that trend has only intensified since restrictions were put in place limiting unguided riding in Yellowstone. In non-wilderness areas of the national forest, you will almost certainly find yourself competing directly with snowmobiles on even the steepest of slopes, not an ideal situation for many reasons, not the least of which is increased avalanche danger. The machines are not allowed to enter the wilderness area, so as soon as you cross that invisible but well-known line on your skis, you may still hear the drone of engines, but you will no longer be fighting them for an untracked line.
If you don’t have a snowmobile of your own, there are several options for hiring a tow further into the backcountry. The ideal situation is to use someone like Ben Zavora of Beartooth Powder Guides out of Cooke. Several years ago, Ben began working with the National Forest Service to obtain a permit for a yurt near the wilderness boundary 7 miles northeast of town. The canvas structure comfortably sleeps six and is equipped with a wood-burning stove for heat and melting water and a pair of propane burners for cooking. Another option offered by his company is the Woody Creek Cabin, located on a small inholding within National Forest two and a half miles south of town. The cozy cabin has room to sleep 10 guests. Both structures offer the opportunity for several days of exploration in the nearby wilderness terrain while providing a base camp to leave any extra gear you might not need that day. With the luxury of space, I am able to take along a portable solar charger that allows me to charge the GoPro batteries after a day of shooting. With a little extra effort and a 12v car battery cable, I could also juice up my DSLR batteries, but I usually find it easier to just make sure I have two extra batteries along. I also limit my image replay viewing to conserve energy and, as previously mentioned, do what I can to keep the batteries reasonably warm.
It makes sense to spend a little time practicing shooting snowy terrain before you head into the backcountry so you are comfortable with your settings and the handling of your gear in cold conditions. Consider taking your gear for a test run or two at the local ski hill and running through a few scenarios while keeping a close eye on your histogram. If you are using evaluative metering, you are probably going to find that you will need to open up two-thirds to one full stop to properly expose the snow, something that seems counterintuitive to many people.
If you decide on a winter visit to this area, you might also want to consider a side trip deeper into Yellowstone. A variety of back-country options exist out of Mammoth Hot Springs as well as Old Faithful. To access the latter, you need to book a spot on a snowcoach from Mammoth or West Yellowstone, or make arrangements to join a guided snowmobile tour from one of the gateway communities. Once in place, you will have access to a number of groomed and un-groomed trails ranging from extremely easy to very difficult. Plan on staying at least two nights at Old Faithful Snow Lodge to make the most of your visit.
Kathy Lichtendahl is a professional photographer and photo educator based in northwest Wyoming. See more of her work at lightinthevalley.net.