The sun is setting as my friend Matt and I cross-country ski through thin-shouldered lodgepole pines. Not knowing where we’re headed, I’m surprised when we emerge in a clearing overlooking Yellowstone National Park, with the frigid Madison River rushing below us.
As we stride along the river, Matt quickly outdistances me, going deeper into the park. Unable to keep pace, I finally just stop to wait for his return. Standing there in the stillness under the darkening sky, I watch the stars brighten above the pine forest that grew out of the great fire of 1988. My unanswered calls to him are the only sounds. In the incredible silence, I think about the wild animals that aren’t hibernating for the winter — the elk, bison, moose, wolves.
I start to worry about being in the park at night, about what would happen if we were in trouble, about getting back to town in the dark. With the Gallatin Range fading in the light, the unbroken snow around me, and the fleeting realization I’m standing on the volcano beneath Yellowstone, I wait, aware of the tension between beauty and fear.
Finally, to my great relief, Matt reappears. We race the darkness back to town, agreeing that it was one of our best skis ever.
We’re at the Yellowstone Ski Festival, a cross-country ski event in the Big Sky Country of Montana, where more than 3,000 Nordic skiers start their seasons during Thanksgiving week each year.
Our evening ski into Yellowstone Park traversed the ungroomed Riverside Trails. The majority of the skiing at the festival, however, occurs on its signature Rendezvous Ski Trails — 35 manicured kilometers on the other side of the town of West Yellowstone. Skiers from around the world spend the week here with their families and friends, or with their ski club or team, getting in as much early-season skiing as they can handle.
For years, friends had encouraged me to come to “West” (as it’s fondly referred to), describing how much fun they had skiing while Midwesterners like me were home finishing our fall lawn cleanup. This year (happily) I gave in.
I’m an avid skier and an occasional racer who trains year-round. My previous season had been cut short by a medical crisis that landed me in the hospital for several weeks. I missed skiing my 15th “Birkie” (the American Birkebeiner 50k race) and spent most of the following year rebuilding strength through roller skiing, cycling, running, and weightlifting. As the new season approached, I realized there was no better time to finally make the trip.
The festival’s coinciding with the Thanksgiving holiday seemed to seal its significance; I was so grateful to be strong and skiing again.
Then and Now
The Yellowstone Ski Festival (originally called The Fall Camps) was started more than 30 years ago by Neal Swanson and his sons, Kent and Carl. A competitive skier, Carl won the U.S. Junior Nationals in 1978. That year, the family groomed 35 kilometers of trails on logging roads south of West Yellowstone, then invited the U.S. Ski Team to train there in November. Over time, more skiers started to join them, and every Thanksgiving week since, they’ve come from across North America for the first snow of the season.
Because, let’s face it, whether you’re a beginner enrolled in one of the many clinics or an expert getting in as many hours of training and racing as possible, being on the trails is what you’ve come to do.
Serving as the park’s western entrance, the town of West Yellowstone focuses on tourism. In summer, it’s busy with thousands of visitors who’ve come to witness Old Faithful and the other geysers that dot the park, as well as the wildlife they’ll see from their cars.
In winter, it becomes a quiet haven — until skiers arrive for the festival and fill up the plentiful accommodations. Still, since skiing is a silent sport, the large number of skiers doesn’t upset this peaceful refuge on the edge of the wilderness.
When I first arrive, I move into the condo Matt and I are sharing, which looks south over the Yellowstone plateau and foothills. I buy my $50 annual ski pass for trail access, and head to the Rendezvous trailhead. (There’s no cost to attend the festival except the ski pass.) I’m glad I made my reservation a couple of months ahead because the town’s hotels and condos fill up fast.
Now, hundreds of skiers are already on the trails — kids, high school and college teams, Olympic hopefuls, masters, and regular folks on vacation. Everyone’s thrilled to be skiing in the sunshine and pristine mountain air.
The trails vary from gently rolling terrain to longer, steeper climbs that wind up the mountainside. Venturing out, there’s a feeling of exuberance as we greet each other, acknowledging that we’re all sharing something grand on the tree-lined trails.
On my first foray, I see some friends from home who impart what turns out to be an important lesson: “Keep your heart rate down,” they say, “especially on the hills.”
That tip helps me get through a week of skiing without becoming exhausted, something that can easily happen when you’re testing yourself in the thin mountain air.
“People just go too hard,” says veteran Yellowstone Ski Camp Director Drew Barney. “In a day and a half, they’re cooked.”
Barney knows what he’s talking about. He’s led the festival’s ski clinics for 30 years. His 18 expert instructors provide lessons in classic (or traditional) and skate-skiing techniques to hundreds of skiers, easing students into skiing comfortably at nearly 7,000 feet.
An Average Perfect Day
Heeding my friends’ go-easy advice, I classic ski in the morning, break for lunch, and then skate-ski in the afternoon, taking care not to overtax my still-recovering body.
This is the most skiing I’ve ever done in a week and I feel my fitness improving each day. My routine of skiing twice daily, taking in breathtaking mountain views and sunsets, feels like a dream come true.
My morning ski, winding through the pines in the crisp air, makes for a transcendent start to each day. One morning, for two hours, I stride over 20 kilometers of pristine trails, warming up in the sunshine, feeling fortunate to be alone with the sound of my breathing and my skis on the snow.
After a long climb, I reach a break in the trees and stop to gaze at the vistas of Yellowstone. Though I’m in the dark forest, the mountain peaks in the distance catch the sunlight. I breathe in the serenity before striding on.
After skiing that afternoon, I ask Thor Godar, who has been working the festival for 20 years, how it’s going this week. “One of the best ever,” he says. “The grumpy rate is below 5 percent. Everyone is stunningly happy.”
Barney agrees. With skiing conditions that include a recent foot of snow, bluebird-colored skies, and temperatures hovering around freezing each day, “It’s some of the best conditions I’ve seen in my 30 years here,” he says.
Other skiers, many with children, are also taking advantage of this educational resource, which provides a separate large area for seven wolves from Yellowstone and is home to raptors that include a pair of bald eagles.
The wolves I hear howling at night may have been the ones I see here at the center — or not.
As Thanksgiving Day approaches, I wonder how others will celebrate the holiday far from home. Between having condos with kitchens and the Holiday Inn’s Thanksgiving buffet, everyone seems to have a meal to appreciate.
Another acquaintance from home, Tom Camp, thinks the ski festival is especially great for families with kids, holiday and all. What better way to build an appetite for turkey?
“There were 45 Juniors (ages 13 to 18) and 25 Fast Kids (7 to 12) from the Loppet program in Minneapolis,” says Camp. “Our kids do the Fast Kids ski group with their friends, and my wife and I get to ski with all our adult friends. It works out perfectly. The whole scene kind of feels like ‘it takes a village to raise a kid.’”
At the end of my final day, warming up by the fire pit with other skiers, I notice that I’m feeling especially blessed this Thanksgiving. I have my health, my early-season fitness, and these exceptional conditions under the Big Sky.
As I consider making the festival a new tradition, I think about my twilight ski into the park, and about a group of skiers who annually make the 60-mile round trip from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful and back. Maybe I’ll join them next time — so long as we’re back before dark.