Yellowstone in winter

Ron RashAspen, CO Colorado

It can be a bit unnerving skiing within 50 yards of a wild animal that weighs half a ton, is capable of speeds of 30 mph and has been known to rearrange body parts on camera-toting fools who wander too close.The bison are more than content staying on their island of grass that they’ve shoveled off with their muzzles, ignoring us completely. On the bus ride we’ve already had numerous wildlife sightings: elk, moose, a coyote on steroids and a bald eagle. We’re at the beginning of a 14-day National Outdoor Leadership School winter ski course in Yellowstone National Park, and unfortunately, we never hear the howling of wolves during our stay.The bus dropped us off at Flagg Ranch. From there, we had a 2-mile ski along the road toward the south entrance of the park. At the entrance, we went down a steep embankment where we would cross the Snake River and leave behind the drone and exhaust of snowmobiles.The Snake River stays ice-free at the south entrance, so we had to wade across with all of our gear. One instructor made five trips, braving the freezing water carrying skis, sleds and other supplies. We had an audience of 15 snowmobile enthusiasts on the road who were commenting on our lack of intelligence. From my perspective, I could not agree with them more. It took more than an hour of hard skiing on the other side of the river to warm up in the 10-degree weather.Our goals were to learn winter camping skills, explore Yellowstone’s backcountry, complete a level 1 avalanche curriculum and climb 10,308-foot Mount Sheridan. We accomplished our goals, except the climb up Mount Sheridan because of challenging weather conditions. We also got sidetracked with long hours of soaking at the Snake River Hot Springs.Of the 13 nights we spent out, 10 of them were in Quinzhees. The Athabascans of central Alaska lacked the building materials for igloos, so they learned to mound loose snow up [pile up loose snow?] and then let it set for a few hours, after which they would hollow out the center. When complete, it resembles an igloo. That’s what we did, and it works quite well, giving us somewhat warm shelters from the winter environment.We spent the majority of nights in the largest snow shelters I’ve ever constructed, about a quarter of a mile from the Snake River Hot Springs. In the afternoons, after classes or ski tours, we would soak for hours.The soakings went a long way toward quality bonding time between instructors and students. When I removed my clothes to get in the hot springs, one of the students asked me if Gandhi was a distant relative. In hindsight I should have held back from saying to him that Stridex and Clearsil was not just for the face.When you’re out for 14 days in temperatures that range from minus 25 degrees to 28 degrees above, you do some things differently than when you stay in our local mountain huts. When not using ski skins, you learn to sleep with them or have them under your parka drying; you never leave them out to freeze, or they become quite useless. Another is proper care for your inner ski boots; if they’re not on your feet or under your parka, they’re in your sleeping bag – one of those three places at all times. You realize how important it is to melt snow at night and then bury it deep in the snow where it will not freeze so you have water for breakfast. One tent group spilled a half a gallon of cooking fuel; the group asked me what happens if we run out of fuel. I’m pretty sure they wanted me to say I would call the bus; the disappointment was all over their faces when I said we would have to find out who was the best fire-builder in our group. On the way to meet the bus, we skied over fresh grizzly bear tracks. The feeling of insignificance in grizzly country is heightened with the knowledge that they occasionally feed on humans. Why the bear had decided to get up in early March with winter’s hold still quite strong is anyone’s guess. Yellowstone in winter, with its vastness and silences, once you get away from the roadways, is one of the best places in the lower 48 to really experience wildness. WINTER CAMPING TIPSStaying warm, dry and well-hydratedRespect the cold; be attuned to subtle changes in body temperatureAdjust layers/activity constantly; sweat is potentially as dangerous as chillBe particularly attuned to cold in extremitiesBe enthusiastic about warming yourself through activity (shoveling, swinging arms and legs, etc.)Never sit directly on the snow (use pads or packs)Eat extra fatsBe enthusiastic about drying wet socks/gloves on your bodyHang sleeping bag out in the morning while still warm to speed dryingWhen ski boots come off, inners should be pulled off and put in parkasStand on ensolite pads in kitchenSleeping warmPut parka and insulated pants under your sleeping bagIt takes 60 calories to melt 1 gram of ice; brush off all snow at nightGet in your bag hot! Go for a ski just before bedHave high-calorie food in your sleeping bagHot water bottles in your bag, if you need itIf you have to pee, get up and pee. Many guides use a pee bottle – totally grossStaying well-hydratedHave lots of hot drinksHave water ready to go from the night before (bury it in the snow or sleep with it)First person up should start the stoves as a first priorityRefill stove when it’s still warm so it’s always ready to go (don’t blow yourself up)Another place to store water so it won’t freeze is in bootiesPreventing Cold InjuriesDo not touch exposed metal when it’s colder than 5 degrees.Do not spill cold fuel on handsTry to do everything with gloves onFeet should be dry eight out of every 24 hours. Have a pair of clean, dry sleeping bag socksNever let your inner boots be unattended or freezeEat constantlyDon’t be afraid to rewarm your feet on your friend’s belly – he will like itIf you are losing heat, determine specifically how it’s happening (conduction, convection, radiation, evaporation – and lastly, if you’re on Everest – respiration)Ron Rash is a local mountain guide and senior National Outdoor Leadership School instructor. His e-mail address is