After John Colter
left the Lewis and Clark expedition he headed north into Crow country, looking
for good trapping areas. It is said he began his journey in November of 1807,
and in the wintry months that followed discovered the vast and mysterious
wilderness of Yellowstone. The author and a friend are probably the first white
men to make a similar trip (they chose to hike north to south) in midwinter.
For 17 days in subzero temperatures they snowshoed through blizzards, clambered
across mountains and elbowed through herds of elk in the valleys. They took
with them only sleeping bags and packs, no tents.
An hour before
dawn I awake and lie staring blankly at the pulse of neon on the frosted
windowpane. Neon? Suddenly I realize the notion is absurd. In long underwear
and socks, still half asleep, I walk outside to see what's going on. The night
is calm and clean, the air brittle with the cold. I scramble up a roof-high
snowdrift beside the wilderness cabin and find the northern lights performing a
gaudy fire dance on the rim of space—tracers of gold, red, green, blue. The sky
show sheds enough light to illuminate the mountaintops and fill the valley. It
is bright enough to read the battered Coca-Cola thermometer that hangs near the
door: 27� below zero.
This is Cooke
City, Mont., a mountain village on the edge of Yellowstone Park. The town is
largely empty now, most everyone having left with September's first snow. About
30 people remain to face the winter, a violent time that lasts for nine months.
A ski school operates here in July, and from November till June, Highway 212,
the only road through the valley, ends in a snowdrift at the end of town. A
road through Yellowstone Park is plowed daily to provide access to
civilization—it is 60 miles to the nearest settlement, 110 miles to the nearest
barber or bank and 200 miles to the nearest pizza hut. One reason for the long
winter is the elevation. From the main street you can see nine peaks of over
10,000 feet; they squeeze the townsite on all sides, so tightly you have to
look up to see the horizons.
As soon as it is
light we will begin our journey into northwestern Wyoming where we will cross
the Absaroka Mountains and follow the major river drainages across Yellowstone
Park to the Continental Divide. We plan to pick up the Snake River on the
western slope and follow it through Grand Teton National Park to the base of
the mountains and the community of Jackson Hole. Our route covers a linear
distance of 175 miles at an average elevation of 8,000 feet.
tightened, Mark Stearns and I shoulder our 70-pound packs with grunts, pull on
face masks, lower amber-lensed snow goggles and move down the deserted street
into the red dawn. Someone pulls back a curtain and waves—our only
At the end of town
we mount a snowdrift, enter the timber and trudge toward the high country. Mark
takes the lead, and I shuffle behind in the narrow trench carved by his
snowshoes. His movements are more animated than those I remember from years of
watching Sergeant Preston; buried to his knees in fluff, his advance more
closely resembles that of a high-stepping drum major than an Eskimo. Apparently
a pair of 10-inch-by-56-inch webs which might easily support the weight of a
man on heavy, moisture-laden snow do not support him on the talcum powder of
the northern Rockies, especially when the wearer is strapped to 70 pounds of
hardware. On the other hand, I'm not struggling at all, since Stearns has
packed the snow on which I'm walking.
realizes the inequity of our positions, and we agree to rest and change every
quarter of a mile. An hour later we are switching every 50 paces and cheating
whenever we can get away with it. Our inner clothing is drenched with sweat,
and with the temperature dropping about one degree an hour we are obliged
during those periods, ludicrously referred to as rests, to flap about like
wing-shot mallards to keep our underwear from freezing.
dehydration is an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous condition. The sharp,
dry air seems to suck body fluids from every pore, and the moisture is not
immediately replaceable because our canteens have frozen. The ashlike snow
offers no solution, and after braising my tongue on a frigid handful I decide
to place the canteen against my bare stomach to thaw.
discomforts I'd rather be here than, say, in Pittsburgh. A few hours out of
town we cannot see, hear or smell civilization. In a meadow below we watch a
crippled moose, its head cocked, belching steam, its antlers clawing the air.
It crashes through a spray of snow into a juniper stand. A half a dozen coyotes
By late afternoon
we are climbing through the granite peaks of the Absaroka Mountains,
approaching—if my $2 compass is accurate—a 10,400-foot rubble heap that bears
the dubious name Republic Pass. Already a thousand feet above timberline, we
are navigating through snow-filled couloirs and avalanche striations and across
ice caps that cling with exquisite delicacy to walls of naked rock—very
difficult maneuvering on snowshoes. The labor is exhausting, painful, but it is
absolutely necessary that we breach the pass before dark and move down into the
timber on the western slope. The alternative is a bivouac in the open on a
storm-blasted mountaintop without the benefit of firewood.