Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Montana Trip Report - March 2005

Bozeman and Big Sky, Montana Trip Report

March 4, 2005 to March 13, 2005

by Sue George

Back in August of 2004, one of my bosses told me that if I could write a paper for the IEEE Aerospace Conference in Big Sky, MT, and get it accepted, I could go. This sounded good to me. Ever since going backpacking in Glacier National Park in July 2003, I'd wanted to go back to Montana and see more. Here was the perfect opportunity.

I knew from my boss, who'd previously attended the conference, that it was set up with morning, evening, and night sessions. Afternoons were deliberately left open to allow a few daylight hours every day to play. As a bonus, the trip dates corresponded exactly with Matthew's spring break, so he would be able to accompany me.

Friday, March 4, 2005

We departed C'ville airport at 4:30 PM and traveled, relatively uneventfully, through Cincinnati, OH, and Salt Lake City, UT before arriving in Bozeman at midnight local time. The car rental place was closed, so we headed to the hotel via a shuttle with plans to pick up the car the next morning. We stood outside in the cold waiting for the shuttle to arrive after the airport terminal closed promptly at midnight.

As if to prove the small world theory, the very first person we met in Bozeman (waiting for the same shuttle) had spent 7 years in Charlottesville going to UVA and now lived in DC. It's always a strange experience to travel far from home and run into people who know all about the place you live. Most of the time people further than a half-day's drive from Charlottesville have never heard of the place, or they get it mixed up with Charlotte, NC.

The shuttle driver gave us some background on Bozeman, and like all well-placed small college towns in the US, this one was suffering growth problems. Relative to Charlottesville, which is growing very rapidly, Bozeman seemed to have a more minor growth problem, but who knows, maybe it is just getting going? I can only speculate that it might take more convincing to get folks to suffer through Montana winters than it does to suffer through Central Virginia "winters". According to the Bozeman natives, the last few winters were very mild and all the newcomers are in for a shock when the "real" winters start up again.

We finally got back to our hotel and got asleep at 1 AM MST, which felt like 3 AM EST. Sometimes I wonder if all good trips require starting out with a sleep deficit. If you don't have to run yourself into the ground to get there, it's probably not that interesting. Okay, maybe that's not it. Maybe the real problem is that none of us have enough time to make work or pleasure travel more leisurely and less exhausting.

Saturday, March 5, 2005

Six hours of sleep later, we weren't rested, but we were eager to get going. It was bright and sunny. There was absolutely no snow, and it was warmer than back home (in the 50's). Why did we bring our skis? It was brown as could be. Maybe Big Sky would have snow? But we weren't too optimistic; the locals told us that this winter had netted the least amount of precipitation since 1940! It hadn't snowed in 3 weeks, and before that, it had been another 3 or 4 weeks. Snow had fallen on only 12 days all winter. Everyone was talking worriedly about the increased possibility of major forest fires this summer in light of the drought. And to make it worse, there was no snow at all in the forecast. [Note: Since our trip, it has snowed multiple times out there—with several storms in the 15-18" range!].

We groaned at snowless forecast, thinking nostalgically of the fresh 30" of snow that had fallen the preceding week at our favorite backcountry ski place, Whitegrass, in Canaan Valley, WV. We would be missing the very best weekend of skiing there all year!

Our shuttle driver back to the rental car pick-up also talked about the growth problem. Gallatin County is the fastest growing county in Montana. Apparently, folks from Los Angeles are moving here in droves. They come with lots of money and drive up housing prices. Hmmm, we thought, this sure does sound familiar, and cited our local example of DC and NoVA residents moving to C'ville en masse and pricing many of us out of the housing market.

The entire morning was devoted to logistics. We ran errands all over Bozeman and got groceries and other supplies we would need for the week. We also picked up some local knowledge at a few of the outdoor shops. They recommended we try Lone Peak XC ski area in Big Sky first. We were struck by how friendly and how relaxed the locals seemed. No one seemed stressed.

Big Sky is about 45 miles south of Bozeman. It is surrounded by the Gallatin National Forest and is not too far from Yellowstone National Park. Lone Mountain was on the way, only a few miles short of the Big Sky Mountain Village where we would be staying.

The dry, dusty dirt road into Lone Mountain was surrounded by mostly dry, dusty terrain. Where was all the snow? It sure looked grim. We soon found out from the very helpful woman staffing the XC center that only a fraction of the 85 km of trails was open for skiing. The rest had too little or no snow and were closed for the remainder of the season.

So we figured we'd ask about the downhill ski conditions. Here was our big chance to ski the famous powder of western ski resorts. We'd been anticipating it for months now. Neither Matthew nor I consider ourselves downhill skiers, but mostly that's because there's nowhere decent to ski in Central Virginia, and our other sports (cycling, climbing) are enough to keep us busy all winter. In any case, neither of us enjoys the ice skiing that is typical of mid-Atlantic downhill resorts.

The ski shop women replied to our question with complete seriousness and without knowing where we were from: "Well, the folks from back east seem to be enjoying the skiing—it's just like home for them." Oh well, we thought, disappointed, maybe we wouldn't be skiing downhill after all? It was looking like we might be in for another skiing-turned-hiking trip. It was starting to seem just like the snow-less Adirondacks, where we'd visited over New Year's, all over again. Right place, wrong time.

We asked more about specific trails that were open and told her what kind of skis we had and what we wanted to do. If nothing else, the highlight of our day was when she said in response: "Wow, you guys must be hardcore." Needless to say, we both got a laugh out of that for many hours afterward. Here we were, all inexperienced in the backcountry with no avalanche experience, trying to figure out "safe" places to go and keep ourselves out of trouble, and she was calling us hard core.

Later I thought about it more and concluded that XC ski resorts out west are just not like out East. At least based on my limited experiences in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, the western XC ski resorts are focused on groomed trails and skate skiing. They have few if any tracked trails through the woods so therefore they are surprised when someone wants to go off piste, so to speak.

As Matthew has said, groomed skiing is like mountain biking on fireroads. It's all okay and fun every once in awhile, but it's not the best time ever. We pretty quickly figured out that at least around here, we were generally better off making our own tracks through the woods. We asked the woman for some suggestions along these lines, and she indicated that there might be some snow just inside Yellowstone going out of a few specific trailheads. And better yet, they were in places with no avalanche danger. We hoped we'd get to check it out.

Figure 1: A groomed trail at Lone Mountain XC Ski Resort near dusk

We did appreciate the kindness and general friendliness of the Lone Mountain staff, and so we decided to ski there in the afternoon and get reacquainted with our skis. We had an enjoyable 1.5 hour long ski on trails that were new to us. We liked the challenge of some of the steeper downhills and were really psyched by how our "new" skis were holding their own. The skis were a Christmas present to ourselves. Our "old" skis, really more conventional Nordic skis, had a good 10 years, but they were pretty well worn out after too much backcountry rock skiing.

Figure 2: Matthew enjoying his "warm-up" ski

We stayed at the Stillwater condos at the Big Sky Mountain Village, where the downhill ski resort is located. The facilities were very nice, excepting an initial plumbing problem, yet we both felt out of place. We are used to slumming it, often by camping, on our trips. But this was the cheapest option for the conference, so what could we do?

Figure 3: Our accommodations at Big Sky

About that plumbing problem…we were greeted with a stuck toilet early on thanks to the previous occupants. We had a few funny interactions with the "maintenance" guys (who seemed more like ski bums than plumbers) and enjoyed several "StillWater" jokes, but eventually the water was moving again after they snaked a half decayed bar of soap up from the plumbing.

The only bad thing about our accommodations was no internet access at the condo. We had to walk up to the main lodge and pay an exorbitant fee for access, which was only good for 1 of our 2 computers. We decided not to pay the exorbitant fee twice to get both computers access. Phone calls from the condo lasting over three minutes were very expensive so dial-up was not a better option. That made it hard for me to stay in touch with work, but I was out here to go to the conference, learn what I could, and promote our achievements with energy harvesting technology, I just made that my focus.

Sunday, March 6, 2005

The conference started at 4:30 PM on Sunday evening, so we had the morning and early afternoon to play. We headed again to nearby Lone Mountain to check out the rest of their XC ski trails. If you have limited time, it's always better to spend it playing outside rather than driving somewhere to play outside.

Figure 4: Going singletrack up along the North River

Conditions at Lone Mountain were highly variable with a base anywhere from half an inch to three feet. You really had to watch out for bare spots and icy patches.

Figure 5: A view of a distant peak from a meadow along the North River

Probably not surprising to those of you who know us, it wasn't long before we found a side-trail which was the equivalent of singletrack for skis. We couldn't help but take it because it looked so appealing going off into the woods. We followed the tracks up along the North Fork River, deeper in the National Forest. It was so beautiful back there. The tracks went for several miles, but we finally figured out that we needed to turn around and head back so as not to be late for the evening conference session. The way out was all up and the way back was all down. Our new skis did awesome both through the untracked deep snow in the open meadows and through the tracks in the woods. We even got to practice some telemark turns on the way down.

Figure 6: Matthew skis off into the distance

We would sometimes crash and fall in a few feet of snow. We'd land any which way. It would take a few minutes to get up in the deepest snow. But we were laughing the whole time.

Figure 7: Sue practices telemark turns

Figure 8: The clouds above Lone Peak told Matthew some kind of storm was on the way.

We worked our way back to the groomed ski trails. Surprisingly, we still had plenty of energy and time so we decided to take the long way back. Those trails weren't in such good shape, and as one skate-skiing couple passed us, we heard a derogatory, "oh great, we just went from crust to slush." You definitely had to watch out for bare spots, and it was often slushy given that it was probably in the high 40's.

Figure 9: Whitegrass eat your heart out! Bare patches and thin snow at Lone Mountain.

We were gone skiing for about 5.5 hours, and covered (I'm think!) at least 10 miles. Needless to say, I had no trouble sitting still in the sessions all that late afternoon and evening.

Figure 10: My view of Lone Peak on the walk to the building where the conference sessions happened

Monday, March 7, 2005

Monday was typical in that we had morning and late afternoon/evening sessions with the early afternoons off and a group dinner to break up the later sessions. Not having a lot of time between sessions to go far afield, we decided it would be a good day to use the discount lift tickets we'd bought through the conference. Our decision was reinforced when it started snowing during the morning sessions. Maybe the fresh snow would help with the crusty, icy surface of the slopes?

I hadn't skied in about 10 years, and even then, I'd only gone about 8 times. Matthew had only skied once before. So you could say we were pretty much total beginners. We didn't have our own gear—we rented some.

The difference in the skis in 10 years was amazing. They are dramatically shorter, wider, and have more sidecut. This makes them turn so much easier. Matthew and I were able to ski most of the green slopes on the first day with no major problems and we never even set foot on the bunny slopes that featured a conveyor belt for taking newbies up for each run. I won't say we had good form, but we got down the slopes ok with no serious crashes or accidents. I couldn't get over how much easier it was to ski this time. The 3-4" of fresh snow on top, helped a lot, too, but you had to watch out for icy spots where it was scraped away. The slopes were not crowded; in fact, they were empty—we walked right up to every lift and hopped on.

Figure 11: Matthew carving it up. As you can see, it was not crowded.

Conditions were definitely not the 12" of powder we'd heard so much about, but I'm sure they were better than anything we could have skied back home. We asked the lift operator what he thought and from best (10) to worst (1), he gave it a 4. I would love to see the place when it was full-on 10.

The snow stopped part-way through our skiing and Lone Peak (11,000+ feet) emerged from the clouds as the sun came out. Along the way we saw the most incredible skies in all directions. It reminded me of some of the Adirondack skis I'd seen over New Year's as the stormy weather moved in and out.

Soon, it was really hot on the slopes. It was weird to be skiing in intense sunlight with temperatures at about 50 degrees. I was shelling spare layers and dousing myself in sunscreen. Somehow it didn't see quite right. What was also not quite right was watching the good skiers off in the distance coming off the top of Lone Peak. They were crazy! Or maybe I should say they were obviously very good skiers! To ski that section of the mountain, you had to have an avalanche transponder and sign in and out.

My ankles were killing me by the end of the day. I think it was because my boots fit so poorly. They were the right length and fit ok in the calves, but were too loose around my ankles and feet—I had to support myself in that funny downhill forward-leaning ski position without a lot of help from my boots. But what can you expect from rentals?

I was glad the skiing was much easier than I remembered, but was also not bummed to only be out for a half day. However, there was a conference for me to attend.

Figure 12: Matthew and Sue go downhill with Lone Peak as a backdrop

It was fun to do something different, but gosh, skiing sure is expensive, and it somehow doesn’t seem "right" to be riding the lifts up. To me, it doesn't seem very ecological and it feels like more of a visit to an amusement park more than an outing to the woods. But I can see why it appears to adrenaline junkies more than endurance geeks.

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Because we chose not to pay the extra $100 to go to the Chairman's banquet at the conference and there were no evening sessions due to this banquet, we had the afternoon and evening off. When my morning sessions wrapped up, we loaded the skis in the car and headed out to explore. The kind woman at Lone Mountain XC ski center had recommended two trails in the very northwest cornerstone of Yellowstone National Park. Neither of us had ever been to Yellowstone, and I'd always wanted to go.

To get to these trails, we didn't have to go through any formal entrance stations—we just jumped on at trailheads off Rt 191 which headed on down to the main West Yellowstone park entrance.

Figure 13: How could you not follow these tracks?

We decided to go up Big Horn trail (starting at about 7500 feet), and then depending on conditions and daylight, head up over Fawn Pass and back down the Fawn Pass trail. Although there was little or no snow on the way there, we had gained just enough elevation to get a few feet of it on the ground at our target trailheads. We happily hopped out of the car and set off. We skied up along a river toward Fawn Pass.

Figure 14: Heading out and up

It was so hot due to the very intense sun and nearly 50 degree temperatures that Matthew threatened "to strip down to his underwear," and although that threat wasn't realized, he got pretty close. I was boiling, too, but was trying to leave on enough layers to hide my otherwise pasty winter self from the sun. I knew I would have gotten scorched.

Figure 15: It was so hot we were almost skiing in shorts

We made the joint decision to go up over Fawn Pass formally near the intersection. Secretly, I knew the moment we stepped out of the car that if we could do a loop instead of an out and back, we would. It's how we are wired whether we always admit it or not! Let's just say I had my light and down jacket with me and plenty of food, but we didn't end up needing them.

The way out and up was very open and next to a stream. Nearly every way we looked, we could see snow capped tree-less mountains, and just about all the vegetation we saw was burned trees. They looked so stark and lifeless against the white snow. In fact, it made the landscape look quite desolate. Reading later, I'm guessing much of the fire damage we saw was from the famous Yellowstone fires of 1988 when a huge portion of the park burned. You could see new trees coming up, and they were probably about the right age.

Figure 16: Matthew along the river on the way out. Note all the dead coniferous trees.

The climb up to Fawn Pass was steady but do-able on our scaled skis. From up top, we had a great view, and we could see what looked like an impending storm. We were hoping it meant more snow at Big Sky, but it turned out to be a lot of threat and no kick. Nonetheless, we didn't take any chances, and we headed back down along Fawn Creek about as fast as we could go. This route was wooded, and we kept a close eye out for bear and elk, but didn't see anything but some of their tracks. Rumor had it the bears were just starting to emerge from their dens, earlier than usual, confused by the consistently warm, spring-like weather of recent weeks.

Figure 17: Getting stormy and surrounded by more dead trees.

Figure 18: Even more dead trees. But you can see the news ones coming up.

We ended up making the loop, about 12 miles, in only four hours. We even had plenty of daylight to spare, but we sure were tired after what was a pretty vigorous ski. We headed back to the condo where we enjoyed making dinner at our usual late hour.

Figure 19: Yellowstone almost didn't seem real at times.

Figure 20: Sue at the end of a long day of skiing

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

After three days of skiing, late nights and early mornings at conference sessions, and no rest days (from exercise) in well over a week, I needed a break. This day, I had morning and late afternoon/early evening sessions, so I did a few hours of non-conference work during the afternoon break and then took a much needed nap. Feeling more energetic, Matthew headed off for an exploratory trip to Bozeman and hooked up with a local to do some ice climbing at the world famous destination, Hyalite canyon.

Probably the most entertaining bit of the day was the conference dinner during which I sat with a couple who'd moved from Williamsburg, VA to Knoxville, TN He was a retired NASA guy and now a professor in nuclear engineer at University of Tennessee. She was a Christian sex therapist. Not just a therapist, but a Christian sex therapist. Also an LPC, she was very interested in Matthew becoming a counselor. I also got not only the full scoop on why pre-marital sex is "bad" according to Christians, but also details on how infrequently most of her client couples have sex. It is a strange world out there!

I have an argumentative nature when it comes to topics like religion, so I was so tempted to offer the speculation that if religions like Christianity weren't so uptight about topics like sex, maybe some of their followers would have fewer issues, but let's just say I kept that thought to myself. After all, why spoil a very delicious dinner with a potentially controversial conversation about religion?

Anyway, apparently, the sex therapy business is good. The woman told me she has no shortage of clients at $95/hour. Hmmm, maybe we are on to a possible new and lucrative career direction for Matthew?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

In the morning, I gave my talk (for those of you techno geeks reading this, it was titled "Evaluation of a Vibration-Powered Wireless Temperature Sensor" and summarized work on a project I'd managed over the past 14 months to develop a sensor prototype per the title). The talk went really well. At least 50 people attended (a relatively large showing), and many of them came into the session just for my talk. I think I was helped by the fact that the work was unique among that presented. Being one of only two or three female presenters in my Track probably didn't hurt either. After the talk, one Joint Strike Fighter program manager guy even said he'd give us more funding, but it was hard to tell how serious he was—I'll have to follow up on that one.

With limited time again between conference sessions, we decided to downhill ski today. It was hard to pass on the convenience of walking from the conference to the condo to change and then walking a bit further to the rental shop and slopes. No time was lost in transportation. Plus after several consecutive days of 50 degree temps, there wasn't tons of snow left anywhere else in the woods nearby. We weren't sure there was a lot left on the slopes either, but what else was there to do? We'd come to Montana to ski and ski we would!

The kind folks of Track 11 (my session was Track 11 titled "Prognostics Health Monitoring") invited us to come ski with them, and we took them up on it. Track 11 is now a well-established track at the conference and seems to draw aerospace and non-aerospace folks (I am the latter) at a conference that is otherwise air and space oriented. I learned that Track 11 is very social and friendly—they not only attend sessions together, but also eat dinner together and ski together. Many of them know each other from years and years of attending the conference, but they are welcoming of newcomers. This year, Track 11 was the most popular, and they had more papers submitted than there were slots to present them.

Chris, a former Brit now living in Ohio, was our Track's guide for the day. We enjoyed talking to him and the others on the lifts on the way up and on breaks on the way skiing down. He was very kind about giving us newbies helpful tips (like "lean forward always—you will not fall, and you will turn easier"). It was our second day skiing, and we did our first blue runs (intermediate level runs). We felt even better about this after someone else told us "green runs here are like blue runs elsewhere." Let's see green runs on day 1, blue runs on day 2…would we have been doing black (most difficult) on day 3? Nah, it seems highly unlikely to me—some of that stuff was sick scary looking!

Figure 21: Track 11 being goofy!

Nevertheless, Chris did talk us into doing a small jump several times on this one run we all liked. It was pretty funny to watch us all get a few inches of air on this baby jump after watching people jump crazy heights while riding the lifts up.

Figure 22: Matthew catching air!

The skiing conditions were pretty grim. Large bare patches of ground had opened up since our outing earlier in the week. There were several times I was about to execute a turn when I realized I had to make an emergency re-route to avoid some rock jutting up through the snow. Some places the snow was so slushy you could barely maneuver, but I still think that was better than ice, and it hurt less than ice when you fell on it. The more experienced skiers called this "sugar." I guess I now know what is meant by the term "spring skiing," but this year, spring came early to Montana.

Figure 23: Bare patches at Big Sky. Those are not shadows. Watch out for rocks, too!

This day I had boots that fit me much better. It was amazing the difference that made. My quads and ankles weren't screaming by the end of our half-day on the slopes. Unfortunately, Matthew had the opposite experience with worse boots on Day 2 than Day 1, so he skipped the last two runs of the day to enjoy a beer instead. Given the well-known tenet that you are more likely to get hurt on the last run of the day, it was probably a smart decision.

Friday, March 11, 2005

We had a big block of time off this day so decided to take a road trip into Yellowstone proper. We couldn't do this at the closer West Yellowstone entrance because it had just closed completely. They'd closed it the day before for spring plowing—it was that "useless" time of year between when they allow oversnow vehicles (like snowmobiles and snow coaches) and cars to drive into the park.

With this limited access, the only open road was a 50 mile paved stretch between the North and Northeast entrances. Getting the closer of the two entrances, the North entrance, required us to drive a long way, first going North, then East, and then back South down Paradise Valley to get around some big mountains that stood between us and the North entrance. Think of driving three sides of a giant square.

I can't tell you how many times during our visit to Yellowstone that the words "that is so weird" came out of our mouths. North Yellowstone was absolutely nothing like what I had expected. After visiting Glacier and Banff National Parks, I was imaging lush, green, coniferous slopes and snow covered peaks. Maybe a few meadows interspersed here and there.

Figure 24: Less than ideal hiking trail conditions in Yellowstone

What we got instead was high desert, completely barren, brown steep hills and some snow covered peaks. Oh yeah, and lots of burned dead trees on previously forested slopes. There were a few sections of forested (with living trees) terrain, but surprisingly little. We wondered at times if we had just stepped onto another plant—it was so different.

Figure 25: Barren Yellowstone. View overlooking a spring in the Mammoth Hot Spring area.

There were plenty of bison roaming and some elk. We didn't see any bears or other animals, but we sure did see lots of elk turds.

Figure 26: Where are all the trees? Note bison in background.

The scenery was indeed dramatic, but I wouldn't say it was all that beautiful (the burnt forests didn't help any!). It was stark enough for Matthew to say, "With all due respect, this is the least attractive National Park I've ever visited." Whether it is better looking at other times of the year we can only wonder for now. People have told us the central and south sections are much prettier, but we will have to wait for another trip to see them.

The North entrance visitor center was about 5 miles into the park in an area called Mammoth. As we drove up to it, I remarked that it looked a lot like older buildings on some of the old military bases I've visited. Sure enough, we soon found out that the buildings once housed the Army soon after the National Park was established in the 1800's. Yellowstone was the first US National Park and is 2.2 million acres in size.

Figure 27: Visitor Center and old Army building at Mammoth

Figure 28: Further into the park and still no trees...

We consulted with the rangers to find out what activities were do-able and learned that we didn’t have a whole lot of options. We were visiting Yellowstone at the worst possible time. The roads weren't open yet to give us access deeper in the park, but there wasn't enough snow on any of the designated ski trails which were now accessible. Hiking trails were hit or miss—some were bone dry while others were deep in mud or soft snow or some combination. We couldn't get to any of the other parts of the park if we wanted.

Figure 29: A view on the way to Lost Lake

While at the visitor center, I got into a conversation with the NPS ranger, who was nice, but missing the big picture. She started telling me how sad it was that most people never or barely get out of their cars. While I agreed, I couldn't help but think of how difficult the NPS makes it for people to do more than drive through at many parks. In Yellowstone's case, the roads to get us to trails we could use were all closed for "spring plowing," but not open to skiing or other travel methods. At our "own" Shenandoah NP, I can't tell you how many times we haven't been able to get to certain parts of the park because they arbitrarily close roads in the winter (even after they open them by plowing them!). I realize some of these "closures" are due to budget cuts, but I can't help but wonder what comes first—people not wanting to access or people not being allowed to access?

Figure 30: Yellowstone looking scrubby

So what we did was go for a short (3 mile) hike up to Lost Lake from the Roosevelt camp near the turn-off for Towers. From the lake, we then headed up a bushwack (well, there weren't really any bushes to whack—only sagebrush) to the top of a big knoll for a good view. It was odd—you could look in any direction and see something different: burnt-out dead forest with snow one way; burnt-out dead forest without snow another; green (live) forest another; sagebrush on open hills another; and plain, seemingly lifeless soil with steep cliffs above the Yellowstone river. And a random collection of snow covered mountains in assorted directions.

Figure 31: "Yellowstone is weird!" We found this apparent Ford graveyard on the way to Lost Lake

Figure 32: Lost lake (sans water)

On our drive back to the entrance from the Lost Lake hike, I noticed steam rising off in the distance. Somehow on the way in we'd missed the thermals located near the visitor center. We stopped and walked all the boardwalks that took us through the thermal areas (at least the ones that weren't closed due to ice). I got the impression that the area is packed with tourists, cars, and buses in the summer based on the size of the parking lots, but we didn't see a soul and had the entire place to ourselves. Since it was after closing time, there weren't even any park people around. It was a deserted Yellowstone, and the thermals only added to our feeling like we were on a totally different planet.

Figure 33: Okay, as you can see in the mid-ground of this photo, there are a few living trees left.

Figure 34: A thermal from up top. Note the steam rising.

The thermals were really interesting. Hot water seeped from the ground and created shelf-like formations, some with pools of heated water, some dry for hundreds of years. The colors of the minerals that formed the pools ranged from white to rust to blue. Steam poured off the pools into the cold air. In some places there was snow, and in some places the thermals had melted it. As we looked off to the distance, we could see steam rising from various places—suggesting other thermals nearby in this area known as Mammoth Hot Springs. It was neat to see some of the thermal/volcanic activity that is so characteristic of Yellowstone. We never did see any geysers, but the ways to access them were closed for the time being.

Figure 35: The thermals – one looking head-on.

Figure 36: More Thermals

Figure 37: Up close and personal with a thermal

As we descended the boardwalks back to the car, the sky turned pink and purple with the sunset. We couldn't see the actual sunset, but saw the reflection of it on the east and north skis. We left the park as the sunset and headed back to Big Sky.

Figure 38: Mountain backdrop for some white thermals, with some snow cover.

Figure 39: Sunset leaving Yellowstone.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The night before we had debated about what we would do with this final day. All conference activities ended last night, so we had the entire day to do as we pleased. Skiing didn't seem like a great option since it was 57 degrees in Bozeman when we'd driven through the previous night, and neither was hiking without going somewhere first to rent snowshoes to deal with the slushy snow in the places it would still be piled up. Downhill skiing was not only too expensive, but we thought the conditions would be appalling given the two additional days of warmth and sun since our last outing.

Figure 40: Matthew on the way to Beehive Basin

The decision made itself when we woke to falling snow. It was dumping snow! We both really wanted to go back-country ski again and this was just the push we needed to try to do it. The fresh snow would be make what otherwise would have been crusty conditions much better. So we figured out the highest place we could go nearby and headed off.

We drove further on the road past Big Sky, passed the final ski area (Moonlight Basin) and continued to the trail head to Beehive Basin. This is a popular local destination for hiking, skiing, and climbing (and unfortunately for really rich people to build million dollar houses that will get toasted in the next local forest fire). We were among the first to arrive at the trailhead and enjoyed fresh snow.

It kept snowing and snowing as we skied higher up the box canyon which ends in giant glacial rock walls. It was snowing so heavily up top, you could only see a light gray of the rock walls along the side. We couldn't see the rock wall along the back of the basin.

We leapfrogged a group of four snowshoers on the way up. They didn't go up as far as we did, but we got back to the car at the same time because we were faster going down on our skis. The group was really nice—giving us local knowledge on the upcoming trail and basin, which was useful considering the crazy, snowy conditions.

Figure 41: Sue and others in the blinding snow

At places up in the basin, the snow must have been at least 4 feet deep. In places where it was still powdery, my pole would sometimes sink in all the way. At others, where it was crusty, it wouldn't go in deeper than the new snow. There was probably 8-12" of new snow up high—it was great fun to ski in it, and it beautifully blanketing everything. I wonder how deep it really was beneath the powder.

Figure 42: Note the depth of the snow up here

The wide canyon let us stay far from the steep walls where any avalanches might occur with the new snow. However, the entire time we were in Gallatin County, the avalanche danger was very low due to the lack of snow and the fact that all the existing snow had frozen up or already avalanched. But we knew that any significant new snow on top of the crust could create some new danger.

Figure 43: Self Portrait at Beehive Basin

Conditions at the basin itself, our highest point, were not far from blizzard, so we didn't stick around for long. The wind was howling and we were careful to keep close sight of each other since with the sheer volume of dumping snow, we didn't have to get separated by much distance to not know where we were relative to each other.

We probably skied in about 3-4 miles. It was all uphill going in and all downhill going out. I think it took us 2 or 3 hours to go in and maybe an hour to come down and out.

We made it back to the car well before dark and headed back to Bozeman. The snow stopped well before we got down as low as Bozeman (where there was no snow at all). Even Big Sky only got 4-5" of new snow. We had definitely gone to the right place to enjoy the last minute present from the weather gods. And it was nice to get at least one day with plenty of fresh snow. We knew that even if we'd gone to the Basin earlier in the week, we wouldn't have had as good of a time—the snow below the latest snow was rather crusty and hard, and skiing on hard crusty snow is no fun at all!

Figure 44: Sure was pretty out there.

In Bozeman, we ate dinner at McKenzie Pizza Company. This is a Montana-based chain, and the pizza we had was delicious. It was super tasty, but not greasy. Bozeman is a one street town, so we walked up and down it a bit, but winter temperatures had clearly returned and we eventually headed back to the hotel to call it a night.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

This morning brought the chance to repack all of our stuff for the flight home. It took some effort to get it all back in the bags with which we traveled out, but eventually we succeeded. The planes all the way home were crowded due to it being the end of spring break, and we realized flying back so late (after midnight arrival in C'ville) was for once a stroke of good fortune. The flight before us heading from Cincinnati to C'ville had gotten cancelled. Due to the end of spring break crowding, none of those poor folks would get to return home until late Monday night.


All in all, the trip was fun. It was exhausting for me to simultaneously attend the conference and also try to play hard, but it was nice that the conference schedule was deliberately set up to accommodate this to some extent.

We met lots of friendly people and enjoyed the chance to return to Montana and see more parts of the country we'd never visited. Both of us thought that if we were ever to move out west Bozeman could be a candidate. Of course, before we do anything like that, we'll have to go back in the summer and try out the local road riding and mountain biking.

Stay tuned for our next trip…tentatively a 2005 summer vacation to somewhere in Central America.

Thanks for reading!

Figure 45: Sunset at Yellowstone