Montana Trip Report - March 2005
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
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
As if to prove the small world theory, the very first person we met in
The shuttle driver gave us some background on
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
Our shuttle driver back to the rental car pick-up also talked about the growth problem.
The entire morning was devoted to logistics. We ran errands all over
Big Sky is about 45 miles south of
The dry, dusty dirt road into
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
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
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
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
Figure 1: A groomed trail at
We did appreciate the kindness and general friendliness of the
Figure 2: Matthew enjoying his "warm-up" ski
We stayed at the
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
Figure 4: Going singletrack up along the
Figure 5: A view of a distant peak from a meadow along the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Figure 16: Matthew along the river on the way out. Note all the dead coniferous trees.
The climb up to
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 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
Probably the most entertaining bit of the day was the conference dinner during which I sat with a couple who'd moved from
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
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
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
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
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
I can't tell you how many times during our visit to
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
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.
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
Figure 29: A view on the way to
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?
So what we did was go for a short (3 mile) hike up to
Figure 31: "
Figure 32: Lost lake (sans water)
On our drive back to the entrance from the
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
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
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
Figure 40: Matthew on the way to
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 (
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
Figure 43: Self Portrait at
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
Figure 44: Sure was pretty out there.
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
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
Stay tuned for our next trip…tentatively a 2005 summer vacation to somewhere in
Thanks for reading!
Figure 45: Sunset at