Yellowstone's Ski Pioneers: Peril and Heroism on the Winter Trail

Yellowstone's Ski Pioneers, originally published in 1995, tells the amazing tale of some forgotten heroes of the early conservation movement: those intrepid and rugged adventurers who patrolled the young park in winter. It also tells about the unruly array of equally intrepid and rugged scoundrels, misfits, and other villains who braved the bitter Yellowstone winters in the late 1800's for less lofty reasons. Drawing on many obscure early accounts left by these neglected characters, Paul Schullery celebrates the saga of a simpler, wilder Yellowstone, and reveals a significant and colorful chapter in our struggle to protect the great natural treasure that is Yellowstone National Park. The book is now out of print, though the author is working on a much-enlarged second edition.

Because some of the work on this book was completed as part of the author's National Park Service duties, all author's royalties from this book were donated to a special research account of the Yellowstone Association, a non-profit educational partner of Yellowstone National Park.

Excerpt from Yellowstone's Ski Pioneers, from the "Prologue:"

One of the grandest traditions among those of us fortunate enough to work in Yellowstone is the backcountry patrol cabin. All spring, summer, and fall, as patrol rangers, managers, researchers, and other park personnel travel the great tracts of wild country in the park, these few cabins provide welcome, if somewhat Spartan, accommodations. After wood has been chopped and dinner finished, after everything is cleaned up and the food is safely stowed in the zinc-lined cabinets, there is still much to do: field notes are transcribed by lamplight, boots are resealed, stories are exchanged, log entries are labored over, incredibly ragged copies of Reader’s Digest, Outdoor Life, and Playboy are studied to see if anything has been missed in past visits, and, finally, sleep is found to the accompaniment of wind-driven rain on the shutters and scurrying mice feet on the floor boards.

But it is winter that brings out the best in these cabins. Then, they are snug little islands of warmth and light in a world of black cold. But, unlike in summer, I find that when I reach one in winter and settle in for the night (which starts so early and lasts so long), I rarely can enjoy the cabin enough from the inside.

This is not to say that the cabins are without their internal attractions. There is an endless charm to their functional order—the bedrolls hanging just so from the ceiling, the pots and skillets and tack all arranged on the walls—a charm heightened by my knowing of the tradition behind it (it has always been a matter of great pride among those who work here to somehow leave the cabin cleaner, and more perfectly ready for the next occupant, than one found it). Whenever I get into a “new” one (that is, one I haven’t seen before), I must explore it for all its little secrets and quirks—all the things that reflect those who built it and cared for it.

But in winter, especially after dark, the cabin is like most of Yellowstone’s wonders: best appreciated in its greater context. This means that at some point in the evening, probably right before going to bed (when I have to make a trip outside anyway), I must put a little distance between myself and the place. I have to remind myself of what the cabin is protecting me from, and what the cabin allows me to enjoy. Standing some ways off and looking back, I find that the cabins are always Christmas-card perfect, with light flooding out onto the snow beneath (or beside) each window, and moonlight reflected in the smoke that rises from the stovepipe.

I never bother to put on all my layers for these outings, so I’m usually cold right away. But I wait there along the trail as long as I can, and am invariably rewarded for it. My eyes adjust enough to pick out an elk herd bedded across the valley, or to take in the full glory of the stars in an unpolluted high-country sky. And before my teeth begin to chatter, I can almost count on hearing a coyote yip-yip-yowl from some distant slope, perhaps to be answered by another from an equally indeterminate direction. They remind me that, for all its beauty and power, this winter life is all very serious business if you’re a wild mammal. They also remind me that I am among the luckiest of non-wild mammals, to be here at all. And for all the ruggedness of winter life here a century ago, I must assume that the park’s pioneer skiers felt the same.

What I intend here is a celebration of that time, and of the people who made such an extraordinary contribution to our understanding and protection of the park. This is going to be documentary history; whenever possible, I will let these pioneers and adventurers tell their own stories. If you have visited the park in winter, you will be able to compare notes—to judge your experience against theirs. If you haven’t visited, you will at least hear firsthand from those best qualified to tell you what it was like when winter in Yellowstone was a remote and sometimes frightening business, and when winter’s beauty was still strange and new.