A ski traverse of the Gallatin Crest

By Forrest McCarthy Explorebigsky.com Contributor

This story was first published in the winter 12/13 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

A map of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem hangs on my office wall. Over the
years, I’ve drawn a series of black lines on the map. They
often follow the crest of a mountain range, a river or creek,
or sometimes a combination. My favorites are the longest
and straightest lines – the crest of the Wind River Range, the
Thoroughfare River, the Wyoming Range Trail, the South
Fork of the Shoshone River. The lines represent routes I’ve
traveled by ski, foot, packraft or mountain bike.

There are more lines at the bottom of the map, closer to
my home in Jackson, Wyo., and also a few small ones
at the top; these pass through the Spanish Peaks and the
Beartooths, and alongside the Yellowstone River.

Despite these, I was eager to draw something more substantial, something more aesthetic – a long, clean line.

Twenty years ago, Wes Bunch and I started skiing in the
Teton Range together. Back then the Tetons were a blank
canvas, with only a few of the obvious lines drawn, just
enough to inspire us. Our mentor and my housemate at the
time, Tom Turiano, had a map of the range and the goal of
skiing all the named summits. Most of them had never been
climbed in the winter, let alone skied. Wes and I, with our
old, heavy, clunky ski and camping gear, followed Tom on
many long suffer-fests. We relished every minute and mile,
and affectionately named the adventures “Tom Foolery.”

Over the years, Wes and I have continued making annual
pilgrimages to ski in the mountains together. In the summer
of 2010, however, Wes had his left knee replaced. He took
the following winter off from Jackson and skiing.

The next May, my cell phone pinged with a text from Wes.
“I can ski Forrest, I can ski!”

With 2011’s record spring snowfall, June wouldn’t be too
late to complete a long ski traverse. In a phone message, I
proposed the Gallatin Crest. He texted me back. He was in.
We started at Daly Creek in the northwest corner of Yellowstone Park.

At the trailhead, at 7,000 feet, the wide, sagebrush-covered
drainage was free of snow. several miles of brisk hiking on
a cold June morning brought us to snowline and our first
critter tracks: Ursus arctos horribilis, grizzly bear. Soon after,
we saw elk tracks, then deer tracks. Gaining the Gallatin
Crest at timberline, we crossed bighorn sheep tracks.

Mountain temperatures had dropped below freezing the
last several nights, creating a solid crust atop the saturated
spring snow. We made good time along the crest, and by
late morning we rested on the 10,301-foot summit of
Ramshorn Peak.

The Madison Range filled the horizon to
the west: Imp Peak, Koch Peak, Lone Mountain, the Sphinx
and Gallatin Peak. To the east, Paradise Valley shined a deep
wet green with Emigrant Peak, Mount Cowen and Black
Mountain forming the imposing skyline of the northern
Absaroka. Our curiosity and imaginations soared as we
drew imaginary lines across these landscapes and mountains.

Skiing north from the top of Ramshorn, the first thousand
feet was perfect corn snow. Wes hooted, his grin visible
for the duration of the descent. When the crust gave way
at 9,000 feet, I tumbled head over heels into softening
afternoon snow.

Our progress slowed as we traversed around Fortress
Mountain, across questionable avalanche slopes. Fog settled
in and with it, drizzle. beetle-killed whitebark pine covered
the slopes on either side as we trudged along the Gallatin
Crest to Eaglehead Mountain.

We made our way north to a public use cabin at Windy
Pass, the crest gradually rising back above 10,000 feet. The
snow was firmer again, our route straighter, and our determination resolute. the fog occasionally lifted, allowing seductive glimpses of the surrounding mountains. Despite
the fatigue of 20 miles and 6,000 vertical feet, our excitement continued to grow.

The Windy Pass Cabin is managed by the Gallatin National
Forest, and for a phone call and $20, they gave us the combination to its door. the cabin has a wood stove, four bunks,
solid walls, a roof, chairs, cooking equipment and charm. It
beats the hell out of sleeping on snow. For us, it also meant
significantly lighter packs.

Tired and hungry, we inhaled our dinner of freeze-dried
pasta before lying down for a few hours of fitful sleep. At
4 a.m., the alarm on my wristwatch shattered the silence
with its piercing beeps, and we brewed a vat of cowboy
coffee. Sweetened with hot chocolate, it washed down our
breakfast of oatmeal and Poptarts. We left the cabin at first
light, worried we should have started even earlier – it froze
overnight, but barely.

It was a few miles to the 9,945-foot Sentinel, and kicker
skins, carbon fiber skis and caffeine propelled us over the
morning crust. The Gallatin Crest north of this peak is
magical. Though far from straight, it hovers above tree line
at about 10,000 feet, and is a natural pathway through a
rugged maze of mountains and valleys.

The narrow spine of the Gallatin Range provides a high altitude
ski route through Montana wilderness.

Nor were Wes and I
the only ones to use this route –
we followed a coyote’s tracks for
more than five miles. On Peak
10,059 we crossed a giant fivetoed weasel track: Gulo gulo, the
glutton, wolverine.

At the western end of Peak
9,690, we were confronted with
negotiating a 100-foot wall of
rock by traversing sketchy,
40-degree avalanche slopes
warming in the afternoon sun.

We picked our way carefully,
factoring every convexity, concavity, wind scoop, recent slide,
tree and nuance into our decision-making. After 30 minutes,
we reached a lower angle slope
of whitebark pines, relieved for
the final safe passage back to the
crest.

Skiing through beetle-ravaged
conifers for a mile to Crater Lake,
I noticed younger, healthy
green trees, as
well as the occasional ancient
matriarch that
had resisted the
ravenous pests.

Here, I saw survival and hope.
The final ridge
from Crater Lake to Hyalite
Peak was narrow and corniced,
dropping away steeply on either
side.

And if that wasn’t enough,
a storm cell collided with the
crest, visibility dropped, and
thunder and lightning filled the
sky. It was already mid-afternoon, and we had just enough
daylight remaining to complete
the traverse.

Impatiently, Wes and I picked
our way along, balancing the risk
of exposing ourselves to a lightning strike on the ridge against
the avalanche danger of traversing its flanks.
The storm subsided as we began our
ascent to Hyalite Peak, and on the
summit, clearing skies and panoramic vistas greeted
us.

To the north,
we saw Alex Lowe
Peak, named for the
famous Bozeman
climber killed by an
avalanche in the Himalaya in 1999.
Having worked with Alex at Exum
Mountain Guides in the Tetons years
ago, seeing the peak reminded me of
his boundless energy and enthusiasm
for the mountains, something that
continues to inspire me today.

We celebrated our final summit with
a festival of grins, high-fives, hugs,
photographs, Clif bars and a Red
Bull.

After removing our skins for the
last time, we descended Hyalite’s
northwest side. A small cornicedrop provided the final technical challenge, and lower down,
negotiating Apex Falls the final
route-finding challenge. Soon
after, we cruised the remaining
three miles along a packed trail
to Palace Butte Campground, a road and our ride. Wes and I
arrived back in Jackson late that
night after two days, 45 miles and
12,000 vertical feet of skiing, multiple blisters and a final five-hour
car ride.

I was supposed to be at
work the following morning.
At home, I limped upstairs and
took 600 milligrams of Advil PM.
Before the bliss of accomplishment and Ibuprofen settled in,
I visited my map of the Greater
Yellowstone and drew a beautiful,
long and aesthetic line across the
top of it.

Forrest McCarthy has
been a professional mountain guide and adventurer for
more than 20 years. whether by foot, ski, mountain bike
or packraft, mccarthy has a
penchant for exploring and
celebrating big, wild landscapes. He lives in Jackson,
Wyoming with his wife amy
and their dog Fryxell.