Not to sound like an old-timer, but 32 years ago when Tom Murphy skied alone across Yellowstone National Park in the winter the snow really was deeper, the weather colder and it turns out the distance was considerably longer than he thought.
“I was a tough guy when I was 34 years old,” Murphy said. “It amazes me I did it.”
Now about to turn 66, Murphy is still a tough guy, emphasized by the fact that he just completed skiing the same 160-mile route — although it took one more day. That was partly because this time he skied with a group that included three friends and two videographers who filmed the trip: Shane Moore from Jackson, Wyo., and Rick Smith of Bozeman.
Murphy, a well-known Livingston wildlife photographer, had estimated his original route from Flagg Ranch in the south to Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo., near the park’s North Entrance at 125 miles. But modern technology showed his original route was closer to 175 miles. This year’s crew shaved off 15 miles by making some course corrections.
One of those changes was to ski across Yellowstone Lake, which Murphy doesn’t like to do because the lake contains underwater warm springs that could create spots of thin ice. But the route cut almost a day off the trip, even though it included a complete whiteout snowstorm.
The loss of visual cues made for some ungainly skiing.
“What was weird is that I’m skiing along and it feels like the ice is going downhill,” Murphy said. “If I didn’t pay attention to the faint, faint, faint horizon line I would tip over. I lost which way was up. It seems like you should know which way is up.”
The 21-mile day of skiing felt like it took a week, Murphy said, partly because off to the side was Stevenson Island, which looked like it never got closer or receded. Instead, Murphy said it seemed to be gliding along with them.
One of the skiers traveling with Murphy was his nephew, 37-year-old Clay Dykstra of Spearfish, S.D. He said the adventure didn’t seem “particularly hard,” but was longer and farther than any outing he’d ever done before. His friend, former Marine John Williams, also joined the group.
“It was all amazing,” Dykstra said. “Big Game Ridge was really spectacular. We had good weather, which, at that altitude in that environment, is really rare — blue sky and no wind.”
The climb up to the 10,100-foot ridge took almost two days. In 1985 when Murphy first made the trip, he side-stepped on his skis up the mountain since he had no climbing skins for his skis. The rest of the crew said they couldn’t believe such a feat was even possible.
“Well, it’s possible,” Murphy told the group.
Back then, the snow was deeper, too, about calf- to knee-deep the entire trip. That made breaking trail an exhausting effort. This time, although there was only 4 feet of snow instead of 10 feet, the snow base was solid with a few inches of powder on top, much easier to navigate since the skiers didn’t break through the crust.
“That’s what it’s all about, skiing in that type of terrain in those types of conditions in the middle of nowhere,” said Brian Chan, a newly retired Yellowstone ranger and longtime friend of Murphy’s who took part in the trip.
Chan said the group discussed the hardships of winter camping and why they do it, excursions that he refers to as “suffer fests.”
“You don’t do it for the camping, like you do in the summer,” he said. “Winter camping is more about surviving so you can enjoy the place and the time of year.”
In addition to less snow, the suffering was diminished in terms of the temperatures.
During his first trip in 1985, Murphy said the average nighttime temperature was 25 degrees below zero. This year the trip’s coldest day was only 15 below, and most nights the temperature didn’t drop below 5 degrees.
“Actually, I prefer it a little below zero,” Murphy said. That way when his breath condenses on the outside of his sleeping bag it will freeze and he can brush it off. “Forty-five below is the coldest I’ve ever camped out. I wouldn’t recommend that.”
By the last day of the journey, March 5, the temperature hit 40 degrees, making the snow wet and so sticky that their skis wouldn’t glide. Nine miles from Mammoth the trekkers had to take off their skis to finish the journey on foot. In 1985 Murphy had to walk only the last three miles.
The difference in the snowpack and weather was the most noticeable contrast between his two cross-Yellowstone ski trips, Murphy said. Even though the group started four days earlier this year, there was less snow.
“It’s been 18 years since we’ve had a cold winter,” Murphy said. “I used to be able to count on my best skiing being in March. Now the snow is gone by then.”
What didn’t change is that the trip was still physically arduous, exhausting and left the men weighing less from burning off thousands of calories a day. This time, however, Murphy only dropped 5 pounds instead of 18.
“Some people may think if that old guy can do it, so can I, but I doubt it,” Murphy said.
“That’s an amazing part of the story,” said Chan, who is 62 years old. “Tom at 66 decided he wanted to re-do this trip and knew he could do it. He gives you something to strive for.
“It’s a good way to start retirement if I can keep up with the adventures,” Chan added.