Not in Iowa anymore.
“One more time, Daddy!” my five-year-old voice squawked at my father as he grasped my white-and-red Strawberry Shortcake mittens for one more “pull” up the hill. From my very first foray into the artificially frosty ravine called Sundown Mountain, smack dab in the middle of Iowa’s corn and soybean fields, I was obsessed with skiing. Luckily, the rest of my family felt the same way as we loaded into our Plymouth Voyager mini-van every weekend and drove an hour one-way to enjoy an icy slice of Midwestern heaven. I was 15 before I figured out that actually driving to the TOP of a ski area was rather odd. Every spring as the snow would recede and the mercury would creep higher and higher, I’d mourn the loss of those crusty, chattering turns like the loss of a beloved bovine I’d raised as a 4-H project for the county fair. Funny thing is, 25 years and many millions of turns later, I still feel the same way.
Last April found some friends and I stretching out the season as we always do, scanning northern aspects for pockets of powder and dreaming about bright, shining corn snow turns that would let us at least pretend winter is never-ending. My husband Chris, friend Brian, and two furry, fanatical canines piled into our truck to dig for treasure on the northern slopes of Emigrant Peak.
The mountain is a giant when viewed from U.S. Highway 89 traveling south toward Yellowstone National Park. And although I had hiked, ran, and climbed the peak many times in the summer months, this was my first adventure to her gelid flanks. I’ve always been a sucker for the awe-inspiring lines, ridges, and ravines that are the ingredients for beautiful peaks, and Emigrant is chock-full of them.
Hummingbirds pounded the walls of my stomach in excited anticipation of the pristine alpine turns that were ahead as I pulled on my tattered ski boots. Chris was already bouncing his lanky frame up the shale trail while Brian and I were stowing our shovels and lashing skis to our packs.
We huffed along; pockets of creamy glacier lilies were just starting to poke through the snow on the side of the trail. When we finally found consistent areas of snow and clicked into our skis, the soft whoosh of my skins across the snow and the penetrating spring sun put me into a warm trance. We found Chris munching on a Snickers bar at the top of the first objective we’d ski that day, and we barely peeled off our skins before we heard his old Silveretta bindings creaking with the first buttery turns of the day. The snow was perfect—corn granules on top of a slightly firm snowpack, like skiing in a vat of Philadelphia Cream Cheese. But all too soon the sun began to dip, our muscles began to ache, and the dogs were crashed out on the skin track below. I let Brian, Chris, and Bear carve, pounce, and grin ahead of me as my pup and I soaked up a few more moments with the mountain, the sun, and a gazillion snowflakes. As my edges sank into the white blur and I heard McKinley leaping down the fall line behind me, I thought about the sheer ice, snow guns, cornfields, and 500 feet of vertical of my youth with a bit of sadness. You can take the girl out of Iowa, but you can’t take Iowa out of the girl.
A good pair of skins can make the difference between a 30-minute jaunt and a three-hour grueling battle. Having endured a few epic battles myself, I know how miserable life can be when you're waist-deep in snow, trying to use every last bit of duct tape to keep your skins on while your friends disappear into the mist ahead. That’s why at first I was skeptical about switching skins, but the G3 Climbing Skins were a pleasant surprise. With little to no slippage on the way up, they’re light enough that I don’t notice them in the pack and are very easy to manage during the application and peeling processes. Not only that, but they were extremely easy to cut and adjust, with a good clip system in the rear and easy-to-follow instructions. $112-$153, depending on size; genuineguidegear.com.
Emigrant's First Descents
Surveyors and mountaineers have been etching various aspects of Emigrant Peak since the 1950s. However Bozeman’s own skiing savants Tom Jungst and Jim Conway were among the first powder junkies to ski from its lofty summit. In the spring of 1983, while they were being paid $100 by a gold miner to check snow depths along the Emigrant Gulch mining road, Jungst and Conway left the road and climbed a steep, narrow couloir on the rocky northeast face of the peak. After gaining the summit, the two clicked into their skis and became the first to ski the 500 feet down the northwest face. They traversed right and shoveled an entrance back to the northeast face through a heavy cornice. After arriving back at the valley floor, Jungst and Conway had skied a total of 4,000 vertical feet of virgin terrain.
Entranced with their new powder playground, Jungst and Conway returned to retrace their steps and turns just a few weeks later. News spread quickly of the frothy slopes of Emigrant Peak. Skiing legend Doug Coombs, along with Terry Nichols, skied the Jungst/Conway line as well as 5,000 feet of vertical on the west face in the spring of 1984. Since then, Emigrant and its tilted shoulders have been a prime target for ski mountaineers of all ability and experience levels.
Wet Blanket: Staying Ahead of the Spring-Snow Avalanche
Spring skiing means two things to me—carving turns on early morning corn snow as the sun climbs into the sky, and wet avalanches. The difference between savoring the one and being terrorized or killed by the other is sometimes a matter of minutes. Timing is everything.
In the spring, the wet-snow avalanche hazard is generally lowest during the night and early morning because the surface snow refreezes, especially if the sky is clear. Skiing at night is out of the question, so take advantage of the early morning sunrise and ski the frozen surface before it starts to melt. Actually, a little melting is necessary for the soft, carvable crust that turns boilerplate into a magic carpet. But if you sleep in and get a late start, you can miss this window and be in avalanche danger.
Wet-snow avalanches have many causes, including rapid warming, rainfall, and solar radiation. As the snowmelt percolates down, weakening the snowpack, free water breaks frozen bonds. If this water hits an impenetrable ice crust, it will flow horizontally, lubricating the bed surface and undercutting the snow above it. We can tell the avalanche danger is rising when we skin or boot uphill and the snow is wet, gloppy, and deep. Instead of standing firmly on the surface, we sink deeper with every step. Once the wet snow reaches midcalf, retreat for the day and get an earlier start the next day. The snow is getting ripe to avalanche when pinwheels grow as they roll downhill. The bigger they are, the wetter the snow, and once they reach the size of a basketball the snow is getting wet enough to avalanche.
Go to bed early, set your alarm, put on your beacon, and rise ready for the most carvable, dreamy turns you ever set your edge into.
Select Peaks of the Greater Yellowstone
Some pieces of equipment are completely necessary. You shouldn’t climb without a rope, you shouldn’t kayak without a paddle, and no Bozeman adventurer should leave home without first consulting Thomas Turiano’s Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone: A Mountaineering History and Guide. This large, dense text is filled with history, climbing and skiing routes, inspiring photos, and stories pertaining to the early and ongoing exploration of the mountains of Greater Yellowstone. From Mount Blackmore to Black Mountain, the peaks surrounding Gallatin and Paradise valleys are well represented, as well as the Teton, Beartooth, and Madison ranges, among others. Most peak profiles have a slant toward ski mountaineering, with ascent and descent information, as well as vital statistics such as elevation gain and approach distances. Additional historical facts and anecdotes make this more than a guidebook; it is an unparalleled resource for actual and armchair mountaineers alike. $30; indomitusbooks.com.