Cold, icy mist drifted over the Firehole River, a freezing grey wall hiding the land. Crossing the bridge over the river we skied into this dawn mist and my weirdest start to a wilderness trip ever. On the far side lay Biscuit Basin, an area of geysers, hot springs, bubbling mudpots and mineral stained crusted smoking ground through which a snow-covered boardwalk threaded a narrow way. Geysers exploded into the air, sending up vast plumes of steam that mingled with the mist. Skiing through the warm clouds of steam dampened us. Then when we emerged back into the freezing air the moisture froze, coating us with frost and ice.
Biscuit Basin lies on the main south-north road through Yellowstone National Park a few miles north of Old Faithful village. You can’t drive there in a car in winter though. The roads are snow-covered and closed to non-tracked vehicles. We’d come in the day before on a snowcoach, a noisy, bone-shaking journey made enjoyable by our entertaining companions, our informative driver/guide Sarah, the splendid scenery and regular stops to visit waterfalls and thermal features. Our snowcoach friends, like many winter visitors to Yellowstone, were going cross-country skiing on cut tracks. We were heading into the untracked wilderness and would see no-one for the next week. My companion on this adventure was Ed Huesers from Colorado, who makes a tool for building igloos called the Ice Box. Our plan was to live in igloos and explore the wilderness west of Biscuit Basin, a vast, steep sided, undulating region around 8,500 feet high known as the Madison Plateau that contains several remote thermal areas.
Yellowstone, the first national park in the world, is a supervolcano sitting atop one of the largest masses of molten rock lying close to the earth’s surface that exists, known with great understatement as a hotspot. The supervolcano last erupted some 630,000 years ago, though there have been smaller lava flows since. The Yellowstone landscape is formed by the lava and ash spewed out in eruptions and then shaped by glaciers and water. The volcanic forces are still active, as evidenced by over 10,000 thermal features, more than anywhere else in the world. One day the Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt again. One day.
Our immediate concern though as we left Biscuit Basin was to find a way up the steep slopes of the narrowing Little Firehole River valley to the undulating wooded plateau above. A deep basin cutting back into the slope looked a possible weakness, though there was a band of low cliffs around the rim, and we headed up this slowly, dragging sleds packed with winter equipment and supplies behind us. The snow was soft and deep in the trees, hard and icy in open areas. Dead trees and boulders lying just beneath the snow caught skis and sleds, bushy young trees snatched at pole baskets and sled straps. At times the sleds slid back down the slope pulling the hauler over. Climbing skins on the skis strained to maintain grip while dragging the sled back up. Finally we breached the cliffs and reached the rim of the plateau and the reward of a splendid view of the Upper Geyser Basin stretching back to Old Faithful, with columns of steam rising into the now mist-free air from a stark monochrome landscape of snow and dark conifers.
Turning away from the views we skied through dense forest, making slow progress in the mix of breakable crust and deep sugary snow and further hampered by the many areas of fallen trees. These were from the great fire of 1988 that burned much of Yellowstone’s woods. Many of the dead trees still stood, grey and skeletal, their limbs snapped off. But there were also many young trees, often packed closely together, showing that life had returned. In the late afternoon we selected a spot on the rim of the plateau and started to build our first igloo. To do this shovelfuls of snow are heaped into a form and then pressed down to form the blocks of the igloo. However the sugar snow we had to work with was very slow to consolidate and each block took a long, long time to make. It was well after midnight before we finished and could crawl into the igloo, melt snow and make dinner. We finally lay down to sleep at 4 a.m. after an exhausting 23 hour day.
Inside the igloo it was surprisingly warm, -3ºC, with the stove going, -7ºC without. Outside it was -23ºC. It was drier and roomier than a backpacking tent too, with no condensation, room to sit up on the sleeping platforms with feet on the floor and a table for cooking. Outside sounds were cut out completely but daylight percolated through the walls.
Unsurprisingly a slow, leisurely day followed, during which we broke trail through to Little Firehole Meadows then returned to the igloo. After all that effort we weren’t going to abandon it after one day. The morning was sunny but clouds rolled in after noon and light snow was falling by evening. There were many tracks of all sizes in the forest. None were clear. Fox, coyote, wolf, moose and ground squirrel were all possible. However the only wildlife we saw were little mountain chickadees (a type of tit) and big black ravens, both year round denizens of the forest.
The following day our tracks made for a speedy return to Little Firehole Meadows, this time with the loaded sleds. The meadows were extensive, spreading out amongst groves of trees with steep wooded slopes rising all around. The slow meandering Little Firehole River wound its way through the snow-covered meadows, fed by little creeks, all open despite the low temperatures due to the thermally heated water. To continue through the meadows we had to ford the river. This was a new situation to me. I’d skied across many frozen rivers and lakes but had never had to cross open water in such cold temperatures. The day before we’d cleared snow to make a platform on the bank and here we loaded our sleds and skis onto packs ready for the crossing. I went first, barefoot with trousers rolled up, into water that appeared only knee-deep. However a thick mat of green water plants covered the river bed, which consisted of soft, deep mud. The plants gave way disconcertingly under my feet, causing me to wobble under my top heavy load, and once through the vegetation I sank into the mud. Soon I was wading thigh-deep, my trousers soaked. I didn’t feel cold though. That came when I clambered out onto the snow-covered bank. The shock of freezing air and snow on my wet, bare legs was excruciatingly painful and left me gasping. Perched on my foam pad I hurriedly rolled my trousers down, pulled on my socks and boots and swigged hot lemonade from my flask. Ed, watching, removed his trousers and started across. His load was taller and less stable than mine and it began to lurch to one side almost immediately. He still made it almost the whole way across before he started to topple over, desperately trying to dump his load on the bank. I grabbed the nearest object to me, a ski, but it began to pull out of the load so I had to release it and seize the top of the sled itself. As I did this the load pushed Ed down so that his face was in the water momentarily. Once free of the load Ed had to cross back to collect gear he hadn’t been able to manage on the first ford. By the time he’d made his third crossing his feet and legs were turning numb and I had to help get his trousers and boots back on. Then we harnessed up the sleds and strode across the meadows to warm up. Luckily Ed’s load was dry, only the front of his waterproof jacket and his wool shirt were wet.
Out in the meadows we found a lovely situation for our second igloo, on a big snow drift on the edge of a grove of trees looking out across the meadows to the steep slopes of the Madison Plateau. The snow was more powdery here, still slow to form into blocks but better than the coarse sugar snow in the forest. It was still after dark when we finished the igloo. We woke to snow falling and a bitter north wind and spent a few hours breaking trail across the meadows to the slopes lying below an area known as Smokejumper Hot Springs before retreating to the warmth and comfort of the igloo. There was little to see in the swirling snow but some fine big lodgepole pines and some big grey grouse. That evening the clouds cleared and a full moon shone in a cold blue sky. Tree shadows were sharp on the snow and the visibility was greater than it had been during the day. The temperature plummeted. Our boots squeaked in the snow and sharp cracks rang out across the meadows, wood splitting as sap froze in the trees. Later we heard that the temperature in West Yellowstone, some 25 miles away, had fallen to -36ºC.
There followed a day of snow and wind and low cloud and a bizarre, weird and eerie mix of thermal features and atmospheric conditions. Heading for Smokejumper Hot Springs we climbed out of the meadows up a steep thickly wooded gully. Suddenly we emerged out of the trees into a narrow smoky chasm, an unexpected thermal area not on our maps. A steaming stream ran past hot springs and warm pools. The clouds of steam condensed on the trees into grotesque shapes. Gingerly we picked a way through this fascinating terrain, hoping the ground would not give way and pitch us into hot water or mud, then climbed out steeply through deep, soft snow. Back in the silent forest we climbed on to reach the mist-shrouded plateau. A whiff of sulphur swept by on the cold wind. We sniffed, turned and followed the smell to the hot springs, the first time I’ve ever navigated with my nose. Snow was falling, mist drifted through the trees and steam rose from the springs, pools and smoking cracks in the earth that faded in and out view.
Back at the igloo the snow fell and the wind roared, a cold and stormy end to the day. Dawn came with a rising sun and clear sky though the gusty wind was pickup up spindrift and blasting it across the meadows. Leaving our igloo home for the last time we skied into the woods and headed back towards Biscuit Basin. Part way there we picked up the waymarks of the Summit Lake Trail, a path I’d walked on my first visit to Yellowstone on the Continental Divide Trail 22 long years before. Then it had been summer and the forest had not yet burned. No memories came back. It all felt new. Steep wooded slopes led down to the Firehole River valley, across which we could see the big bulge of Mallard Lake Dome and, far in the distance, the ragged outline of the Beartooth Mountains. A final delight awaited us. At the base of the slopes on the edge of Biscuit Basin bison and elk were grazing, scraping away the thin snow around the heated ground. We watched them for awhile then skied on to a final challenge, a branch of the Little Firehole River that wasn’t bridged. A logjam provided a way across, the main difficulty being sliding the sleds across the snow on a latticework of precarious logs. Then it was through the thermal area, much more visible now without the morning mist. Back on the road Ed stuck out his thumb. A snowmobile soon stopped and then a snowcoach and soon we were ensconced in the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful having a celebratory drink after one of the most intense and strange ski tours I’ve ever undertaken.
Yellowstone National Park
Trails Illustrated 1:168,500 Yellowstone National Park
Earthwalk 1:106,250 Hiking Map & Guide Yellowstone National Park
Trails Illustrated 1:63,360 Southwest Yellowstone - Old Faithful Trail Map
Yellowstone Official National Park Handbook by David Rains Wallace (NPS)
Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks by Bradley Mayhew, Andrew Dean Nystrom & Amy Marr (Lonely Planet)
Letters From Yellowstone by Diane Smith (Penguin)
Ed’s Ice Box