By Pietro Simonetti (Bus’98)
Our sleek, sporty metal beast speeds on a deserted stretch of Hwy. 191, the asphalt a scar in the flat green valley, sculpted on one side by a rushing, metallic-gray river and on the other by jagged white mountains, heavy with late spring snow. It’s dusk-near-dark, and we’ve been driving nonstop for eight hours. A long haul from Colorado. We’re tired, and drooling of an earthy meal, a boxcar of cold-brewed Coors and soft beds.
Suddenly, a collection of lights — no, reflecting eyes! — appears from the side of the road. I barely see them in time to instinctively hit the brake, swerve to the center lane and . . . exhale a huge sigh of relief. Missed! Way too close. I glimpse in the rear-view mirror just in time to see a barreling 18-wheeler smash through the crossing herd. Carcasses and parts are airborne, randomly landing on both sides of the highway.
The Mack-battering ram doesn’t miss a piston stroke—and apparently a deer—and plows through, barely scathed. Life and death on the way up to the great Yellowstone National Park. My buddy sarcastically pleads, “You might wanna slow down.” I set the cruise at 75, still shaking at our near slaughter. This is not the way we will go down. We have to ski Yellowstone first.
It’s mud season in Jackson Hole and it seems half the town is AWOL for some well-deserved rest — somewhere exotic, we hope—after a long winter season. The few that remain are still partying hearty. Beers at the Silver Dollar Saloon are never dull. It’s open mic night and the locals compete for the worst voice of the West. Not even alcohol soothes the ear ache and it’s time to go. Wake-up call is set for 4 a.m. While the ghost town sleeps we sneak out to Grand Teton National Park, a brief warm-up before Yellowstone.
We decide to get our mountain legs under us with a predawn hike to get up close and personal with Grand Teton’s abundant fauna. Huge herds of elk, pronghorn antelope and bison are on the move, relentlessly making their way north. Africa is famous for its wild migrations, and so often we forget that we have our own such miracle here in our own backyard, one that rivals that continent’s TV-hyped wildebeest exodus.
We’re transfixed by the sight and sound and are literally moved by the experience, feeling the ground trembling under our feet like a small earthquake. The Grand Teton — jutting skyward without distracting foothills — paints a spectacular background, shining in the morning light, with its impossible verticality and grandeur.
The moraine lakes surrounding the 13er are still mostly frozen, but one gigantic moose wasn’t. She comes out for a morning drink, struggling to find an opening in the ice. What a glorious animal. So big, tall and majestic. She gets her ice-cold, hard-earned drink, then disappears into a break in the steep mountainside. Gone in an instant, surviving, like the heavy snow hiding in the forest. I wonder where she goes. Life is tough in the Tetons. The long winters, the scarce food, predators and then us — humans — maybe the biggest threat of all.
Our ski date with the mountain beckons, so it’s back in the car for a short, scenic drive to Yellowstone. Skis shouldered, we soldier in from the parking lot. The park is open, but not many tourists have ventured this far this early. Old Faithful doesn’t care and explodes on time. My mate and I take pictures of the people on the benches, those waiting for the brief eruption. They’re so focused on the postcard moment that they don’t even bother looking around. To us it seems they’re looking in the wrong direction. The attraction shouldn’t be that attraction; it should be the surrounding beauty.
Onward and upward. Our mountain destination is on the remote east side of Yellowstone. where even less people step outside their cars. No pretty geysers or colorful hot pools. The perfect spot to strap on boots and sticks and ski into the wild.
A solitary bison grazes by a large river. A pocket of elk defends a nearby hill, nervously eyeing two strangers in curious gear encroaching on their land. The spring snow is soft and heavy. Jackets and helmets way too warm for the steep climb. And it finally hit us, we’re out of the protection of an enclosed car, walking on dangerous ground. Lions and tigers and bears — okay, bears and wolves — could be anywhere and wouldn’t be easily scared by a flying pole or a dull ski edge. But we’re not here to fight the beasts. We’re here to ski among them in their pristine environment where hopefully wild animals and our wild idea can coexist. It’s about respect, not harm.
And respect is what we get when we cut through a bison herd grazing on an unexpected patch of grass in the sea of snow and ice. They look at us warily, alert to our presence but don’t react . . . meaning charge. Our hearts beat faster, but apparently theirs don’t. We gratefully hike through.
We’re finally on top. The view is indescribable, with the Teton Range in the distance covering most of the rim that encloses us. Where the hot geysers erupt, the green, flush grass offers a welcome oasis for the Yellowstone menagerie ―a peaceful contrast to other areas of the park that are still engulfed in heavy snow, and rivers and streams roar with powerful spring snow melt.
We descend swiftly — and respectfully — through our newly met friends. Again, the indigenous Yellowstone residents pay little heed but their eyes follow our “s” shaped turns in natural curiosity. What in the hell are these creatures doing on our land? Why are they going so fast? And where are they going? We, in turn, grin all the way to the bottom, feeling as one with the nature around us.
By the time we regretfully return to civilization, the sun is setting and darkness is filling the space around us. We seriously debate a second run, but it’s impossible. Headlamp-hiking is too insane. Not worth the risk. We’ve had our unbelievable wild encounter, and it’s a long way home. We bid adieu to the lone bison that has guarded our car the whole time, and we climb back into the comfort — and safety — of our vehicle. Heated seats, dry clothes, cold drinks and plenty of snacks.
Life is easy for us. Life is tough for the animals of Yellowstone. Or is it the other way around? We’ve skied among them and briefly witnessed their struggles and serenity, which are not unlike our own travails and moments of peace. We like their chances as much as ours. So, we assume, do the bald eagle we see perched on a parking lot post and the coyote dancing in the distance as we leave the park. We salute our new friends of Yellowstone. Predators and prey.
In 2001 Pietro Simonetti (Bus’98) reached the top of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere (23,000 ft.). In 2002, Pietro and four friends set a Guinness World Record by skiing all Colorado’s 28 resorts in 80 hours, 41 minutes to raise funds for the National Sports Center for the Disabled. He traveled to Makalu Base Camp in Nepal to undergo a series of tests to study the effects of high altitude on his own body, research sponsored by CU-Boulder, which led to improvements to the high-altitude Gamow bag used to reduce effective altitude in cases of sicknesses. Pietro was one of two skiers on the Kilimanjaro expedition of Across the Atlas, the nonprofit with which he works. The organization supports groups with substantial monetary donations raised through adventure expeditions that span the globe.