More than a millennium ago nomadic Mongol hordes terrorized the steppes of Asia at top speed on their tough little ponies, ransacking and pillaging everything in their path. Who knows why, perhaps for the simple pleasure of scorched-earth conquest and having something to talk about over drinks. They brewed yak yogurt in their saddle bags, ate their horses and slept in yurts–portable, conical-roofed structures made of latticed willows and yak felt.
They are with us still, reincarnated into what Doug MacLennan calls yurtmaniacs, a loose-knit tribe of nomadic snowboarders, telemarkers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers who live to invade the backcountry in search of fat snow and bomber rides. They rampage high-altitude stashes of virgin powder just to feel the scream of overamped quads and overnight in Doug’s yurts, waiting only for daylight to do it all again.
MacLennan, director of the Southwest Nordic Center in Taos, is looking forward to his second season at Bull o’ the Woods Pasture, where he designed and installed New Mexico’s first backcountry yurt, a 24-foot diameter dwellingconstructed along classic lines. This should be good news to snow sliders of all persuaesions who are willing to work just a little harder to find a good ride. After a perfect day in the deep stuff, this yurt means never having to say goodbye.
Yurts are finding popularity now among modern-day snow Mongols. Their trademarks are the conical roof, walls made of latticed wooden slats–unparalleled for drying yaks and soggy geart–and a cable running the full circumference of the dwelling at the base of the cone. Classic yurts are typically built on piles of human skulls; however, MacLennan has made do with simple pilings to prevent burial with the big storms roll in. Well-insulated and covered in weatherproof fabric, yurts are ideal for withstanding the kind of heavy snowload associated with alpine terrain.
MacLennan also operates a yurt system in the Cumbres Pass area near Chama, four yurts 16 feet in diameter, three of which are linked for comfortable day tripping from yurt to yurt. The terrain, not as extreme as the Wheeler system, makes excellent touring on snowshoes or cross-country skis and a fine spot for novices in these sports. Up on Bull o’ the Woods, however, you’re hobnobbing with the big boys, the 11,000 to 12,000 foot peaks with decent vertical drop. At this altitude, the snowpack will hold for the entire season; the yurt will remain until snowmelt. There are some great rides up here–cross-country, telemark, snowboard, whatever.
When we approached MacLennan about staying in the yurt, he sent us a complete information packet with a map, list of gear and clothing to bring plus everything you ever needed to know about keeping camp in the extreme backcountry.
Accommodations are styling. Futon bunkbeds and spare mattresses that will sleep up to 10 people, perfect for hordes, with propane burners for cooking up chile and yak fat ski wax. An airtight woodstove that will boil water at ten feet away and burn all night, a window overlooking the meadow and a skylight in the apex of the cone. Maclenan beefed up his support system and eliminated the traditional center post. The result is an openness and feeling of light, creating a truly welcoming space that is also philosophically elegant. Sitting in the center of the floor just feels right. Drag your mattresses there and, from sleeping bags, watch the stars wheel overhead. Better than a movie.
MacLennan is from Pittsburgh and learned snow while he was in college in California. In addition to 13 years running his Chama system, he’s done plenty of homework at schools, clinics and workshops where he studied snow structure, avalanche recognition and safety techniques. you don’t have to read his resumé—just take a look at his pack. He cruises the backcountry year-round on mountain bike telemarks and shoe leather, putting together a system that gets people who want to be there into the backcountry in comfort and safety.
While you may not need avalanche survival gear to get to the yurt or tour the ridges, off the north side where the steeps and deeps live has real potential for loading up; it’s not terrain for novices.
That kind of take-no-prisoners backcountry is the reason the Pass Creek yurt in southern Colorado has snow Mongols packing their yaks and turning their horses into snowshoes. Located at 10,250 feet just below the Continental Divide southeast of Wolf Creek Pass, it’s an area known for deep, abundant snows.
This yurt, operated by former ski patroller Sandy Kobrok and avalance forecaster mark Mueller, is completely equipped with kitchen, cooking utensils and futons for four to six people. One access, following a U.S. Forest Service road to trailheads, is an established ski and snowmobile route six miles long that climbs 1,000 feet and is suitable for novice skiers and snowshoers in good condition. The alternate route through Alberta Park, though shorter, is only recommended for strong, stable, experienced skiers with proper equipment—that means navigational skills with map and compass and the ability to assess avalanche potential, always a consideration in the wolf Creek Pass area. But there’s enough terrain there to keep even the most voracious hordes busy for weeks. Pity the poor yaks.
Through the Southwest Nordic Center, Doug MacLennan would really like to do more field avalanche teaching and guiding. There’s an incredible reservoir of expertise in the Taos Ski Valley area that he wants to tap into, providing instruction by the ones who live the sport, know the terrain and are familiar with avalanche country and safety measures.
“I’d like to be able to do tours of avalanche country, not for the pucker factor,” he explains, “not to be in danger, but to show how an avalanche begins, how it looks when it’s happening.
“You can read the material ’til you’re blue in the face but it’s only an intellectual exercise until you get out there. You need the physical experience in order to be able to make the transition.” He knows of no other center in the area that focuses on backcountry skills at this level, skills vital to serious yurtmania.
But enough about yurts—let’s take a look at the maniac part.
In theory, you can blast the mile up the ridge from the yurt to the top of Bull o’ the Woods Mountain (11,514 feet) and ride it all the way down to the ski area parking lot. Not me. I’m for the simple life—whiz around on cross country skis or ‘shoes until you’re tired, eat until you’re full, sleep until you wake up, whiz around some more. Pull the phone out of the wall and put it in the closet where it belongs. Climbing the two miles up the trail to the yurt with all my comforts for a night fits right into the program.
A two-person horde, we load up in the Taos Ski Valley parking lot at the Bull o’ the Woods trailhead. Instructions are to bring sleeping bags, transportation, cabin slippers and a headlamp or flashlight plus all our food. This is my first time ever with a full pack on snowshoes but for a night on the side of Wheeler I’d carry my own yak.
MacLennan himself shows us the way. The trail is well-packed, so I shamelessly strap snowshoes on to the pack and ride Goretex. The trick will be not to let my excitement about getting to the yurt outrun my resources. I want to be sure I make it. We follow Bull o’ the Woods Trail, avoiding the horse paths, climbing steadily.
The first part of the trail is a stiff pop. It’s better not to listen to the racket my knees and shoulders are making, to get out of myself and enjoy the ride. No problem. The trail is charming, winding up through towering pines feat with new snow that glob me with big wet ones from time to time. Beside the trail, Twining Creek reverberates under its sheet of ice like a drum. Pretty soon the heartbeat steadies, the lungs find a rhythm and the spots in front of my eyes clear. I stop thinking about my feet and begin to enjoy myself hugely between gasps, relishing how many calories I am burning; if I hadn’t weaseled out, it would be a whopping 1,000 per hour hiking uphill in snowshoes. I don’t care.
The trail exacts its toll. Not so much the mileage, the cold or even the weight of my pack, a mere 30 pounds or so and starting to feel more like 90 by this time. It’s the altitude steadily depleting the enrgy supply—we gain a good 1,200 feet in our ascent from the parking lot before arriving at a junction in the trail, where important little signs point us toward to the top of Wheeler (5 miles on trail #90) or left to the Bull of the Woods Pasture where we find the yurt. I never saw a pasture I liked more.
Arriving by 3 in the afternoon after a hike of two hours plus, we are cold and tired (except for Doug, who does this twice a week on top of keeping up with his Chama system) and soaking wet from exertion. The woodstove fires right up. Piles of wood are stacked inside and a handful of palitos gets it going in a flash. That, and the survival rush of actually making the trip without snivelling in front of our guide, turns a simple uphill hike into an epiphany.
Not surprisingly, once we get there and lose the packs we are completely exhilarated. Everywhere we look is breathtaking country buried in deep snow and now it’s all ours. The yurt is just the icing on the cake—classy, comfortable, full of light, completely equipped. Doug recommends sunset on the ridge below Bull o’ the Woods mountain where northeastern New Mexico unfolds beneath our feet all the way south to the Pedernal and Jemez mountains. Later on, we’ll do that.
Meanwhile, we look around. We marvel. he grins. “Yeah,” he says, “Generally speaking I’d say people are pretty happy here…”
We grin some more.
“…as soon as they take their packs off.”
The hordes have left their marks all over the neighborhood. Angel Fire Resort uses a yurt design for their new restaurant on top, AAA Outfitters houses their elk hunters in a yurt and Angel Fire Excursions offers snowmobile rides into one located near Osha Pass. For further information on applied yurtmania call the Southwest Nordic Center, 505-758-4761 or Wolf Creek Backcountry, 920-731-2486. Reservations required.
*Backcountry Touring Tips:
• Bring power food and plenty of protein to help your body keep up with the demands of high altitude. It’s the difference between burning paper or wood to keep warm.
• Cotton kills. It will get wet, it will freeze and leave you laminated in ice. Take polar fleece, polypropylene or wool. Change out of wet clothing as soon as you get a fire started to avoid getting chilled.
• If you don’t know what an avalance starting zone looks like, don’t go there.
• Compass and map-reading skills are a requirement if you’re going to tackle challenging terrain. Whatever your strength and experience, don’t underestimate any trip you take into extreme backcountry.
• If you are new to the area, engage a guide, it’s worth the extra cost. They are full of good tips and mountain lore and will be happy to help you carry your stuff.
— Charlotte Amrine Hollis uses any excuse to get outside and writes occasionally for GO!, the Albuquerque Journal adventure section.
This article appeared in the 2000-2001 issue of Ski Country.