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Monday, June 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Yurt the Ritz for backcountry skiers

The 20-foot yurt painted in the morning sunlight as dawn breaks over the southern Swan Range.
The 20-foot yurt painted in the morning sunlight as dawn breaks over the southern Swan Range.

Despite the solace of snow sparkling under starlight, the approaching din of a two-stroke internal combustion engine and the keen reek of gasoline was a dissonance well-received as we hailed our welcome wagon to the woods.

Earlier in the day, the same snowmobile had hauled a toboggan’s worth of food, gear and booze while rope-towing a group of Flathead Valley friends on skis into the Swan Range. They were dropped off at a yurt situated beneath a horseshoe-shaped ridge that features some of Montana’s best backcountry powder skiing.

We were the last in our party to arrive on a cold Friday evening. As the high-pitched whine of the snowmachine reached a crescendo and its lights swung into view, we shouldered our packs and stepped into our bindings. It was our turn for the rope tow.

To appreciate the rope tow, imagine water skiing on well-traveled snow for 11 miles while French-kissing an exhaust pipe, pausing occasionally for bursts of hysterical laughter or adrenaline-fueled cries of panic. Then imagine this rope tow at night, zipping around blind corners at breakneck speeds, the terrain illuminated only by the goggle-filtered, snow-splattered beams of headlamps.

Needless to say, the rope tow is a really good time, and it’s a labor-saving convenience to boot. (The alternative is eight miles of skinning from the trailhead.)

But it’s a means to an end, and by the time we arrived at the yurt, at approximately 6,800 feet above sea level, our forearms burned from the effort and our circular home’s domed glow drew us in like a signal fire.

We were greeted by the clatter of tumbling dice, raucous laughter and a few strains of competitive trash-talking.

But gamesmanship was soon eclipsed by a culinary bouquet emanated from a Dutch oven tended by Kyle and Kim Fedderly. Noshing appetizers of cured meats and cheeses, we’d arrived just in time for an entrée of tamale pie, a heady mass of ground beef, peppers, onions and cornbread, and we quickly fell into the rhythm of yurt life.

The yurt is a circular structure built on an elevated deck measuring 20 feet in diameter. A latticework of bending wooden ribs supports a weatherproofing canvas tarpaulin, there is a full kitchen and bunk beds, and the whole thing is heated by wood-burning stove.

Outside the yurt, a skin track leads deep into the Montana backcountry, to a ridge intersecting a network of bowls and ramps that offer terrific access to powder skiing in the southern Swan Range before funneling back to home base.

We would see only a fraction of the terrain during our two-night yurt stay, despite an ambitious itinerary, but for the moment, having just joined our group of eight, all that mattered was our communion and the steaming heap of tamale pie in front of me. And Scrabble.

Games are integral to nightlife in the backcountry. Scrabble is a staple, and as the night wore on the game became increasingly cutthroat. We cast wary eyes on words like “resile” (checked out) and “nard” (still unresolved). We vowed to buy a pocket dictionary so that challenges could be settled and contested decisively, but eventually we settled down and tapered off to bed.

We woke to a bluebird day and went about preparing breakfast and coffee, grinning and eager to explore after a Dutch oven breakfast hash prepared by “Cast Iron” Kyle.

We slapped climbing skins on our skis (and, in my case, a split board) and checked to make sure we had avalanche beacons, shovels and probes. Then we aimed our tips toward the ridgeline and started up the skin track, shedding layers and falling into the metered cadence of backcountry ski touring.

We’d booked the yurt through a backcountry lodging and skiing outfit called Yurtski, which offers fully guided tours and a gear-haul service, as well as the “self-sufficient yurt rental.” We’d opted for the latter, although Yurtski co-owner Carl Sievers had helped tow skiers and gear in Friday morning.

Sievers estimated that the Seeley-Swan area receives an average annual snowpack of around 10 feet, which seemed about right as we climbed higher up the ridge toward Morrell Mountain, quads and calves burning from the strain.

After digging a trench and performing a few compression tests, we selected our lines, peeled off our skins and dropped off the ridge. The bowls were filled with deep powder snow. Occasional patches of crust notwithstanding, the runs were long and sustained. We regrouped, reapplied skins and climbed up for another lap.

The backcountry touring was awe-inspiring, particularly with such clear visibility in so gorgeous a mountain landscape, but there were as many revelatory moments inside the yurt as out as we celebrated our fellowship.

The same group of friends had spent the previous weekend ringing in the new year at a cabin in Polebridge, and our hut dynamics were fine-tuned. Cooking, cleaning, splitting wood, melting snow.

After dinner, we embarked on a round of night games involving avalanche transceivers and the basic rules of hide-and-seek, which backcountry ski guide Greg Franson dubbed “Transceiver Sardines.” The game involves two “rabbits” who hide in the wooded darkness with their avalanche beacons set to transmit, while the other players, transceivers set to “search,” attempt to hunt them down. If a player catches a rabbit, he or she switches the transceiver to transmit and joins them in seeking out a new hiding spot.

The game eventually segued into a series of blind form tackles and wrestling matches in the snow.

Finally, we brushed ourselves off and returned to the warm glow of the yurt, where we fastidiously re-hung socks and gloves to dry for the next day of skiing.

It’s a simple and unembellished life on a yurt ski trip, and we wouldn’t have asked for more.

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