TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Archive for backcountry skiing

The Best-Laid Plans: A Weeklong Ski Traverse in Yellowstone

The bison swings his massive, battering-ram head in our direction. Steam issues from his nostrils in short bursts. I’m not sure whether bison actually glare, but this 2,000-pound beef bulldozer with horns distinctly appears to be glaring at us. He looks perturbed.

Right behind me, my friends Jerry Hapgood and David Ports peer around me and try to take a measure of the first traffic of any kind, wild or human, that we’ve encountered so far, on the second morning of a seven-day, early March ski traverse in Yellowstone National Park. We are crossing an unnamed geyser basin several miles southwest of Old Faithful. The bison is grazing in grassy patches where the heat from thermal activity has melted away the snow. Then we notice two more bison lurking in the tightly spaced lodgepole pine trees to either side of the narrow trail.

So he’s brought friends. It’s three on three, but they collectively have a good 5,000 pounds on us—not a very fair fight. I silently curse the fact that I randomly happened to be the one skiing out front breaking trail through the snow at this moment.

David, Jerry, and I are each carrying a backpack and towing a sled loaded with winter camping gear, food, and—full disclosure—a survival ration of beer. (Hey, sleds have plenty of space, so why not?) We are not exactly light and nimble. Weaving through the close trees to get around the bison seems as likely as one of these beasts executing a backflip.

Fifteen minutes or more crawl past. The bison don’t move. I don’t feel like challenging them on that. From the back of the line, David suggests, “Mike, why don’t you just ski past him?”

As I’m thinking about how to suggest to David that perhaps he could come show me how to do that, the bison in front of me abruptly turns and ambles toward us.

Stumbling and tripping, struggling to backpedal with our sled cabooses, the three of us look like Moe, Larry, and Curly trying to get out of the way. But before getting close enough to trample us into the snow, the bison detours off the trail toward another patch of grass.

We hurry down the now-clear trail as quickly as we can drag our sleds, not pausing until the bison are long out of sight.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at See other stories about outdoor adventures at


Going Deep–Backcountry Skiing in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains

We reach a high saddle between two peaks, where the wind has sculpted the snow into stationary, perpetually cresting waves several feet high. Treeless slopes of clean, untracked powder fall away beneath us. Our group of several friends and a few guides have been climbing uphill in this remote corner of northeast Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains for more than two hours, ascending some 3,000 vertical feet under a clear, ice-blue winter sky, amid scenery that looks like a post card from an Alpine resort, but without the ski lifts and quaint villages.

Then we look up at the final grind awaiting us: a ridge of crusty, windblown snow rising another seven hundred feet to the 9,555-foot summit of Red Mountain, one of the highest in the Wallowas. It looks steep.

My companions all strap their skis onto their packs and begin kicking steps in the snow on a long slog that will consume almost another hour. Reluctant to carry skis—maybe reluctant to a fault—I keep mine on my feet and make hundreds of zigzags uphill, like a mechanized duck in a shooting gallery, an effort that one of the guides will later claim earns me the dubious distinction of making Red’s first ascent entirely on skis. She generously makes it sound like a proud accomplishment, but part of me prefers to believe that there must have been at least one person before me who was dumb or stubborn enough to try it.

At the top of Red, where it’s cold and breezy but not intolerably so, we hang out for a little while to soak up the views. The Wallowas sprawl to far horizons, an amazing panorama of jagged ridges capped with scalloped snow and rocky peaks jutting out of the white. Much of the range lies within the Eagle Cap Wilderness, 350,000 acres without any sign of civilization. To the northeast, the snowy and craggy Seven Devils Mountains of Idaho rise across the brown, 8,000-foot-deep trench of Hells Canyon.

It’s probably a safe bet that there aren’t another 20 people in this entire mountain range today, and possibly no one besides us. There certainly isn’t another soul in our corner of them.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at See other stories about outdoor adventures at