By Winter Wildlands Alliance Policy Director, Hilary Eisen

This past March I found myself, along with 4 friends, shouldering the heaviest pack I’ve carried in years and clicking into skis on the frozen Gunii Gol (Gun River), about to embark on a month-long expedition to survey for wildlife in northwest Mongolia. After years of planning and fundraising, and over a week of travel just to get to this starting point, we were anxious to start skiing. Our anxiety was heightened by a distinct lack of snow on the surrounding steppe. The Gunii would be our path to the (hopefully) much snowier highlands of the Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area.

Our expedition was part of a rapidly-expanding partnership between the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration and The Wolverine Foundation. The link connecting these entities is a Bozeman-based conservationist, Rebecca Watters. In 2013, she was part of a team (along with Winter Wildlands ambassadors Jim Harris and Forrest McCarthy) that conducted the first-ever winter wildlife survey in the mountains surrounding Mongolia’s Darhad Valley. Three years later, as we were hiking up Bozeman’s popular “M trail”, Rebecca mentioned she was interested in repeating and expanding upon the 2013 survey. I eagerly volunteered to help organize the expedition. We recruited 3 other athlete-biologist friends – Jen Higgins, Sarah Olson, and Dylan Taylor – and with a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding and product support from Altai Skis, Katadyn Outdoors (Alpine Aire Food and SteriPEN), Caramel Cookie Waffles, LÄRABAR, Big Agnes, Duckworth, Skida, Titan Straps, and Fast Wax Ski Wax, the 2019 Darhad Ski Expedition became reality.

Here we are at our starting point with the Protected Areas’ staff and rangers who drove us there. Where’s the snow?!

Back in the early 2000’s, the discovery of significant amounts of gold and jade in the mountains surrounding the Darhad Valley kicked off a mining boom that threatened wildlife, fish, forests, and pristine waters. Concerned about the health of the forest and its wildlife, clean water, and the safety of their families, the local people of the Darhad petitioned the government to protect nature and prohibit mining in the region. After many twists and turns, Tengis Shishged National Park and Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area were finally established in 2012. Combined with the existing Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area, the total amount of protected land in the Darhad totals over 3.7 million acres, all of which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration and is managed by a staff of just five professionals and 34 rangers. Our plan was to traverse Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area, Tengis Shishged National Park, and a multi-use zone in-between Tengis Shishged and Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area.

The goal of our expedition was to provide scientific support to the Protected Areas managers and test for the viability of periodic long-range ski trips as a non-invasive monitoring technique in places where traditional wildlife research methods (colloquially known in the research community as “collar and foller”) are not an option. The 2013 Darhad expedition focused on wolverine tracking and collected dozens of scat samples for genetic analysis. We hoped to find and collect additional wolverine scat to analyze and compare with the 2013 samples in order to increase understanding of wolverine populations in the Darhad. We would also be surveying for other wildlife, assisting the Protected Areas’ Administration to develop a baseline understanding of wildlife species presence and distribution across the region.

Although our plan was to follow the GPS track recorded by the 2013 expedition for part of our route, nobody had ever traversed Ulaan Taiga on modern skis (the 2013 expedition traversed Tengis Shishged), so we relied on Google Earth to chart an approximate course that followed river valleys connected with mountain passes that appeared to be passable. When we got to Mongolia we shared our intended route (on Google Earth), with the Protected Areas’ director, Tumursukh Jal, who has spent a lifetime in the mountains surrounding the Darhad. He confirmed that it was doable, at least in the summer. No one knew for sure if it was possible in winter, with potentially dangerous snow conditions or uncrossable rivers. There was only one way to find out.

The Darhad, which is north of 50 degrees’ latitude, is notoriously cold, with the average temperature staying below zero from November through March. Frostbite, bitter cold, and super deep snow were among the challenges the 2013 expedition faced. Knowing this, and having tracked the temperatures in the region all winter, our packs were loaded with -20 degree sleeping bags, extra-puffy jackets, overboots for cold feet, and more. However, upon arriving in Mongolia we learned that it had been an unusually low snow winter in the Darhad, and we’d arrived at the start of an unseasonably warm spring. As we drove to our starting point on the edge of Ulaan Taiga, the landscape was overwhelmingly brown. Thankfully the rivers remained frozen and were holding snow – essential for wildlife tracking.

Backpacks loaded to the max! Jen Higgins photo.

Within minutes of clicking into our skis on the first day we came across wolverine tracks. When I first saw the tracks I thought to myself “naw…it can’t be” and then heard Rebecca exclaim “Gulo!” (Gulo gulo is the scientific name for wolverine). We followed the tracks upriver, carefully examining every willow or larch tree that might be hiding a scat. Snow tracking gives you a very different perspective on your surroundings than simply skiing. It’s an opportunity to view the world through another species’ perspective and to imagine what they’ve experienced along the same route. Before long, our wolverine had started following, or perhaps was being followed by, several wolves. Wolf tracks and wolverine tracks intertwined and wove in and out of willows in the braided river channel. We followed the tracks until the wolverine left the river and set off across the steppe where, because there was no snow, our tracking ended. We continued skiing upriver, searching for more tracks.

Following wolverine tracks. Jen Higgins photo.

We quickly settled into a rhythm – ski, eat, rest, repeat. Day after day. Our general pattern was to follow a river to its source, ascend a pass, ski down the next drainage until intersecting our next upstream river, and repeat. Wolverine and other wildlife tracks were numerous but the snow was, in a word, terrible. Although it became more abundant after we gained elevation on our first day, it never improved in quality. Sugar, facets, breakable crust, glop, ice – Mongolia’s cold and ultra-dry climate makes for difficult snow conditions. At lower elevations, we were restricted to river corridors as the frozen river was the only skiable surface and place where tracks were evident. Beyond the river we “skied” over rocks, willows, tussocks, mosses, and grass, or opted to put our skis on packs and walk.

Access to Mongolia’s Strictly Protected Areas is restricted to scientific purposes only and our expedition would not have been possible without permission, support, and guidance from the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration. The administrative staff in the town of Ulaan Uul and the Darhad rangers who met us at three separate points along our route to resupply us with food, fuel and fresh socks were as much a part of the expedition team as the five of us on skis. In planning the expedition, we knew our resupplies would be critical, but what we hadn’t anticipated was how enjoyable they would be. Each resupply was an opportunity to spend time with and, learn from, the Mongolians who are dedicated to protecting and caring for the mountains we were traveling through. Although none of the Mongolians we met in the Darhad speak English, and Dylan’s, Sarah’s, and my Mongolian is limited to “hello”, “thank you”, “goodbye” “wolverine” and – my favorite – a children’s rhyme where you chant “shade shade go away, come here sun!”, Jen and Rebecca both speak Mongolian. Rebecca, in particular, is fluent and graciously provided translation for everybody.

Sarah, Jen, Hilary, and Rebecca with Boldbaatar and Ganhuyag – the rangers (and their horses) who met us deep in the backcountry with our first resupply. Dylan Taylor photo.

Despite the language barrier, our experiences in a shared landscape, and our skis, provided connection. Skiing has a long history in the Darhad, especially among the Tsataan, nomadic reindeer herders who traditionally used skis to hunt during the winter, but it is a dying tradition. We had great fun helping our new Mongolian friends into our boots (well, mostly Dylan’s boots) and watching them try out our skis. One of the rangers who met us for our first resupply, Boldbaatar, was especially keen to ski. I pulled on my boots to join him, thinking I would be providing ski instruction, and he took off like a rocket! I hurried to catch up, and soon realized that what I thought was a ski lesson was actually a ski race! As it turns out, Boldbaatar had skied when he was in school! When we finally came to a stop, he laughed and said riding a horse was a much easier way to travel! Horse travel is limited by deep snow, however, and after observing how skis allowed us to travel deep into the mountains, and trying them out for themselves, all the rangers we met excitedly talked about how skis would help them in their work patrolling the backcountry.

Our skis (Altai Skis’ Koms) and traditional Mongolian skis made of spruce and horse hide. Sarah Olson photo.

On the 12th night of the expedition we camped on the banks of the Ikh Jams river. From this point forward we followed the same route (although in the opposite direction) as the 2013 expedition. It was a relief to know that others had skied, and ground-truthed, the route. Our first 12 days had included detours around surprise waterfalls, tiptoeing through avalanche terrain, and the general sense of adventure that comes from really not knowing what’s around the corner. The second half of our traverse was marked more by challenges with gloppy, or non-existent, snow than terrain or route-finding difficulties.

In planning this expedition, we aimed to hit the sweet spot between long days and adequate snow, so we started skiing right after spring equinox. Of course, we hadn’t planned on an unseasonably warm spring. As the days grew longer and temperatures continued to rise, it became more and more of a struggle to find skiable surfaces, much less wolverine tracks. Rivers were our main travel arteries both because they are generally the path of least resistance (ie. least willows) down a valley, and because frozen rivers provide a wonderfully skiable surface. Until they start to melt. Although the rivers rarely melted to the point of being impassable (except for short stretches), we encountered increasing amounts of slushly overflow, which built up in an aggravating layer of glop on the bottoms of our skis. We also had to be aware of deep pockets of water sandwiched between slush and the frozen river below, and occasionally had to quickly change course to avoid filling our boots with water. Towards the end of the expedition we often found ourselves walking in our ski boots up dry riverbeds, through willow-choked riparian areas, or across snow-free meadows, but we generally managed to find another section of snow or ice without having to walk too far.

Hilary Eisen photo

We had our doubts about whether the snow would hold out. Our last few days of skiing were a bit contrived as we hopscotched our way along from one skiable surface to the next, but we made it to our final destination at Jiglig Pass, a major nomadic migration route connecting the Darhad Valley to Khövsgöl lake. Twenty-nine days and 340 miles after first shouldering our packs on the Gunii, we had completed a human-powered winter traverse through some of the most remote country on earth. By the time we took our boots off for the last time, we’d documented 45 sets of wolverine tracks, collected over a dozen scat samples, and filled 12 pages of data sheets with track locations of other wildlife species including moose, wolf, elk, boar, roe deer, sable, lynx, and marten. We did not find any sign of snow leopard.

Throughout our time in the Darhad everybody we talked with mentioned that spring was a month ahead of schedule – the rivers were breaking up early and the snow was melting faster than they’d seen before. While the early spring was a bit of a headache for our ski expedition, it’s indicative of a much larger concern. Climate change is dramatically impacting Mongolia. While the effects climate change is having on Mongolia’s human population are of grave concern, less is known about how it’s impacting the country’s wildlife.

Wolverines are closely linked with persistent spring snow cover and scientists are concerned about the species’ ability to persist in a warming, less snowy, world. Government designations have protected this unique place from mining and development, but boundaries and designations won’t stop climate change and its impacts on species across the globe. The Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration staff are incredibly dedicated to protecting their unique corner of the world for future generations. This expedition was one small contribution to their efforts and to advancing wildlife conservation in Mongolia. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of this larger effort to address climate change and the impacts it has on our wild snowscapes.

Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the extent of a journey when you’re in the middle of it. When we were skiing we were often just focused on our goal for the day, the number of hours since our last snack break, or the wolverine tracks we were following. Up one river and down the next, trudging through deep snow, and effortlessly gliding down river ice, we kept moving forward. After days of moving, it was anticlimactic when we took of our ski boots at the end to wait on the side of a road for our ride back to the Protected Areas’ headquarters in Ulaan Uul. But, when we were driving through the Darhad Valley the following morning we saw the vast panorama of mountains we had just traversed for the first time. Our jaws dropped open as we piled out of the van to take in the view. Suddenly we had some perspective on where we’d been and how far we’d traveled over the past month, as well as the enormity of the challenge faced by the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration to care for and manage such a vast landscape.

Wolf tracks on ice. Jen Higgins photo.

WWA Ambassador Rich Meyer reports from Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains and our annual Keep Winter Wild Yurt Trip.

Words and images by Mike Whelan, Treasured Heights

[Note: This post was revised June 26 to reflect local input.]

The Knife Edge, Chimney Pond and Hamlin Peak are names that invoke a smile for those who’ve been to the distant flanks of Maine’s highest peak. For many years I’d wanted to get on the peak, especially in the winter. After skiing 21 of the 24 snowy state high points I went back East to take on the region’s hardest and most remote mountain.

While New Hampshire’s Mount Washington may be the called the “Beast of the East,” Mount Katahdin is the largest independent massif with the most rugged terrain in the Northeast. The peak is located in the far north of Maine in Baxter State Park, and adjacent to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. In winter, the peak’s big vertical and 39 mile round trip distance makes it more difficult than most of the peaks in the Rocky Mountains.

The Long Tour

While the origin of backcountry skiing has been in long tours, today most backcountry skiers average under 8 miles in a day. Not only are the most popular peaks short on distance, but they also allow for gravity to make the trip out easy, skiing right back to the car. Even the giant Rainier allows for a bailout option and a gravity-fed escape to the comforts of civilization.

Longer tours on peaks like Gannett Peak (WY), Kings Peak (UT) and Katahdin are a totally different animal. There is no easy out and planning is critical. On Katahdin we started with a 13 mile mostly flat approach. Snowmobile traffic by the rangers makes it a smooth tour most of the time. The mental grind of a long woods slog with heavy sled is the first hard part about the peak. The vertical for Katahdin including ups and downs on the approach was over 5500’.

On the summit day we passed the amazing ice above Chimney Pond, and drooled at the gaggles of gullies found in the cirques between Hamlin Peak and Katahdin. After discussions with the resident ranger it was clear that avy conditions would not allow for descent of the steeper lines this trip. We stuck with doing laps in the Saddle Slide gulley and stood on the remote rime-covered summit 19 miles from the car.

Routes on Katahdin

There are plenty of gullies and cirques on the peak and it boasts the coolest natural feature of any Appalachian mountain: the Knife Edge. At only a few feet wide the east ridge of Katahdin drops off on both sides with wicked couloirs and gullies famous among ice climbers and notorious among eastern skiers. Local skiers can patiently wait years for many of the aesthetic steep lines to come in to skiable shape. Skiers more often go north of the summit to two large cirques with 2k’ vertical of gully skiing.

Most of Katahdin’s skiing is accessed from the Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond from the East. However you park to the South of the peak and have to wrap around the mountain first. The bunk houses with wood stoves here are excellent for drying gear on multi day trips. This is great when travelling in the humid and frigid maritime air.

Planning and Red Tape

Bunk houses with wood stoves are excellent for drying gear on multi day trips.

If you are used to federal lands or state parks you’ll notice a different management style at Mt. Katahdin, this is because even though it is called “Baxter State Park”, it is run by a trust and through private funding. In the past they have had odd rules, which older skiers have told me about, such as list requiring carrying along an ax, outdoor thermometer and wind chill chart. In recent years they have modernized, however a few rules from that era remain that could be improved.

Reservation System

Skiers are required to reserve spots in lean-tos or bunkhouses by mail at least one week ahead of time. Just as we encounter in the West with tourists flying in for an ascent of Rainier or Hood in a short, inflexible window, this can lead to people ascending in bad conditions do to scarcity of other date options. I witnessed skiers going in on our last day as we were escaping a storm. Since spots are tough to get the group remained committed to skiing anyway. That storm resulted in avalanches that caught two people in the nearby Whites. Allowing for credit card payments and an online waiver form could allow for more spontaneous reservations which can take advantage of safer weather. This won’t solve the weekend problem but would help push things in a more fluid direction.

Skiing Prohibited after April 1st

The best skiing and safest snowpack happens in April on good snow years in the Northeast, and I have yet to see a solid explanation for the April closure. Unlike the Chic Chocs there are no caribou here competing for the same alpine terrain. Even if areas are sensitive after snowmelt, having a rigid date does not help the wildlife, changing to a cutoff date that can be extended on high snow years makes much more sense. At a time when conservation is under attack on a mass scale we need to cultivate more responsible and passionate users of the park.

More Than Just Baxter

The more people who are inspired by Mount Katahdin, the more people will care about this special place, and can resist efforts to challenge needed extensions of protected land around Baxter. As it is Baxter State Park is only 209,644 acres and active scars from the extraction industry are clearly visible on nearby lands. Ryan Zinke’s recent threat and retraction of the threat to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument illustrates a close call which could have required a national and full mobilization of all people who love this region, including skiers. Park managers must run the balance of protecting pristine nature and accommodating tourists like us to help the long term survival of the great north woods of Maine.

Katahdin is a place you visit and always dream of returning. Despite bad weather the magic of the mountain permeated through the clouds and our souls. Even with perfect weather we could have only scratched the surface of the countless gullies on this massif. At least once in a lifetime every East Coast backcountry skier should get up to Katahdin and see the wildest side of New England.

Check out this short film about the experience:

More from this author:
Photos and videos of state high point skiing:
Instagram: @ski_TreasuredHeights
Website: http://www.TreasuredHeights.com

In March 2018, Winter Wildlands Alliance Executive Director Mark Menlove, ambassadors Kt Miller and Rich Meyer, and friends ventured deep into the Smokey Mountains of Idaho for pristine powder, spiritual renewal and to support our Keep Winter Wild campaign. (Words and photos by Kt Miller.)

SMALL TALK ENSUED as we began working our way up the skin track with hut packs full of ski kits, sleeping bags, and local micro brews. Most trips begin with these formalities, as we shake off the bustle of our everyday lives. The rhythm of the skin track soon settled in, along with our comfort with each other, quiet, and solitude.

As we crested the ridgeline of Little Round Top the views opened up. Mountains stretched in all directions, and shadows danced in the sun underneath a blanket of burned trees from a forest fire not-so-long ago. A huge grin on the face of Sun Valley Trekking‘s owner, Joe St. Onge, hinted to the turns to come. With a joyful hoot and swift glide he led us down 1200’ vertical feet of perfect sunlit powder— and so began our four days of revelry in the Smokey Mountains.

We settled into yurt life, powder skiing during the day, and a rotation of good food, good conversation, and sauna sessions at night.

I wandered the path slowly, stopping multiple times, breathing in and out, taking it in. It had been far too long since I gazed at the stars.

Like many, I felt the weight of 2017, and although 2018 renewed my hope, the challenges have not ceased spiritually, personally, or professionally. The first evening I woke in the middle of the night to visit the ladies room— it’s always hard to crawl out of my sleeping bag on the first night, but as I tiptoed out of the yurt into the darkness I was overwhelmed by a deeply bright, starry night. I wandered the path slowly, stopping multiple times, breathing in and out, taking it in. It had been far too long since I gazed at the stars. I wanted to lay there staring up at the glowing sky forever, refilling my soul with the mystery of nature’s delight.

Winter Wildlands Alliance Executive Director Mark Menlove getting after it.

It felt as though our souls were starved for the walking meditation of the skin track. No one seemed to be able to get enough. The days began to blur together in a multitude of perfect powder runs through burned trees, again and again, ebbing and flowing and weaving our way across the landscape. Tired legs begged for more, eager to feel the weary satisfaction of a long day in the skin track, and a quiet mind in the mountains— to let go of the strife of daily life, to simplify, just for a moment— or perhaps to make that feeling linger longer. There was silence and laughter and gratitude and glee as we let ourselves surrender to gravity and bonded over our common love of wild places covered in snow.

As we packed our things on the final day it felt as though the trip had just begun. We celebrated our new friendships, and danced through the forest for a few more runs before heading back to the world below— renewed, restored, and rejuvenated— anticipating the next opportunity to both lose and find ourselves again in untracked powder snow.

“To let go of the strife of daily life, to simplify, just for a moment.”

Guest post by Michael Whelan  |  Photos by Xhedral

A long time ago, in a desert far, far away I was skiing a beautiful line in the La Sals near Moab, Utah. There I met a local who told tales of great powder in a rarely visited mountain range called the Abajos. Part of this range is now within Bears Ears National Monument. This week I finally decided to go ski some of the last lines of the season in the range.

This week is also a critical week for the fate of the Bears Ears National Monument. The Trump administration is taking the first steps towards potentially shrinking or rescinding Bears Ears and 26 other monuments designated in the past 21 years. Bears Ears has become a focal point in the national struggle to defend the West’s last wild places.

Bears Ears National Monument includes the western half of the Abajo Mountains, with the highest point being the 11,014 foot Unamed Peak. The eastern side of the range is the most popular for skiing and features an old ski area and 2,000 foot gully runs. Multiple 10,000 foot peaks with steep tree and gully lines can be accessed from near Monticello, Utah. My goal was to ski the highest peak in the range and scout lines on the Bears Ears side of the peaks.

Unnamed Peak, at 11,014 feet this is the highest point in Bears Ears National Monument

The Abajos are so quiet that no one had published a report on late season skiing in the region before. I was imagining some real bottom-of-the-barrel gully skiing, and it was hard to find any partners on short notice. Arriving in the area I found only local hunters with packs of hound dogs. I felt far from the bustle of tourists that buzz around Moab. A recent snow made it possible to start skinning from 8,800 feet and it wasn’t long that I was up in the heart of this little range. Around me steep wooded lines dropped off of ridges.

When I gained elevation it became apparent that Unnamed Peak, my original goal, had seen its best skiing go by a month ago. I opted to ski a few gullies and the North Face of Abajo Peak instead and I found deep snow and beautiful tree lines. Both Abajo Peak and Jackson Ridge have quality north facing lines. North Creek Road skirts close to the peaks and gives excellent access to several valleys. While the La Sals get all the attention, the Abajos seem to have better access to a broad cross section of the peaks.

The north face of Abajo Peak

Bears Ears was designated as a monument to protect the archaeological and cultural sites contained within its boundaries but the region holds fantastic recreation opportunities as well. Much has been written about the world class climbing, mountain biking, and hiking within Bears Ears and, as I learned, the monument holds great ski terrain as well. However, Utah politicians and extractive industries are fighting to undo the monument. The monument was designated after years of public discourse involving all stakeholders and only happened after efforts to protect the area through Congressional designation failed. All Americans, not just those who live in southeastern Utah, have a stake in the future of Bears Ears. These lands, like all public lands, belong to all of us and monuments protect our collective national heritage.

The Abajos feature some very accessible terrain

Make your voice heard before Friday May 26th, 2017: use the Outdoor Alliance’s letter writing tool to tell Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that you support the Bears Ears National Monument as it stands.