Powder, peeps and PBR

How to survive when you’re in a world of yurts

| December 01, 2012

The wife and I arrive at the agreed-upon meeting spot approximately 11 miles from the yurts. It’s around 8 a.m. The rest of the group is already here, a few of them drinking beer and playing hacky sack next to piles of skis, boards and gear bags. The piles are immense, and those not focused on hackin’ tend to theirs: They fold and re-fold polypro, consider the need for spare vests or mittens, briefly toss aside a child’s bow-and-arrow set with suction-cup tips before deciding to strap the whole thing onto a hydration pack.

The bow and arrow are only the beginning. We also have at least 15 cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon, party pigs, an emergency bottle of Jameson, and 15 folks who had better be among our closest friends, because we’re about to share two comfortable but cozy yurts deep in the Swan Range for the weekend. And yurts are no place for jerks.

To some, a backcountry ski-and-snowboard trip spent on the slopes and inside a yurt might sound like a Spartan affair, with merely a thin canvas wall and a small woodstove separating man and woman from the elements. For our crew, it’s something completely different—we’re like a bunch of big-city yahoos headed to the infield of a NASCAR track. But no matter whether you’re a backcountry veteran gearing up for the party of the winter or a newbie enticed by pristine terrain and remote locales, yurt living requires an adjustment. Here’s an expert’s advice on how to make it.

Yurt alert:
Understand what you’re getting yourself into

Yurtski is a backcountry business that provides basic yurt lodging next to pristine backcountry terrain. It is not your average Montana winter vacation experience. There is no chairlift, no lodge or cabin, and no dining room. The owners will happily tow you and your gear 11 miles into the backcountry for a fee, and drop you near two one-room yurts surrounded by untouched terrain. If being alone in the backcountry doesn't sound appealing, Yurtski offers guides for hire. Otherwise, you’re mostly left to your own devices.

Native to the steppes of Central Asia, the traditional yurt is a circular portable dwelling covered in felt made from sheep’s wool. The modern accommodations at Yurtski—beds, woodstove, camp stove, cooking utensils, coffee percolator, coat hangers and a single lantern—are sheltered by a heavy-duty tarpaulin and rest on a raised wooden platform, rather than on the ground. There is a cool plastic peephole in the center of the conical ceiling that allows for good stargazing before a yurt full of yell-talking revelers fog it up.

Yurt alert:
Speak yurt

Like the “F” word and other epithets, the word “yurt” fulfills a variety of grammatical functions whilst yurting. For example, “yurty jokes” are popular. One can "yurt," as in, “Don't tell me how to ‘yurt.’” Also, one can down a beer “yurt quick.”

Yurt alert:
Be especially accommodating, especially inside the accommodations

Our two yurts are about three-quarters of a mile apart. The “Alpine” yurt, known as the better and more refined dwelling to our crew because it sits higher up the ridge, is where regulars with the longest Yurtski experience stay. The lower yurt, “Lupine,” is where the rookies and others in our group set up.

Up to eight people can sleep in each yurt, but that means eight of you are sharing 315 square feet. Don’t forget to subtract the square footage taken up by two bunk beds, two cots, a picnic table, a cooking table, a woodstove and woodpile, a clothes-drying rack, and the icy and/or wet spot just inside the door. In other words, don’t leave your personal five square feet of space unless you’re going outside to get more wood or snow to melt.

Yurt alert:
Melt water, all the time

This most mundane task reminds you of one of the reasons you’re yurting to begin with: to experience a slower, more rustic lifestyle. Melting snow humidifies the air in the yurt and keeps your skin from drying up when the woodstove is roaring. It also allows you to clean dirty dishes and provides water to drink when you’re out on the shred. Never stop making water, and leave some for the next arrivals. Fact: One gallon of snow makes about one cup of water.

Yurt alert:
Designate a Yurt Mom

Our Yurt Mom is a veteran yurter. In sailor parlance, she’d be known as a plankowner, or an original member of this annual expedition. We Alpine yurters know that after a day of skinning up hillsides with 17 switchbacks and sweating to the oldies and freezing and sweating some more, we will return to find a fire in the stove and an inside temperature equivalent to springtime in Phoenix.

Like your own mom, the Yurt Mom is to be respected at all times. (Yurt Mom, it should be noted, isn’t a gender-specific position. Yurt Moms can be, and often are, dudes.) Sure, the Yurt Mom might hang your mittens to dry and organize maps, smokables, mixers, batteries and snacks on the communal table, but that doesn’t mean you should expect her to. If she asks for a beer, you get her one. A smoke? Yes ma’am. An armload of wood? Get two. If she wants you to sleep next to the much-colder wall of the yurt at night, go on and do it. Personally, I’ve never traveled overnight in the backcountry without a Yurt Mom and I never will.

Yurt alert:
Make yourself useful

Yurt Mom can’t do everything. Be the one who tends the fire. Figure out the stove’s idiosyncrasies. Keep everyone warm and dry by hugging your yurtmates, and hugging them often. Make sure the party goes late into the night. (“Late” in yurt terms can be anywhere from 8 to 11 p.m. While others crawl inside their fart sacks to prep for a day of tough skinning, the yurt party patrol might continue to blast Girl Talk after passing out with a full beer in my, err, his hands.) Lastly, there is the yurt alarm clock. This person can wake up the yurt using one of four methods: vomiting, snoring, farting, or otherwise disturbing the peace. Our alarm clock chose all four on various mornings, but he’s a bit of an overachiever.

Yurt alert:
Build something

On our second night, the Alpine yurt was responsible for hosting a Super Bowl party, despite the absence of any television or radio to broadcast the game. While everyone else rode all day, our Yurt Mom dug out a sunken bar in the snow, replete with seating and buried blue and red lights. The effect of the lights was similar to those in a Berlin discothèque: warm and erotic. We called her creation the Fire and Ice Bar.

Nearby we built a kicker shaped with a throne at its lip. The landing ended up short, flat, dotted with small trees, and above a steep drop into tightly packed brush. In other words, it was not ideal.

We passed around a “cheese log,” which was a freshly split piece of pine used as a platter for crackers, sausage and cheese. We drank. We drank more. As the evening went on, and bravery increased, two intrepid yurters eyed the kicker. After a couple of practice runs, we lit a fire marking the kicker’s edges. (For the safety-concerned, residents of the Lupine yurt are real firefighters and oversaw the pyrotechnics.)

With Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” buzzing from the Fire and Ice Bar’s DJ booth, Rob Duff and Walker Hunter took turns flinging themselves from the kicker, which was aflame with lighter fluid. Spectators watched from the throne as each passed over them, nearly scalping their lids. Only the cold air of the clear, star-filled sky made us return to our respective yurts to gear up for another day of riding.

Not everyone should build a kicker, but everyone should build something. Create a snowman or a phallus. Be sure to leave your mark on the hill for the next group.

Yurt alert:
Take earplugs

Also functional as nose plugs if the aroma inside your yurt becomes ripe.

Yurt alert:
Make some alone time

At dawn, the outhouses are a joy, and a welcome respite from the claustrophobic clutter and personalities inside the yurt. The outhouses lack doors, but that’s a good thing. Each yurt’s outhouse faces in the direction of the winter sunrise to the southeast, with spectacular views of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and distant peaks in the Scapegoat Wilderness. The chatter of squirrels and whoosh of bird wings is all that you can hear. Sure, the seat is cold and maybe even a bit damp by the time your body heat warms it up, but the sun crests over the nearby ridge and fills the valley below with the kind of golden light usually reserved for wheat fields in cereal commercials.

Yurt alert:
Be neighborly

The second night, our Lupine neighbors hosted the entire 15-person crew for imbibing, victuals and a song or two. Fifteen people in a yurt cuts each person’s usable space down to about the size of a shoebox lid, but the Alpine crew was in good spirits and feeling quite Scandinavian—until we realized something was amiss.

As we approached the Lupine yurt, we noticed a large mustache and some cryptic words drawn in the fog of the yurt’s front door window. The yurt was also suspiciously quiet. But our crew was too hungry not to go inside.

What happened next is hard to explain. There were burritos for dinner, and much drinking of course. There were also rules involving mustaches and, after dinner, something we’ll call “Big Booty.” That’s when things got out of hand.

Blame the altitude, dehydration, body heat or whiskey, but I can’t share the story of Big Booty with you, nor say what or who Big Booty is. You had to be there. This isn’t about being coy. This is how yurting works. Part of being neighborly is keeping secrets.

Yurt alert:
Take one more run

It’s possible that you’ll never experience anything like Yurtski again, so when someone asks, “One more?” it’s time to set down your beer, put on your coat and slap on the skins. The quad-crushing work to get atop the ridges is rewarded as soon as you drop into a bowl for a gentle glide through charred trees and puffy glades. The cold snap of the wind is quickly forgotten as you open your mouth to yell out with joy and inhale powder.

That said, it’s what happens inside the yurts that we’ll talk about years later. All of us who have skied or snowboarded the West have likely shredded some big pow, but only a few have ever known Big Booty.


The skinny on Yurtski

Where it’s at: The yurts are situated in the southern Swan Mountains, between the Mission Mountains and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. It takes about an hour to drive from Missoula to the trailhead.

Accommodations: Yurts are 20 feet in diameter and are built on elevated wood platform decks. Each yurt is heated with a wood-burning stove, can sleep up to eight people and includes a full kitchen “with all the necessities to make even the most gourmet of meals.”

Rates and packages: The “self-sufficient” rental starts at $40 per person for a week, for groups of four or more. Yurtski provides a key and a map, discusses snowpack conditions and sets you on your way. Note: Each group member must sign a liability waiver and possess basic avalanche equipment, such as a beacon, shovel and probe. Gear haul service costs an additional $35 per person.

For a more structured stay, Yurtski offers “The Package” for $195 per person, per night. This includes a private yurt stay, meals and gear shuttle. Guided tours are also available for $150 per day.

For reservations, call (406) 721-1779 or email yurt_ski@yahoo.com to make reservations. You can also check availability online at yurtski.com.

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