MISSOULA, MT, Jan. 29, 2016 – “If you want, you can wear this,” said Carl Sievers, owner of YurtSki, handing me a slick black helmet with a pair of goggles attached.
My reflection in the goggles seemed stretched, almost putty-like as though I was a monster in a kid’s show; the kind of creature who despite warts and a hideous exterior was the kind of monster that kids felt sorry for. Carl’s voice was calm.
He had non-judgmental eyes and the kind of mountain man beard that inspired a generation of hipsters but unlike a trendy millennial whose fashion would change with the wind, Carl’s beard likely wasn’t going anywhere and if I didn’t make a choice regarding the helmet, neither would we.
“I don’t think you’re going to kill me,” I said, remaining non-committal. It had been years since wearing a helmet ceased to define one as feeble and/or fearful but if Carl or his equally bearded friend Mike chose not to wear one, then by god, neither would I.
The potential need for the helmet stemmed from the fact that soon we would be hurtling on snowmobiles along snowy narrow trails deep into the backcountry of Montana’s Swan Mountains toward a rudimentary yurt that for the next seventy-two very cold hours would be home.
The yurt, though more comfortable than a tent, would be without electricity, without cell phone reception, without plumbing and fifteen miles from any kind of civilization. To the more mountain-inclined, such isolated conditions might serve as a well-earned respite in a skiers paradise, but to the winter-unfamiliar like myself, such a journey would be a test of will.
“You can either wear the helmet or not,” said Carl eager to get going. “Its really up to you.”
My patience plummeted. Five minutes in and my fragile constitution had begun to crack. “Are you going to wear one?” I asked finally.
“Got it here in my hands,” said Carl with a languid smile, sliding on the helmet that he had been holding the entire time.
“Then I guess I’ll wear one too.” I slipped my own helmet awkwardly over my beanie; glad the issue was resolved. The snug fit of the helmet was oddly comforting. As the polarized lenses of the goggles turned the world three cheerful shades brighter the snowmobile lunged forward.
It was time to go.
As we took off, just beyond the snowy, horse-dotted meadow to my right, the sun had just begun to rise shortly after 8 am. The temperature was hovering around fifteen degrees. Mule deer skittered across the road ahead, disappearing into the shadowy mountain.
Other than the deer, the falling snow and my reeling mind atop an accelerating snowmobile, the world was perfectly still. Helmet issue resolved, this bone-chilling adventure with YurtSki, the one I’d made no less than six trips to Cabela’s “winter department” in preparation for, was finally set into very frigid motion.
After a couple of hours, an old wood-burning stove had heated the yurt enough that if you stood close to it, you could no longer see your breath. Michael warmed up three calzones wrapped in foil, made up of broccoli, cheese and elk meat heated up on the stove’s cast iron exterior.
Hours earlier, I’d marveled at a beautiful herd of elk en route to the pick up point and now, hungry from an hour and a half snowmobile ride, elk would be my lunch.
Earlier in the year, Michael, a passionate outdoorsman, had killed the elk on a hunt with a crossbow. The calzone would be one of three deliciously prepared meals at YurtSki whose featured protein had been harvested from Michael’s annual kill.
On the side of the yurt opposite the stove, Carl heated up a pot of coffee on one of the camping stove’s three burners in the “kitchen.”
The “kitchen,” in addition to the propane-fueled burners, was a mismatched but effective collection of pots and pans, knives, plates, bowls, cleaning supplies and a game of Yahtzee. To the uninformed at first glance, the yurt-kitchen might have felt rudimentary, but after a dinner later that evening of shrimp on a bed of fresh pasta with sautéed artichoke hearts, onions, mushrooms and capers served along side a seared sock-eyed salmon, one could hardly call said kitchen inadequate.
The yurt itself is a circular structure built on a fixed base similar to a small circus tent consisting of tarp-covered lattice walls and a cone-shaped roof usually with a clear dome on top. Inside the yurt, along with the aforementioned kitchen are two sets of bunks complete with mattress, pillow and a picnic table.
The yurt is without electricity and to find a cell phone signal is a bit of a snipe hunt. While such absence of power might, at first, be alarming (unfortunately) many, with good company and access to thousands upon thousands of acres of untouched fresh powder and epic natural beauty, technological tethers eventually fall by the wayside in favor of a simpler, snowier lifestyle.
Drawn deep into Montana’s backcountry located an hour and a half outside Missoula for its isolation, incomparable untouched ski slopes and fresh powder; Carl Sievers and business partner Adam Simon began YurtSki nine years ago. Initially, YurtSki began as a single yurt sleeping six but has since grown into three yurts, separated by a half-mile, and two hundred vertical feet and is accessible only by snowshoe, skinning or snowmobile.
One yurt sleeps four with a smaller spillover yurt that sleeps an additional four. The lower yurt, or Lupine yurt, sleeps six. Guests are responsible for sleeping bags.
After being rebuilt each year by Carl and a team of back country- loving friends, YurtSki opens December 1 and remains open until April 1.
Backing up to the Bob Marshall National Wilderness, visitors to YurtSki are given incomparable access to more than five thousand vertical feet of fresh powder. Being a guest at YurtSki gets you extremely close to some of America’s best powder, and in order to get to the top of any number of the region’s bowls or shoots, one must get there the old-fashioned way: skins or snowshoes.
If skiing isn’t of interest, there are still plenty of reasons to visit YurtSki. YurtSki is located just off a small, typically well-packed road and is perfect for snowshoeing up to the mountain’s saddle and look out tower, which, on clear days, offers views of the Sealy Lake and the Swan Mountains beyond.
Three full days and two nights later, I’d grown accustomed to the mountain’s silence. In seventy-two hours, we’d seen a handful of deer tracks and two grouse. Beyond that, the mountain was still. The fresh snow was such that I couldn’t imagine ever going back to even the finest resort’s crowded slopes.
The concept of a ski lift felt suddenly lazy.
The snow had been thick and the fog low, yet several times, the clouds broke bathing the mountain and forest in the delicate soft pinks and blues of an alpenglow. After hours of exploring the forest by ski and snowshoe, nothing felt better than a sip of whiskey and the warmth of the cast iron’s coals as they enveloped freshly split ponderosa.
As we shut down the yurt at journey’s end, it occurred to me that I was still wearing, more or less, the same clothing in which I had arrived. Not just that but the yurt that had seemed so rudimentary now seemed to have all I ever really needed. Almost a foot of powder had accrued on our snowmobiles over the course of our stay and to anyone who appreciates skiing; a foot of powder is a great thing.
Finally the snowmobiles fired to life. It was time to go home. I caught my grizzly reflection once again in the polarized lens of my goggles attached to my helmet. It had been three days since I’d last seen my image and I couldn’t help but think I looked different. At yurt ski, there’s no need for mirrors because it’s not how that place made you look. It is how it made you feel, and the answer, I thought to myself as we rocketed off down the mountainside toward the road to Missoula, was alive.
Call YurtSki at 406-721-1779 or via their contact form found here