A telescope and a magnifying glass. The Big Dance when it comes to backcountry skiing Cooke City. Anyone who has been to this little mountain town on the edge of Yellowstone Park, in winter, know's the feature I speak of. It hangs above town like a sentinel. A bishop of an iconic ski line if there ever was one.
Some years it comes in. Other years, not so much. Ski it in corn you say. Well, it's a tricky one to catch in corn. NE facing and right at that subalpine zone where the snowpack likes to skip spring. It's a powder line, no doubt. Even though I almost wince when I say it. Wince because I consider myself a super conservative decision maker out there (and a ski guide), and when it comes to center punching a route like that, I'm typically 100% content- to respectfully tip my cap. When I say it's an iconic powder line, I wince because I worry about other people skiing it and getting into trouble. You can get away with a lot, and people often do around Cooke City. However, it seems like we have have at least one avalanche fatality per year, within a couple miles of town... But strangely, some years the logic of skiing a powder line like the Fin, just seems to unfold as if it was intended to happen. Every storm, each year, quite different.
If you squint at this photo you can see where I skied into the route (on a self belay) and dug a snowpit. Does it matter what I found? What my stability test results were? Not really. Is it part of the puzzle? Sure. Did I make my decision to ski the route, primarily based on what I found in my snowpit? Absolutely not. Is it inherent for man to be fascinated by the challenge of traveling amongst dragons? Of course. Can you learn enough about certain dragons at certain times, to ski a route like the Fin, in deep powder? I think so. Just don't be surprised if the mountain is a mountain. Don't be surprised if it's potential energy becomes kinetic.
Exploratory skiing in Yellowstone Park. Kt Miller photo.
One great thing about backcountry skiing around Cooke City is that there are a Smörgåsbord of options. It seems like a common misunderstanding that you need a snowmobile to access the goods around Cooke. Quite the contrary. And you don't need a car either. Everything can be done, relatively well, from your motel door.
So go ahead. Bring your skins, opt for crampons instead of a Polaris, park you rig and don't drive for a few days. Or if you are in town for a week, travel into the Park an afternoon or two. You are liable to see some incredible wildlife, and if you are motivated and conditions allow, ski some of the more interesting terrain you'll find in North America.
So, you wait, and wait, and wait, and wait… Then go!
You practice, you learn, you practice some more. Then you take a step back, you observe objectively, you see an opportunity, then boom, maybe your project comes together. The trick is knowing when to see an opportunity, or maybe more accurately, how to create an opportunity.
For us on this particular day the opportunity was in the form of 45 degrees plus and quite narrow. See the slope angle and width of a line can really make or break how 'manageable' a certain snowpack can be. Folks that have spent time in Cooke during the winter know: it snows A LOT. Often too much it seems. There bluebird days are the ones you get up early for. Definitely less so on the 'powder days'. What does that mean? That means the avalanche hazard can stay high for prolonged periods. Because the snowpack likes a rest. Not too much of one mind you. That's when weak layers often form. However, with a steady stream of snow accumulation, you can count on steep rocky chutes to be sluffing. That's what they do. They sluff down the line of least resistance. Sometimes this sluffing can clean out steep routes when moderate terrain (wider, less steep) can remain on the edge of slab avalanching. Slab avalanches are no bueno. Steady sluffing, we smile.
During those times, you'll occasionally go and 'have a look'. Even though the overall hazard could be Considerable. You go for a walk, and bring your kit just in case. And low and behold, fresh powder debris on the apron.! So you proceed with caution. Often you bail, but sometimes you send!
The Double Hourglass couloir and our uptrack, after eyeing it for about 6 years. Sean Jones photo.
What's the best kind of line? One that you study for a real long time, before you ask it to dance. This double hourglass of a couloir sits right above Cooke City. Clear as day to anyone who looks. That is, anyone who looks for aesthetic mixed climbs and wonderfully exposed technical skiing.
The day before, we'd skied as a larger group, traveling over much of the mountain. We'd ski cut the new snow, 2-4 inches, and observed how it had bonded to the old snow surface. Things change rapidly, especially during a wintery pattern in early May. We knew the deeper snowpack was well and consolidated. And the new snow, definitely seemed 'manageable'.
When you observe a line for a half dozen years. You learn it's nuances. When it seems to only come 'in' every couple, it becomes all the more enticing when you've rationalized having a go. We took two old 2x4's, two ropes, two technical tools each, and lightweight 'pons. The rock in northern Absaroka is atrocious at the best of times. The water ice on this route; likely far too thin for screws or v-threads. Burying dead men would be our only hope of abseiling back through. Climbing the route from the bottom up is baseline for safety in that sort of thing. You know what you are getting into before you commit to it with skis. If we had to bail off the top, so be it. Climbing a new route on a north face is half the fun anyway.
The day we skied it, about a mile away, our good buddy was sluffed off his line and took a 1500' tumble over big exposure. He remarkably walked away unharmed, when he could have easily broken his leg or worse. His party arrived back in town just in time to see our first turn- ski cut. It cleaned out our route to a humbling degree, entraining more snow than anticipated. Poor form in my opinion. Not with the ski cut, but perhaps we had committed to the route when it was in less than 110% optimal condition. Big lines require very calculated timing. Feel free to split hairs when it comes to ski mountaineering. Maybe you'll keep it casual and get away with a whole lot. But if you mismatch your objective with the day you're liable to be avalanched and possibly killed. The mountains around Cooke City are like their native grizzly bears. They're unique and wild and wonderfully amazing, but they require due respect. So be patient. And enjoy the process.
This video is about patience, and avalanche awareness in the context of Cooke City.
(The first episode of three, about backcountry skiing around the Greater Yellowstone.)
Edited by Hennie Van Jaarsveld.
Music: produced, arranged and mixed by Mononome.
With support from: Omnibar, Mammut and Dynafit.