Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Yellowstone Winter Hike February 2003

Bruce near Douglas Knob
Eight Days in the Yellowstone Backcountry

My buddy Bruce K. and I had talked about doing some winter backcountry hikes out west.  Our first try at it was in Rocky Mountain National Park.  We were huddled in the shadow of Long's Peak at 11,500 feet in a snow cave while a blizzard produced white out conditions for 18 hours.  Neither of us knew many jokes and let me tell you we got some kind of bored, except for the adrenaline you get from knowing you could get buried alive in the snow cave. We learned a lot on that trip but not enough to prepare me for our second winter hike, 48 miles through Yellowstone's backcountry in February.  It tested me both physically and mentally.  I was pulling a gear sled loaded with 160 lbs of food, cameras, climbing gear, etc.  Too much gear!  I brought a sleeping bag rated at 0 degrees.  Not good enough for Yellowstone winters.  To make matters worse my sleeping bag turned into a solid block of ice the third day from my body vapor.  I needed a vapor barrier for the bag.  We were in tough conditions for eight days, long enough to get to my psyche.  The worst of it was a frigid -32 degree night.  My sleeping bag was useless and I was worried about making it through the night.  The only insulation I had was my Marmot 8000 meter expedition jacket.  I am certain it saved my life that night.  I woke up to frozen toes and heels on both feet the next morning.  I was 3 months healing both physically and emotionally from the trip.  My toes were numb for months and I had acquired post traumatic cold syndrome (meaning I hated being cold for a long time after that trip).  But it was a trip that I will remember forever.  It was tough but it was also magical.  I hope you enjoy the video.  Yellowstone Backcountry in the Winter of 2003  In the video there is a caption that states I left 60 lbs of gear at Three Rivers Park.  My gear sled and weight I was pulling became too much of a burden and I became aware that I just might not make it out if I kept it up.  My energy level was getting dangerously low (we weren't getting enough calories to make up for the thousands we were burning every day).  I left my video camera there, thus the reason the video stops at that point and the rest of the trip is a slideshow.  I loaded my backpack with a lighter load of 60 lbs and continued on from Three Rivers Park.  We met our pickup at Bechler Ranger Station three days later and we were greeted with hot coffee and smoking snowmobiles and were rushed to the nearest steakhouse for a 24 oz steak that I consumed in about 5 minutes.  The park service loaded my gear on horses in August of that year, six months after our trip, and mailed it to me for a fee of $32.  The US government gets a big star for that.  It took that long for the 10 feet of snow to melt in order for the horses to make it to the gear. The battery on my video camera was still charged (Sony TRV-900).  I couldn't believe it.  Two weeks after our trip another group did the same route.  They were hit by extremely cold weather.  I talked to one of the members of that trip and he said the temperature got down to a -52 degrees and sent three of the hikers to the hospital with severe frostbite. We were lucky.

Pictures Below:

1) Cold management is tedious and crucial.  Minor habits make a big difference.  Keeping gloves dry and hands from freezing takes two pair of gloves, switching from a pair under your jacket to your hands every couple of hours.  Poly liner socks also help a lot in keeping feet warm.
2) Go to Yellowstone in winter with the best and warmest sleeping bag available with a vapor barrier. I would not do it again without a legitimate -40 sleeping bag and vapor barrier.
3) Sleep with your boots in your sleeping bag on the coldest nights.  My frozen boots froze my feet one morning, instantly.
4) Your body is your only drier out there.  If things get wet, they stay frozen unless you can dry them by placing them under your jacket.
5) The thermal waters of Yellowstone (Bechler Canyon had many) make for some very difficult travel.  When the snow is 10 feet deep, every warm water river and creek creates a 10 foot deep chasm that you must cross.  We spent a lot of energy locating snow bridges in order to cross these barriers and crossing over these snow bridges was stressful and dangerous.
6) Keep your body on the cold side on purpose.  You do not want to overheat and produce sweat while traveling.   Whatever gets wet gets really cold against your body.
7) Emergency fires are very hard to start even with fuel when the temps reach in the -20s and below.
8) Even the best gas stoves have trouble burning when the temps plunge into the -30s.  Bring more than one stove.  We had 3 stoves and 2 ended up not working after a few days.

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