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 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

2011: A Year of Adventure in Pictures

From cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and paddling in the Everglades (the final two trips for my upcoming book) to backcountry skiing from a yurt in Oregon’s Wallowas (watch for a story soon), an ultra-dayhike across Zion National Park, rock climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks, rafting Oregon’s Grand Ronde River, dayhiking in the Columbia Gorge and New Hampshire’s Franconia Ridge, a six-day mountaineering trip on the Ptarmigan Traverse in Washington’s North Cascades, and backpacking the Teton Crest Trail and in Idaho’s Sawtooths (twice), 2011 was a pretty good year.
I’ve already written about some of those trips at this site, and will write about others in coming months. Check out this photo gallery of highlights from all of those 2011 adventures.

At this time of year, I’m poring over maps, guidebook descriptions, and websites, planning adventures for 2012. I hope you are, too. Looking for ideas or inspiration? Try this gallery of pictures from outdoor adventures I’ve taken in the U.S. and around the world—all of which you can read about (and get advice on planning) at

Make it a happy new year.

Chasing the Snow: Why ‘Compressed Adventure’ Can Save You

Zooming down the interstate, with my family in the car and our Nordic skis in the roofbox, I’m reminded of a truism that explains not only our motivation today, but many of life’s turns and frustrations: Sometimes the place where we are and the place where we want to be lie far, far apart.

My wife and kids have hunkered down for the long haul with their books and electronics, settled in for a day trip that will involve about seven hours of driving in exchange for less than half that much time skiing. To our left rise the visual evidence for why we must make this pilgrimage: the Boise Foothills above our home, brown and virtually devoid of snow in late autumn. It’s a disheartening sight.

My companions had uttered a few murmurs of skepticism that the payoff will justify the drudgery of so many hours car bound. But we’ve run out of patience waiting for the snow to come to us. So we’re en route to the nearest place with white stuff on the ground and groomed ski trails—Galena Lodge, which sits at the upper end of Idaho’s Wood River Valley, at well over 7,000 feet in the Boulder Mountains.

The phrase for what we’re doing speaks to the desperation implicit in this act: We are chasing the snow. It sounds like both a fool’s mission and divine inspiration—and actually, it has the potential to go either way.

The idea of chasing snow also provides a useful metaphor for a larger, almost constant challenge: fitting the activities that bring us pleasure into lives that can often seem far too overstuffed with responsibilities to accommodate anything more.

The mere thought of making the effort to go after fun when it lies at a distance from you—especially when it involves motivating and moving an entire family—can be the thing that stops us. It’s often not the weather or a lack of enthusiasm about being there once you get there. It’s the organizing and getting-there part that causes inertia. I know; I, too, have on rare occasions suffered from that spirit-killing mental funk. But I prefer to view that attitude in the same way that ancient mariners viewed the unexplored margins of their maps: those areas were labeled with warnings to venture no farther in that direction, “for only dragons dwell here.”

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

Skiing Yellowstone: wildlife, scenery, and hot air

The snowcoach rumbles away, leaving us in a wintry silence disturbed only by a slight breeze and the gastrointestinal emissions of a supervolcano that last let out a really big one 640,000 years ago. Back then, it ejected about 240 cubic miles of rock and dust into the sky. Today, as seems always the case with these things, it just sounds a little rude and smells badly.

Skiing at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone

My wife, Penny, and I, with our son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, have just stepped off the snowcoach with our cross-country skis in Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park. Watching us disembark with our grade-school kids, the other passengers stared solemnly, as if expecting they would be the last to see us alive. Clearly, none of them are Nordic skiers, otherwise they might have realized that we’re setting out on one of the coolest half-day adventures in the entire national park system: ski touring along the Firehole River through Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.

Skiing two-and-a-half miles up an almost flat valley—with one fun, long downhill that’s not very steep—we’ll pass through an area that’s home to one-fourth of the active geysers in the world and the greatest concentration of them. When we reach Old Faithful after a few leisurely hours and a lot of stopping and gawking, we’ll rendezvous with the snowcoach for the ride back to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, where we’re staying.

We set out down the Biscuit Basin Trail, following the tracks of previous skiers, though completely alone for now. Across the open valley, white steam clouds billow into the sky from scores of geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles, giving the landscape the look of Hell bursting up through the Earth’s surface. Steam freezes to lodgepole pine trees, sugar coating some of them while long icicles hang in bunches from others. Elk graze the patches of ground kept open by the heat from thermal features. Bald eagles soar overhead.

Nate and Alex throw snowballs—mostly at me—and every few minutes point excitedly to another geyser spitting or erupting scalding water. We gaze into one of Yellowstone’s most famous features, the 23-foot-deep, sky-blue mouth of Morning Glory Pool. A short while later, as we’re watching steam and hot water spurt from the 12-foot-tall mound of Giant Geyser, Nate shouts and points at a plume shooting skyward just a few hundred feet away: Riverside Geyser, named by the 1871 Hayden Expedition, sends a 75-foot-high arc over the Firehole River for as much as 20 minutes.

Read the full story, and see a gallery of photos and a video of skiing in Yellowstone, as well as other outdoor-adventure stories and reviews of new gear, at

Snowstorms, skinny skis, yurts, and tradition

Fat, perfect snowflakes pour down in a silent, frozen torrent from a blank white page of sky, as if the mountains are inside a Christmas snow globe that someone just shook vigorously. Powder lays several feet deep on the ground and smothers the tall ponderosa pines, looking like dozens of clean, white mittens on their boughs. No wind stirs the still air, and it’s not too cold. The quiet could drown outany negative thoughts.

It’s the kind of day that can make you wish winter lasted all year.

Banner Ridge yurt, Boise National Forest

I ask four of my skiing partners what they think of the storm. My question triggers a blizzard of opinions.

“It’s pretty snowy.”

“It’s great!”

“I’m getting snow in my face. I love it!”

“I say it’s perfect.”

They’re strikingly casual about skiing into a snowstorm, but not entirely out of ignorance. They’ve all skied into the backcountry in these conditions before—four years in a row in these same mountains on almost exactly the same dates, in fact. So they’ve come to expect this.

The four are my son Nate, 10, and daughter Alex, seven, and family friends Lili and Sofi, 10-year-old twins. Also with us on this cross-country ski trail are my wife, Penny, and Lili and Sofi’s parents, Vince and Cat. It’s just after Christmas, and we’re on our way to the Skyline yurt, two miles and several hundred vertical feet uphill from ID 21 in Idaho’s Boise National Forest.

To read the full story and see a photo gallery and video, please visit

From New Zealand to 10 national parks, 2010 was a good year

We scrabbled up the last hundred feet to the volcano’s rim, the mountainside of loose stones sliding out beneath each footstep. Steam hissed from dark cracks between rocks, holes reaching unfathomably deep into the planet’s crust. Then Kiwi trekking guide Stewart Barclay and I reached the rim of serially active Mt. Ngauruhoe in New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park—which erupted 45 times in the 20th century—and gazed down into a crater filled with the debris from violent upheavals: crumbling walls in a kaleidoscope of colors, heaps of rubble piled up below.

A hiker in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

That was 10 months ago, the second of 15 trips I took in a busy year of adventuring outdoors for work that took me away from home for a total of just over three months. Looking back over 2010 now, I remember less how hectic it was than specific scenic and emotional highlights—the kind of moments that slowly harden into durable memories. Those are the end product of travel and the motivator that keeps us aching for the next one.

Read the full story and see other stories and photos of outdoor adventures at