Yellowstone In Winter

December 27, 2011 by staff 

Yellowstone In WinterYellowstone In Winter, For a backcountry traveler in winter, serious trouble is often one mistake away. For early-day survey parties through Yellowstone National Park, winter must have seemed even more formidable.

Author and photographer Jeff Henry, who lives in Paradise Valley, looks at Yellowstone through the eyes of an insider in his new book, “Snowshoes, Coaches, and Cross Country Skis: A Brief History of Yellowstone Winters.” Not so coincidentally, Yellowstone opened for the winter season Thursday.

Henry has spent 33 winters in Yellowstone Park, taking any job, starting with his first season as kitchen help at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful. With the exception of last winter, Henry has worked in the park each winter since the late 1970s. While pursuing his career as a freelance photographer and author, his winter jobs inside the park have ranged from driving snowcoaches to working on research projects. For nearly all of those 33 winters, he has spent part of his time shoveling snow off roofs.

Over the years, the freelance photographer has amassed a quarter-million slides of Yellowstone Park, many of them taken in winter. The book pairs some of those images with historic photos from the National Park Service and other archives. The book combines Henry’s passion for history with his love of the formidable challenges presented by Yellowstone in winter. Henry is the author of two other books, “The Yellowstone Winter Guide” and “Yellowstone Winterscapes.”

In a history that starts with the last Ice Age, Henry’s latest book documents man’s earliest forays into the park and shifts in Park Service policy since 1872, when Congress carved out Yellowstone as the world’s first national park.

Within five years of the park’s creation, a series of hotels linked a route past many of the main attractions and tourists were dropped off by train at the park’s northern boundary. But Yellowstone in winter still remained relatively inaccessible.

Henry describes the miscalculations made by the first official party to attempt to explore the park in winter. The foray was led by Lt. Frederick Schwatka, who made his reputation as an arctic explorer, but badly misjudged the amount of snow in the park and erroneously assumed Yellowstone’s snow would be hard-packed.

In January 1887, Schwatka and 13 men left Mammoth Hot Springs to follow Yellowstone’s main road through Norris to Old Faithful. Getting to Norris Hotel took three days, and when they set out again, Schwatka collapsed from exhaustion and was forced to turn back.

Northern Pacific railroad photographer F. Jay Haynes pushed on successfully to Old Faithful, were he and his companions were greeted by the winterkeeper and his family. But on their return trip, Haynes and three companions were caught in a blizzard between Canyon and Tower Junction.

Their trip would become one of the epic journeys in Yellowstone history.

The distance between Canyon Hotel and Yancey’s Hotel near Tower Junction was only about 20 miles, but the route took them over the Washburn Mountain Range.

After treking the 12 miles from Norris to Canyon in about half a day on cross-country skis, they made the mistake of setting off for Tower Junction with only enough food for one lunch and little survival gear. After reaching the summit of Mount Washburn, a blizzard slammed them with strong winds, frigid temperatures and powdery snow. They had no tent, and so took shelter for the night in a clump of trees where they kindled a fire.

“Throughout their time in the Washburns they frequently heard the ominous roar of avalanches sweeping down the slopes, the terror of which was heightened by the fact that they just couldn’t see,” Henry wrote.

When the weather cleared, the four men followed Antelope Creek to Tower and Yancey’s Hotel.

Despite the harsh climate and isolation, Yellowstone’s winterkeepers lived quite comfortably. The first winterkeeper, George Marshall, spent the winter of 1880-1881 with his wife and their four children looking after his Marshall Hotel in the Lower Geyser Basin. Unlike Marshall, most winterkeepers were hired by park concessionaires. By 1887, caretakers spent the winter at the Lower Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, Canyon and Norris.

Amenities improved over time. At Old Faithful, workers grew vegetables for the inn’s dining room in a greenhouse in the summer. In the off-season, winterkeepers used produce from the greenhouse to feed their families. Geothermal water heated the greenhouse and supplied water for the plants.

A winterkeeper named Musser piped hot water under the sidewalks between key buildings to keep the walks free of snow, Henry said. Geothermal water also heated the winterkeeper’s cottage.

Henry writes with clear affection for the early-day “winterkeepers,” caretakers who kept an eye on hotels and property during the off-season. The park’s winterkeepers spent a great deal of time shoveling snow from roofs to keep those snow loads from causing buildings to collapse.

Henry fell in love with the park during the winter of 1978-1979, when he worked in the kitchen at Old Faithful’s Snow Lodge.

“I saw these guys at Old Faithful shoveling big blocks of snow off the roof and thought it was the neatest thing I’d seen in my life,” he said.

Henry spent many seasons shoveling snow off park roofs and his book describes the process. On steep roofs, winterkeepers sometimes slip a wire between the snow pack and the shingles, cutting the snow with the wire to trigger an avalanche. On less steeply pitched roofs, the winterkeepers would saw the packed snow into refrigerator-sized blocks with a crosscut saw and then slide the blocks off the roof with a shovel.

Henry devotes a chapter in his book to winter transportation in the park.

“One of the biggest turning points was the advent of motorized transportation,” Henry said. “The park was little used in winter until the introduction of motorized transportation.”

One of the most unusual forms of transportation developed around 1940, with the advent of homemade contraptions called snow planes. The wingless planes had tiny cckpits fastened to skis. A propeller mounted on the back blew the plane forward.

“They looked like airboats in the Everglades,” Henry said. “The fan blades blew the snow plane across the snow.”

The machines enabled winterkeepers and rangers to get around the park in winter.

In the 1960s, snowcoaches and snowmobiles came into use, opening the park to the general public. Many of today’s winter visitors would be surprised to learn that in 1970, a bathroom was the only heated building open to tourists at Old Faithful in winter. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge opened during the winter of 1971. Henry characterizes the lodge’s opening as the beginning of the modern era of Yellowstone’s winter history.

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