20 Below // Yellowstone
Life is all about adaptation. If you can’t stay flexible, especially when on the road, you’ll end up frustrated and angry. Plans are going to change. Your best efforts will be thwarted frequently. I promise.
This year’s winter Wyoming road trip wasn’t my first rodeo… But perhaps my first trying to camp in the beautiful, frozen hell that is the Yellowstone Caldera. It is common to reach dangerous temps of -60F here. Maybe we got lucky, it only reached -20 for us.
Most people think I’m crazy… some of the things I do, get myself into. No, I’m actually relatively sane. I see a great human potential to do things that seem impossible or “nuts” to many, and I want to prove that they are quite normal. And maybe even fun.
Yellowstone is one of those places that immediately captured my heart. Love at first sight… smell, touch, feel. It is magical. But of all the seasons I have experienced in this place, winter was the untouchable. Most of the park is only accessible by snow mobile, snow coach, or cross country skis. It requires a lot of preparation and investment to make an overnight camping excursion into Yellowstone in the dead of winter. It demands to be taken seriously. Especially in winter.
I was looking for an opportunity to test myself in a new way.
Sounds dumb, I know. But I’ve always been this way.
When I was little, I wanted to be a stunt man. Often, I would jump off the roof of our house to practice my falls, or bungee a bunch of pillows around my body and throw myself down the stairs. I’ve always enjoyed catching snakes with my bare hands, only to identify them as poisonous or non, afterward.
It’s not that I don’t feel fear. Trust me, I do. Every time I sleep out in grizzly country, I lay awake most of the first night seeing terrible visions of ferocious bear(s) attacking me ruthlessly. Every snap of a twig makes my heart race. But all I have to do to finally get some shut eye is remind myself of the many hundreds of nights I’ve spent under the stars, and how I’ve never had a terrifying experience… with bears, at least. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, that’s just to point to the reality that it’s more likely that I get struck by lightning. An event about which I literally never worry.
The fact remains, my life is not my own. It is controlled and ordained by a much higher reality than my fears or eccentricities.
It’s really about testing my limits. It’s less about man vs. nature, and more man vs. himself. Testing one’s mental and physical resolve.
So back to the point: I can scheme for months, but I’d better be ready to surrender each and every meticulous plan.
This whole trip was brought on by my random stumbling on a new program offered by Yellowstone. A few months earlier, while surfing recreation.gov I came across the brand new self-guided snow machine permit. I’d always wanted to see Yellowstone in the winter, but it never appealed to me to go on a guided tour. So this sounded perfect.
I lucked out and got a permit for the timing and area I wanted. Not easy to do since almost every permit was already taken. And it started a whole chain of events that led us to this point. I began planning everything; the road trip, the activities, shot lists, I started lining up sponsors, gear, etc. It was on. We were going no matter what, in my mind. It seemed to be providence.
When we arrived in Wyoming, after a night at Devils Tower, the plan was to head all the way up and over to Cooke City, Montana. Cooke City lies just across the Montana/ Wyoming state line along the Beartooth Highway, just a few miles from the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone. It was going to be a long drive, but for me the payoff was well worth it. It was still a week until our scheduled permit date to enter the park from the South on snow machine. This would serve as our introduction to winter camping Yellowstone.
I know that the road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City is open all year. It’s the only road they plow in the park. However, for some reason, the short drive from Sunlight Basin to Cooke City via the Beartooth Highway is not plowed. I had to learn that the hard way. We ended up adding 4 hours to our drive for that mistake. And it was already getting dark.
After a long detour up to I-90 through Montana, and an overnighter at a cheap motel, we finally arrived at the North entrance to Yellowstone at Gardiner, MT.
Entering Yellowstone is like being dropped on to another planet. At first, it seems familiar; rocks, trees, mountains, rivers. But then you start to see colors and formations rarely seen anywhere else on earth. Steam rising from mountain streams. The smell of sulphur. Vast herds of bison, elk, pronghorn. It’s so unique. And in the winter, when the snow blankets everything and people are harder to spot than the wildlife, Yellowstone possesses even a more haunting spirit.
So there we were, on the doorstep of testing a new resolve in ourselves, a new level of resiliency. Could we take it? Would a wintry Yellowstone break us?
We spent the night near Mammoth Hot Springs on top of several feet of snow. It was too cold to hang out long enough to make a fire that night, and we were tired from the days of driving, so we opted to burrow into the cozy tent and our sleeping bags early.
The wind, coyotes, and wolves howled through the night.
The temp when we woke was a solid -20 with the wind, so even the most enjoyable of morning tasks like making coffee became painful. We weren’t deep in the backcountry. In fact, we knew that there might even be fresh coffee to be bought nearby at Mammoth. At the very least, we thought, getting out of the wind and into a quickly warming car would be worth it. I would later come to realize that this moment would serve as the beginning of the end of the test of our resiliency. At least in the way I had imagined.
Our time in North Yellowstone was short. We had friends to meet up with and clients to shoot for down in Jackson and Pinedale, so we left the park, expecting to return from the South in a week.
Over the next week, we spent a few more nights outdoors, but the cold and the snow was wearing us thin. It became harder and harder to sleep at night and warm up in the morning. On top of this erosion of the physical, several friends we had lined up to go with us on the Yellowstone excursion had to cancel.
The epic adventure was in danger of not happening at all. I was undeterred.
Something that once seemed so providential, so “meant to be,”started to feel cursed. Then I received an email from the snow mobile rental company that I was angling to trade marketing photos for free machines, stating that they would not be able to do the deal any more.
We’d been on the road for two weeks already and were out of money. It was the last straw. The Yellowstone dream would have to wait. This fact, regardless of how obvious, would take a long time for me to accept.
How do we deal with our disappointments and failed plans? What I wasn’t realizing was that my test of resolve on this trip had now taken a new form. It was no longer the sexy physical test of manhood I wanted. It had become all of our worst nightmares… not getting what we want.
For someone who plans as much as I do, I can become fixated, even obsessed, with objective. The trip was such a beautiful success in so many ways, but from my myopic attitude, it looked like a failure because of the one unrealized objective.
I learned from this trip that man vs. himself is more than just climbing mountains or wrestling alligators. Man’s true resiliency is shown clearly in his/ her ability to roll with the punches. To watch their carefully made plans go down in flames and still make something of it.
It remains one of the hardest things that I (and all of us will) consistently face in life.
In honor of the NPS Centennial this year, I have put together a special collection of (some never before seen) my favorite National Park prints. Please check it out and know that 5% of all the profits from the sale of this artwork will be donated to a wonderful organization that works hard to help preserve our Nation’s most magical places, The National Park Foundation.. We will be visiting almost all of the 59 National Parks this year, so check back often as we will be updating the page regularly. Thank you so much for your support!
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