YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — A zephyr lifted ice crystals from the tops of snow-covered fir trees growing up the southern slope of Dunraven Peak in Yellowstone National Park. As the millions of crystals floated above the dense stand of trees, the warm light from the low-hanging January sun caught the crystals and seemed to transform them into gold dust particles that glittered the clear blue sky.
“Amazing,” Audrey Gehlhausen, a three-year guide for Yellowstone Expeditions, said before skiing on through the dense trees and powder.
When you talk to people who have spent time in Yellowstone National Park during the winter, they often use words like “amazing,” “wondrous” and “magical.”
Yellowstone Expeditions owner Arden Bailey has been guiding people into the park from West Yellowstone during the winter for 31 years. He operates the only tent-camping company in operation in Yellowstone.
One of the reasons he continues to guide is his guest’s reactions to winter in the park.
“We get to remember how exciting Yellowstone was for the first time ... day in and day out by vicariously experiencing Yellowstone for the first time often through our guest’s eyes,” Bailey said.
Setting up camp
During the late 1970s, Bailey worked in the park driving the bombardier-style snow coaches out of the Old Faithful area. During the tours, guests would often marvel at the quality of the snow and express a desire to ski the terrain.
“There was no way for them to do that in those years, so I kept thinking ... there’s got to be some niche for me,” Bailey said.
Bailey’s solution was a tent-camping company similar to those in the park in the 1800s before the hotels were built.
In 1983, after getting a permit from the National Park Service and purchasing two of his own bombardier snow coaches, Bailey set up a base camp in a small meadow encircled by snow-covered evergreens, one-half mile from the Grand Canyon and the falls of the Yellowstone River. His first year, the base camp consisted of a single hexagonal dining tent and five sleeping huts. Bailey has guided backcountry skiers into the heart of the park from this location ever since.
While the thought of camping in freezing temperatures might seem daunting to most, Bailey tries to make his camp as cozy and warm as possible. At its centerpiece is two large yurts. One acts as the kitchen and the other as a common area and dining hall. Warmed by an old-fashioned wood stove, the dining yurt is where many guests spend much of their waking camp time. Family-style breakfasts and dinners are cooked up, served and shared with the guests by the camp’s guides.
Bailey designed the sleeping quarters to be similar to ice-fishing huts that he used growing up in Minnesota. The plywood and canvas constructions remain warm through the coldest of nights thanks to thermostat-controlled propane heaters.
If guests still finds themselves chilled to the bone, the camp also offers a sauna, which can get as hot as 200 degrees.
“All (the guests) have to do is bring their own clothing and sense of humor and adventure,” Bailey said.
That statement proved to be partially inaccurate.
Ailey Crow, of Redwood City, Calif., wanted an “adventure” before settling into her new career as a data scientist. When she arrived at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, she learned that her luggage had been lost in transit. She purchased a few items in Bozeman, but she lacked some essentials to stay warm while in Yellowstone.
Erica Hutchings, Yellowstone Expeditions office manager and guide, lent Crow her personal windbreaker, a wool sweater, polypropylene shirt, ski pants, a couple of cotton T-shirts, baggy cotton sweatpants for sleeping, and socks.
Despite the aggravation of losing her luggage, Crow burst into the dining yurt after her first day skiing and announced, “I was smiling so much my teeth were cold.”
Many of Yellowstone Expeditions’ guides have degrees in fields such biology and geology, and can answer guests’ questions about the park’s terrain and wildlife.
While the guides’ ability to navigate the backcounty impressed the guests, their positive attitudes in camp completed the overall experience. The guides’ humorous stories during dinner and willingness to make sure that every guest’s needs were taken of, created an open, welcoming environment that one might not expect while camping with strangers. Although the camp describes the dinners as ‘family-style,’ the evening experience often felt like a casual dinner party with friends.
“I think that all of my guides share this desire to bring people to Yellowstone and help them experience the park,” Bailey said.
Although Yellowstone Expeditions primarily caters to skiers, Yellowstone Expeditions guests often include photographers and other tourists who want to immerse themselves in the winter experience, including film crews for BBC and National Geographic. Guests can forgo the skiing for snow coach tours. Bailey and his guides’ years of experience in the park provide an optimum chance for viewing some of the park’s incredible wildlife and natural phenomena.
‘A giant peace sign’
One morning, when the the small thermometer outside of the dining yurt read 15 below zero, Bailey suggested that the guests delay their ski excursion for the morning in order to travel to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Bailey suspected that the conditions were right for the canyon’s illusive ‘beam’ to make an appearance.
The beam is an atmospheric phenomena that occurs as the sun rises and its light reflects off the crystals that form from the mists off the falls. The temperature needs to be at just the right spot in order for the ice crystals to form into the proper shape necessary to create the effect. A few degrees too hot or too cold and the beam will not form.
Bailey decided to scout ahead while the guests prepared for the day.
When he first arrived at the canyon, the beam was nowhere to be seen. Bailey ventured out onto the canyon overlooks to find the beam. On the final outlook, the beam had still not made an appearance. Bailey turned around to head back to the snow coach to radio in his findings. While on the trail back, Bailey stopped.
“There it is. It is not very visible today, but there it is,” he said.
A glowing column slowly began to form over the canyon. As Bailey’s guests arrived the beam grew larger and brighter. It finally was encompassed by a sun dog.
“It’s like a giant peace sign,” Yellowstone Expeditions guest Leslie Dierauf said.