DRIGGS, Idaho — The moment Katie crested the hill she stopped.
“Those can’t be dogs,’’ she said.
We caught up just in time to see four animals dashing across a bench on the other side of the small valley. Too large to be coyotes, too small and high in the mountains to be elk, they were wolves. Four of them.
Our group of eight friends was less than 7 miles, as the crow flies, from the town of Driggs and just a half-hour ski tour from the comfort of our backcountry yurt. Still we had managed to enter the wolves’ domain. We stood silent, watching spellbound as they proceeded right up the center of Beard Mountain’s steep north face — a route we would consider skiing only in the most stable of avalanche conditions. The wolves chugged up the slope in tight formation, the largest and darkest of them breaking trail. Within minutes they had crested the ridge top and disappeared over the horizon into the adjoining valley.
Using strips of synthetic fur-like material attached to the bottom of our skis (climbing skins) we ascended the hill after the wolves. It took us longer but soon we were skiing down a slope of knee-deep power, paralleling the animals’ tracks — the only lines marking the otherwise clean slate of snow.
Two days earlier our crew had traveled 4 miles from Teton Valley’s floor to the Commissary Yurt, one of four backcountry yurts owned and operated by Idaho’s Rendezvous Backcountry Tours. Just as the sun began sinking in the sky, we found the yurt nestled in a grove of Douglas fir. We started the fire and heated water on the propane stove, preparing to welcome the rest of our crew with hot drinks and dinner.
The beauty of a yurt-based backcountry skiing trip is that it maximizes the pleasures of winter travel while minimizing the inevitable ills. Because the yurts are equipped with sleeping bags, mattresses, cooking supplies, cords of wood for the stove, and even games for long winter nights, our backpacks were weighted with just layers of clothing and food. (If we had wanted to go deluxe, we could have even hired porters to carry our gear and guides to cook gourmet meals.)
Best of all, instead of spending the night in a frosty, frigid tent, we would be snug inside the yurt and wake up to fresh cups of coffee instead of nylon walls plastered with frosty condensation.
The first morning, after a hearty breakfast of egg, cheese, and bacon burritos, we loaded up our daypacks with snacks and thermoses of tea and headed out to explore the terrain. Over the years I have visited all four of the yurts tucked into the Teton’s folds and part of the appeal is that each is easy to access and offers a variety of terrain. Experts can get their kicks hucking cliffs off steep north faces but there are plenty of low-angle glades for those newer to powder skiing or for times when the visibility is low or avalanche conditions are high. (Guides are available for hire.)
With sunshine and low avalanche conditions, we started up the long, broad ridgeline curving east toward Beard’s summit. Excited to explore terrain that bad weather or unstable snowpack had kept us from skiing in the past, we quickly got distracted from the summit by couloirs unfurling through the ridgeline’s rockband in steep, white ribbons. After digging pits in the snow and performing the requisite tests for gaining a better understanding of the likelihood of avalanche, we put away our shovels, ripped off our climbing skins, pulled down our goggles, and lined up for the descent.
Living in the Tetons, I ski powder a lot, but that never diminishes the feeling of pure joy that powder skiing elicits, and that particular run was no exception. Each turn was cushioned by a downy sea of snow that tingled on my face. Runs like that can never be long enough. Our euphoric crew reunited at the bottom. It wasn’t long before we had broken a zig-zag track back up the slope. We repeated the routine over and over and over again.
Eventually we made our way back to the yurt, trading our boots for slippers and hanging our gear by the roaring fire. Trevor and Andy stacked poker chips on the table, while Mark and Kristi readied strips of elk and fresh vegetables for dinner. Katy distributed hot toddies to the most recent arrivals. For our group, yurt trips are all about good friends, ample hang time, delicious food, and copious amounts of snow — all in a spartan setting without distractions.
It didn’t take long to lose my pile of poker chips. I crawled into my bunk and closed my eyes. I listened to the laughter around me and smiled at the thought of the next three days and the welcomed monotony of these simple joys playing out over and over again.