Winter camping in the Greater Yellowstone

The ever stunning Lamar Valley. New Year's Day 2015

The ever stunning Lamar Valley. New Year’s Day 2015


Over this past holiday season, Julia and I went out on a couple of backcountry camping trips in the Northern Gallatin range and also along Slough Creek in the Yellowstone Park. One trip to the alpine and the second to high grassland/coniferous forest. Both different and bolstering in their respective offerings. There are multiple ways to go about it, but the name of the game is to stay warm and dry while out overnight in the winter. That’s my sage advice 😉
Julia trying to stay warm among the pines in the Park.

Julia trying to stay warm among the pines in the Park.


The art of staying out in lower 48 winters isn’t beyond reason and as per the norm, practice always helps. Emerald Lake just before Christmas was accompanied with marvelous powder and moderate temperatures in the high teens/low twenties (°F). What we didn’t bargain for were the all-night and into morning gale winds. We woke concerned that our previously secured packs/skis/poles outside had been ripped from their perches. But all was well. Lesson learned here was to be prepared with the correct shelter and campsite for the situation. We chose a 9000′ alpine cirque to perch and paid only the small price of a loud night’s sleep. Julia and I have weathered similar winds in the BD Firstlight on previous occasions and can attest to its classically stout design. Prior to the night’s wind, it was dead quiet and lightly snowing as we warmed ourselves around a glorious winter fire.
BD Firstlight's wind shedding curves

BD Firstlight’s wind shedding curves


Confetti sparks. (photo: Julia)

Confetti sparks. (photo: Julia)


Yellowstone was, as always, expansive. The north and northeastern parts of the park are held closely in my heart for many a reason. And winter, dear winter… The forecast for Mammoth and Cooke City were to be in the single digits. New Year’s eve in the park yielded temps down to well below zero. It was -5°F around 9pm as a reference. Chilly, and just manageable. Insulated pants, booties, and jackets were worn in conjunction with our amazingly crafted Valandre Mirage sleeping bags to keep us from freezing in the late night/early morning hours. While not necessarily warm, we weren’t shivering either.
Waking to a frosted tent on Jan 1. (Photo: Julia)

Waking to a frosted tent on Jan 1. (Photo: Julia)


A fresh wolf kill on our ski in. Quite the big elk. Howling commenced close by in the foothills soon after we skied off. (photo: Julia)

A fresh wolf kill on our ski in. Quite the big elk. Howling commenced close by in the foothills soon after we skied off. (photo: Julia)


Ringing in the New Year amongst Yellowstone’s wildlife and under the blanket of the Milky Way is well worth dealing with a bit of cold. It also helped to have a bit of leeway in our systems to allow for deviation from the expected temperatures. All of our gear worked as planned, with the exception of a blown seal on my rehydrated dinner. The glue melted away from the zipper and I soon found this out with the bag tucked in my layers, while leaning over to tend to melting snow. With Julia’s patient help, dinner was largely salvaged and I got most of the beef stew out of my clothing. What an ordeal at the time but a lesson learned all the same. I can safely say that after smelling the spilled remnants on my clothes for the remainder of the trip, I no longer have any desire for said stew! And it was nothing that a New Year’s bubbly couldn’t fix!
Backcountry bubbly to help ring in 2015

Backcountry bubbly to help ring in 2015


Besides this, I’ve been skiing these rolling and relatively flat trips with a fairly lightweight AT rig and my TLT6s while Julia has been using her Fischer XCD setup. Both work just fine, with reliability, stability, and warmth points being awarded to my setup. Julia’s XCD ski ensemble wins for overall weight and kick/glide. If money were no object, Julia would most likely have a Voile Vector BC or similar with simple tech bindings and TLT boots. But the XCD skis fill that void in the meantime. As for the rest of our gear, I’ll give shoutouts to the NeoAir X-Therm and the MSR Reactor. Both are arguably gold standards of winter recreation and proven in our usage.
Cold and crisp New Year's ski. (photo: Julia)

Cold and crisp New Year’s ski. (photo: Julia)


These recent winter camping trips in the Greater Yellowstone were learning experiences that continue to shape and mold our day-to-day existence. Drops in the well. I look forward to more of these in the future. We’re pushing our boundaries and gaining ground, one day at a time.
East Fork Hyalite. Shining.

East Fork Hyalite. Shining.

One for the books…2014

Northern Bridger winter coat. February

Northern Bridger winter coat. February


2014 was a year of large life events for me.
Teton Crest Trail in-a-day. Tetons peeking from some of the best displays of wildflowers that I've seen. August

Teton Crest Trail in-a-day. Tetons peeking from some of the best displays of wildflowers that I’ve seen. August

Julia and I got married July 5th. It was the absolute best of times. Really though, words can’t describe.

The newlywed Bride and Groom. July (photo: Shane Rickert)

The newlywed Bride and Groom. July (photo: Shane Rickert)

We purchased our first house together also in July. Seized the day, per se. Trails out the front door and mountains minutes away.

Our backyard mountains in their summer glory. August

Our backyard mountains in their summer glory. August

I raced my first official mountain ultra marathon in June and my second in September. Hooked.

The Rut 50K 2014. SO good. September (photo: Julia Truax)

The Rut 50K 2014. SO good. September (photo: Julia Truax)

I began early in the year with a desire to be in the best shape of my life. This I accomplished mainly through trail running and AT skiing. While numbers don’t even begin to tell the story, a bit helps: over 1000 trail miles ran and just about 300,000 vertical feet gained (and lost). Skiing not included and not forgotten. Many thousands of vert and ephemeral times to match.

One fine day deep in the Bridgers. February (photo: Adam Pohl)

One fine day deep in the Bridgers. February (photo: Adam Pohl)

For many years I wasn’t taking the best care of myself and decided to do something about it. It hasn’t always been straightforward, but the rewards are too great for my meager words to explain. It’s a continuing and iterative process that has me intrigued, excited, and looking forward to the future. I owe my father a huge thanks here, as it was he who introduced me to running over 20 years ago. He then pursued among other things, road running, hiking, backpacking, and overall the outdoors. I soon followed suit. I began road racing around ten years old and continued to do so for over 5 years. Other recreation took the place of running soon after I ran my first half-marathon accompanied by none other than my Dad. It’s been a while since then but now I’m back at it and loving the pursuit. So, thanks Dad for the early intro!

Alpine running and alpine forget-me-nots in the Northern Gallatins. July

Alpine running and alpine forget-me-nots in the Northern Gallatins. July

“The times…”, as Dylan so poetically coined. In all, this was a fairly eventful year in my life – one that I wouldn’t trade for a thing. I couldn’t have done it without the help, love, and support of many fine folks along the way. Friends, family, and strangers alike – I’m thankful for you all and immensely grateful for yet another trip around the sun. Thanks 2014, and welcome 2015. Here we come.

Three Cheers! July (photo: Shane Rickert)

Three Cheers! July (photo: Shane Rickert)

Perseverance on the Sphinx

Mark getting into the Lowe Route

Mark getting into the Lowe Route


Oh, alpine climbing. As with most things that are worth achieving in life, they often require a bit of hard work and perseverance. In this case, between a climbing partner and myself we collectively totaled over 60 miles of walking our ice tools around this fall in unsuccessful attempts to snag the Lowe Direct on the north face of Sphinx Mountain (10876’/3315m) here in the Northern Madison. And this doesn’t count last year’s attempts. Some could think that this was born of gross oversight or ill-preparedness but the main component of our story is timing. They say it is of the essence.
Myself on the upper traverse in October 2013

Myself on the upper traverse in October 2013


Fickle early season melt-freeze conditions that are precluded by a storm are the main part of this equation. Too much snow, and the approach becomes impassable due to loading. Too little, and the climbs don’t form. Climbers have been avalanched off of this face, so conditions are nothing to be taken lightly. The country is also prime elk hunting country and thick with grizzlies, which adds another twist to the five mile approach. On our last attempt, we finally saw a grizzly (running away from us below the north face) as opposed to just huge tracks on the trail. Better there than in the first mile or so of ‘bone-alley’, a narrow canyon corridor often adorned with fresh bones where a bear encounter would likely be less fun.
Bone Alley - Late Oct '13

Bone Alley – Late Oct ’13


This last weekend yielded a successful romp on the Lowe Route, with the Direct not being in. Although we gave it another look, the bottom pitches weren’t formed and we didn’t feel up to that sort of adventure climbing so we once again retreated from the base of the Sphinx’s north face. This time, though, the upper pitches looked to be mostly in and we rallied back to the Helmet/Sphinx saddle and up to the traverse into the upper routes. The Earl-Trimble had plentiful ice, with a party on it and everything but the dagger WI5 pitch of the Lowe was formed.
On route

On route


Despite not getting the classic pillar, by this time I was ok with it and happy to be finally swinging tools on some ice. We were two of over a dozen folks seen on the face that day and were lucky to have climbed, as at least one party was turned away. I can relate from waiting last year on that face while multiple parties queued up for perfect October conditions. A bit later and a bit thinner this year, but climbable all the same.
Topping out on the Lowe (p: McAlpine)

Topping out on the Lowe (p: McAlpine)


Mark approaching the Sphinx summit accompanied by lenticular

Mark approaching the Sphinx summit accompanied by lenticular


As I sit here with a lingering sense of accomplishment and an eye/ear towards the next, temperatures have dropped over 50 degrees F from a high of 62°, to one of single digits over the last few days. I just snuck in my first powder turns of the season and look forward to the coming of winter. Our amazing Montana autumn has finally come to an unofficial close and its now time to sharpen tools, wax skis, and pray for snow. Last season was one for the books; let us sneak in another…
Tetons (far) and S.Madison (near) from the top

Tetons (far) and S.Madison (near) from the top


Self-timer on the summit of the Sphinx. Happy climbers

Self-timer on the summit of the Sphinx. Happy climbers

Ridges and loops – Fall in the Spanish Peaks

Julia with Gallatin Peak behind, left

Julia with Gallatin Peak behind, left

Ahhh… a full-length Montana fall. We’ve had quite the autumn this year so Julia and I have been trying to squeeze in as much outside fun as possible during this impeccable weather window. While we have accomplished a lot of “done-in-a-day” recreation, backpacking has fallen off a bit this year due to a few large life events. Thankfully, this long fall season has allowed for us to play a little catch-up with the outdoors. Two free coinciding days recently yielded a most amazing, 20+ mile loop that is not too far from our back door. And with what has amounted to a quintessential Montana Indian summer, it has been hard not to get out to soak it in.

Morning gold along Thompson Lake

Morning gold along Thompson Lake

Julia soaking it up on Indian Ridge with the expansive Gallatin Valley behind

Julia soaking it up on Indian Ridge with the expansive Gallatin Valley behind

Ridgelines are high on the list of fun, as well as loop/lollipop hikes that allow one to traverse different ground nearly the entire trip. Time is sometimes of the essence, and bang for buck has become an increasing theme in our (and maybe your?) ever-evolving backcountry strategy. This particular loop held just what we were looking for – distance not too far or short, miles of ridgeline travel above and at timberline, high and wide alpine vistas, peaks to incorporate just off trail, a logical campsite midway at an alpine lake, and enough up/down to keep us working for it. Everything you need and nothing you don’t.

Summit chickens

Summit chickens

The aptly named, Summit Lake (Photo: Julia)

The aptly named, Summit Lake (Photo: Julia)

The loop begins and ends at S Fork Spanish Creek TH (N end of Madison range) and can be easily figured out from there with a topo, as it is the only true non-redundant loop. It is a great overnight trip, or would also be a great longer run for those so inclined. Overall length is in the low 20’s for mileage and ~5000′ for vert. Clockwise or counter is the only major remaining question. My vote is for a counter clockwise run, based on water availability and terrain selection. It could feasibly be done with just a handheld w/ inline filter if ran in this direction. It could almost be done without a filter, except for one important, and semi-suspect water source. As for backpacking it, we put in the longer mileage day and Indian Ridge first, and thought that this may be the preferred method to camp. But either direction would still be most pleasing.

Miles of this (Photo: J)

Miles of this (Photo: J)

Westward from Beacon Pt.

Westward from Beacon Pt.

Trailside company

Trailside company

Gear Highlights/Lowlights:

A cold, calm night on a bench sitting above the lake yielded, (go figure, yet again) significant condensation inside of our single walled/hybrid Big Sky International Mirage 2P shelter. You’d think we have had enough time over the three-plus years of use to just get rid of it, but no, we press on because of weight/space balance and the hopes for optimal conditions. We do have a double-walled Hilleberg for more serious weather but it is overkill for a lot of summer use here in the Montana Rockies. So along comes the Mirage 2P and then we end up cursing it about half of the time. And loving it the other half.

Big Sky Mirage 2P just waiting to accumulate condensation

Big Sky Mirage 2P just waiting to accumulate condensation

So, it may be time to rethink the 2P summer shelter situation come next year. We’ll have to leave that one for when the time comes though, so until next time folks. Winter is currently knocking on the door.

Blustery Bridger ridge run, the end of October

Blustery Bridger ridge run, the end of October

The Rut 50K 2014 race report

The ridge climb up to Lone Peak. (photo: Julia)

The ridge climb up to Lone Peak. (photo: Julia)

It’s now been two weeks since I participated in The Rut 50K and I am still very much enthusiastic about the whole event. If you are into mountain ultra running then this race comes highly suggested. All three races (VK, 12K, 50K) drew a total of over 1000 runners from all over the globe. Even a mountain running showdown of sorts between Kilian Jornet and Sage Canaday for the Ultra Skymarathon Series title took place with Kilian eventually taking the win with a stout 5:09:31 in the 50K. A gnarly time on a significantly challenging course. A bunch of elite international athletes competed and added to the already deep field of local and regional talent. The overall feel was one of a big, and well-organized event.

Myself (in green) and the eventual winner, Kilian Jornet (in red) staying warm at the 50K start. (photo: J)

Myself (in green) and the eventual winner, Kilian Jornet (in red) staying warm at the 50K start. (photo: J)

A three-piece band? At ~19 miles into the race and over 9000 ft high on the ridge to Lone Peak summit? Only at The Rut 50K!

A three-piece band? At ~19 miles into the race and over 9000 ft high on the ridge to Lone Peak summit? Only at The Rut 50K!

The race went something like this:

And they're off! (photo: J)

And they’re off! (photo: J)

6am start (and a brisk 33°F) to the sound of an elk bugle. Cowbells, camera flashes, headlamps, and excitement in the air. Up 1500′ over the first two miles to get the blood flowing. Consistently up & then a fast next 5.5 miles down. Good stuff. I barely touched the 7.5 mile Madison Village aid except to refill my handheld. I did, though, see the maestro of irunfar.com , Bryon Powell and yelled a friendly hello to him out of race excitement. If you aren’t already familiar, and you are into ultra running, then his website is a great resource. And I’m of no affiliation, btw, just a fan.

Morning alpenglow on Lone Peak while running impeccable singletrack around Moonlight Basin

Morning alpenglow on Lone Peak while running impeccable singletrack around Moonlight Basin

Gradual climbing but mainly runnable singletrack persisted out of the 7.5 aid until the 12.1 mile Elkhorn water station. I stopped here to down a small cup and to top off my bottle. In hindsight I should have tanked up further here, as I only had a single 20oz handheld with me. The next six miles to the Tram Dock 18 mile aid is fairly demanding and involves the first major 1400′ climb to Headwaters ridge (c. 10,100′) before quickly descending 1800′ and then climbing 1300′ to the aid. Not too shabby given that the main 2K’+ climb up Bonecrusher to the summit of Lone Peak (11,166′) was still ahead. While Headwaters is amazing and technical, another notable section coming off of the ridge was a short downhill length of maybe 20′ of near vertical dirt with even slicker surrounding grass alternatives. Nearly everyone that I witnessed was on their ass and crab-walking on all fours trying their best not to tumble down the slope! One of many memorable Rut moments.

Fixed down rope on the Headwaters ridge

Fixed down rope on the Headwaters ridge

The only out-and-back section of the course was a 1.5 mile stretch that centers on the Tram Dock 18 aid. It is entirely in the sun until the aid, where refreshments and friendly volunteers waited patiently. I had no drop bag and had carried all of my gear so I spent little time here before retracing my steps to the inevitable Lone Peak summit climb. This starts at around mile 18.7 and climbs over 2100′ in under 1.5 miles with 1000′ in the last 1/2 mile. Some steep ridgeline scrambling, for sure. A highlight along this section was not just the view, but also a 3-piece bluegrass band jamming out part-way up the ridge (!). Both of the ridgeline routes were something truly to take in and ones that I’ll surely recall for some time. Nice one, Montana Mikes.

Up high on the Bonecrusher ridge looking back. Somewhat steep.

Up high on the Bonecrusher ridge looking back. Somewhat steep.

At just over 20 miles and the summit of Lone Peak, was another aid station that I hung out at for a couple of minutes while discarding trash, eating a 1/4 banana, drinking some coke, refilling my water bottle, and snagging a gel. The amazing volunteers there wouldn’t even let me pick up a piece of dropped trash as they swooped in to take care of it while asking me what else they could get for me. I can’t even properly express my gratitude for all of the great volunteers but I do appreciate each and everyone. A big cheers to the folks who lent a helping hand.

Dinner plates coming off of the Lone Peak summit

Dinner plates coming off of the Lone Peak summit

Down from summit was pleasant, but in-the-moment dinner plate talus running with some friendly company for about 1/2 mile, then steeper, looser, and smaller scree by myself for another mile or so before hitting some more runnable single and doubletrack. This undulating trail weaved in and out of the woods, occasionally hitting a fire road but soon getting back to singletrack. There were even spectators at random spots with the ubiquitous The Rut cowbell to provide a surprise and needed boost. This largely downhill section is deceptive, luring the unsuspecting runner into thinking that it is all buttery, downhill singletrack from here on out. NOT so.

One of multiple ropes to aid on the up to Andesite. The photo does not do the reality justice.

One of multiple ropes to aid on the up to Andesite. The photo does not do the reality justice.

At mile 25.5 there is a very steep (or as the race literature states, ‘STEEP’) ~1000′ climb up to Andesite Mountain. It is rough in that much of the ascent is up a downhill mountain bike course that includes multiple fixed ropes (?!) to aid runners up the very steep, gullied track that is not really intended for uphill travel. While fairly difficult, I still grinned at the fact that I had to use the ropes to gain upward progress in the slick gullies. Sick, but kinda fun. After this grind, there is a final little slog on a service road to the top of Andesite and the final aid station. Here, I smiled at the thought of a mainly downhill final five miles, refilled my bottle one last time, swigged a shot of coke, thanked the volunteers, and passed a few runners with my over-exuberance on the way out of the aid. From here on out, I ran the nice singletrack by myself to the finish in 8:13:23. It was well off what I had hoped for but I was extremely happy with the overall race and how I felt throughout.

Lone Peak from Andesite. Looking back on the course and the two main ridges taken. Minor suffering was largely alleviated with views like this.

Lone Peak from Andesite. Looking back on the course and the two main ridges taken. Minor suffering was largely alleviated with views like this.

Gear thoughts:
(I used and very much appreciated all listed below)

Gear worn and carried: UD AK Race Vest, Salomon Sense Pro shoes, Drymax socks, Dynafit shorts, Rab Aeon tee, Mountain Hardwear arm sleeves, Montbell Tachyon windshirt, OR synthetic gloves, UV 1/2 BUFF, MH brimmed cap, BD Spot headlamp, cheapo shades, Sony waterproof P&S. It was fairly cold and I had on arm sleeves, buff, and gloves for over half of the race. The windshirt was arguably not needed but still was worn on the final ridgeline to Lone Peak for about an hour. I probably would have moved a bit faster here had I not had it! The AK Race Vest was a winner, as it has been for me and many others for some time now. This, and the SJ Ultra Vest were the most seen vests during the race. Salomon and Ultra Spire took a close second/third with a few others like Mountain Hardwear, Nathan, and Osprey in the mix. While the majority of runners used a vest pack, some folks went a handheld only, or coupled with a minimal belt and/or in-short storage.

Two of many UD Vests on the course. And some snow. This was descending  Headwaters ridge.

Two of many UD Vests on the course. And some snow. This was descending Headwaters ridge.

Fueling/hydration: GU, GU Roctane, Hammer gel, Bolt Chews, electrolyte tabs, a handful of potato chips, a few shots of coke, plenty of clear water. About one gel per hour, sometimes more. Electrolyte tabs with slightly less frequency. Bolt Chews intermittently throughout the race between gels. Crisps at Tram Dock aid. Coke shots at Tram Dock, Lone Peak, and Andesite aid stations. Everything worked well except my oversight for water need from mile 12-18 and from 20-26.5. My 20oz did not quite cut it and I could’ve used multiple more ounces for both of these stretches. I managed, though, and generally had a smooth time with fueling and hydration.

Out and back section to Tram Dock. Very lunar-like. Picture from low on Bonecrusher ridge.

Out and back section to Tram Dock. Very lunar-like. Picture from low on Bonecrusher ridge.

Summary:

Technical mountain running, cruiser singletrack, an 11K’+ summit, a deep field of world-class athletes, amazing volunteers, a lot of psyched runners, even more equally psyched fans, and vistas for days. The course was wonderful, and the folks were even better. Much love, Montana. Please do keep ’em coming.

The Rut 50K finish line and an elated me. (photo: J)

The Rut 50K finish line and an elated me. (photo: J)