When Gabe reached out about a yurt trip to the Swan Mountains in northern Montana around the holidays I was dubious. Scary weak layers and frostbite, or powder skiing in the Wasatch? Tough trade-off. Luckily, the appeal of spending 5 days in a cozy yurt with amazing friends was too good to pass up and I told Gabe was in. As Christmas grew closer, snow continued to pile up in the Swan Mountains while the snowpack in the Wasatch remained grim. How the turntables! Unfortunately, Gabe must have made the naughty list this year because Santa brought him a badly shattered clavicle on a Christmas Eve bike ride, two days before he was supposed to drive to Montana. Liza decided to remain behind to help Gabe recover, leaving six of us on the trip: Taryn, Morgan, Jesse, Jonah, Kevin and me. We rendezvoused in Missoula on the 26th and then headed to the trailhead on the morning of the 27th to start the trip.
We had debated whether or not to pay for the optional tow/gear-haul to the yurt, but being old and washed up we ended up deciding to avoid the ~9 miles and 2,000 ft skin in and pay to be brought up. This was definitely the right call. The days are short (8.5 hours), the nights are long, and being able to bring in plenty of food and alcohol definitely made the evenings more enjoyable. It was also just a blast to get whisked up the fire road while being able to lean back and soak up the views.
The yurt sits right at a bend of the fire road that takes you to the Morrell Lookout, offering amazing views down the valley to the south. The entire east flank of Morrell Mountain is a recent burn zone, creating some amazing landscapes and even better tree skiing! The yurt itself sleeps 10 and is an unbelievably cozy space, with plenty of space to cook, hangout, and sleep, all tied together by a large wood stove in the center. The previous group had left a fire burning before leaving so we were welcomed by an already warm yurt. With plenty of daylight left in the day (another advantage of the tow in) we dropped our stuff and got ready to go for a tour.
For the first tour we decided to head up to Morrell Lookout and ski Lookout Trees. This was my first time really touring in avy terrain outside of the Wasatch and it was definitely an interesting contrast. Wasangeles, as it is semi-affectionately called, gets absolutely hammered. No matter how early you get up on a powder day, there will always be a skin track already put in and tracks down a bunch of the faces. The avy site is full of observations for every conceivable aspect and elevation. The net effect of all of this is its rare to start a tour without already having a very good sense of the day’s avy danger. Our experience in the Swan Mountains was very different; it was new terrain for all members of the group, the local snowpack structure was relatively unknown, and the most recent storm had covered the vast majority of tracks. All of these factors lead us to be conservative and choose some low angle trees to begin with.
The skin up was uneventful and we soon crested the ridge and got our first good look at the terrain around the yurt. Visualizing terrain from topo maps is a difficult task, and I was pleasantly surprised and just how big all of the mountains felt. There were seemingly endless spaced glades to explore, but also larger features with cliffs and chutes. Unlike the Wasatch, most of it was free of tracks. A large group popped out onto a nearby summit and then dropped into the bowl to the north of the trees we planned to ski. We debated skiing the bowl as well, but we decided to play it safe and stick to our initial plan until we had a better sense of the snowpack.
Our conservative decision making was rewarded, and we found absolutely amazing snow in the trees. Surfy, supportive powder made for the perfect combination of powerful-yet-playful skiing, and we were left looking forward to three more full days of it. We skinned back to the yurt under a beautiful sunset and near-full moon. A perfect end to the first day.
Evenings in the yurt were far more comfortable than I expected. I had interpreted the zero degree sleeping bag mentioned on the packing list to mean it would be cold in the yurt. It was not. The yurt comes stocked with firewood and we kept the fire burning hot all night long. We were able to hang out in sweatpants and t-shirts, comfortably listening to music, cooking and drinking.
We woke up the next morning to another bluebird day. We decided to start the day out by heading up to another zone of tress called OG Burnt Trees. The snow in this zone was flawless as well, and with perfectly spaced trees and no other parties to track it out, we set up camp for the day and skied lap after lap. Not much else to report on the day. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
We returned to the yurt, all smiles from the amazing day of powder skiing. After a huge pasta dinner and some whiskey we decided to head out for a night ski. The moon was full, the sky was clear, and the clean snow reflected enough light that a headlamp was hardly necessary. We decided to ski part of Chad’s Shoulder, the ridge directly above the yurt. We started with headlamps on, but quickly switched them off so we could enjoy the peaceful night. We found a good place to transition and, one by one, dropped down into the trees. Skiing powder already feels like it is bordering on a meditative activity. Powder skiing by moonlight on a windless night is downright Nirvana. The shadows of trees speed by silently, and the weightless feeling of powder is interrupted only by the occasional trickle of loose snow set free with each turn.
It was lucky we took advantage of the clear night to get some night skiing in, because we awoke the next morning to socked in mountains and windy conditions. In order to maximize adventure while minimizing avy danger we decided to head back up Chad’s Shoulder to the top. The upper part of the ridge ended up being narrower than I expected and we found ourselves switching to bootpacking and clambering up and around interesting rock features. We crested the ridge to strong winds and heavy cloud cover and were about to continue on the ridge to drop into Supernatural, the bowl we had seen people ski the first day, when we saw what looked like a bird feeder. Opening it we were thrilled to see a bottle of whiskey and four shot glasses. With some whiskey to keep us warm, we enjoyed several laps of Supernatural before heading back to the yurt for the evening.
Our final full day was also a stormy one with the heavy fog giving the burned trees an otherworldly feel. We decided to head back towards OG Burnt Trees to a test slope Jonah had pointed out earlier in the trip so we could dig a pit and see if the overnight snowfall had caused any instability. We got no results, although we managed to pry over the column at the ground with a shovel shear while filling in the pit, useful confirmation that our decision to ski low consequence terrain was at least grounded in reality.
The snow started really coming down as we wrapped up our first lap, and by the time we transitioned at the top of our second lap it was nuking. I learned my camera has trouble focusing when it is snowing that hard, and we savored some storm skiing without the normal pressure that comes from competing crowds. We ended the day by building a booter and I managed to stick my first couple of 360s on skis. A perfect day to end the trip on!
The snow continued to fall throughout the night so we woke up early and packed up all of our stuff. Since we had opted to ski out, we had the day to ski as long as we were out of the yurt by noon. Fearing potential loading, we headed up the Lookout Trees, the same zone we had started our trip in. We saw no obvious signs of instability, but when we got service on the ridge we saw an avalanche forecast of High. With denser than expected snow, a healthy fear of higher angle terrain, and a long, slow ski out ahead, we did a final goodbye lap through the trees back down to the yurt and donned our heavy packs to make the trek out. The ski out took about three hours, and while it wasn’t terrible, certainly made me glad that we had gotten the tow in.
Despite the amazing skiing, I think the real highlight of the trip was getting five days of hanging out with some of my best friends. Covid has made every interaction a transactional balance of risk versus reward, and it was so liberating to make a decision about risk tolerance up-front and then get to really enjoy, without guilt or caution, some quality time with friends. Sharing drinks, cuddling on the couch, dancing to music. Everything I want more of in 2021. And I guess I’ll take a couple more powder days as well.