It’s 9:30 a.m. when we meet up at The Dump. Other than Main Street, it’s the only place to publicly park in Cooke City, Montana, and the only other people around are a couple of snowmobilers with a case of PBR strapped to one of their sleds. They’re debating who gets to down the remains of last night’s whiskey, each insisting the other do the honors.
This spot beneath the Beartooth Mountains, which loom gray and steep behind us, isn’t really a dumpsite. Rather, it’s the townie nickname for the Republic Creek Trailhead on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park. I’m waiting here alongside three military veterans and Stacy Bare, the director of the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors program, for the rest of the crew to show up.
Stacy’s here to take six veterans into the backcountry as part of the Club’s Military Outdoors Program, a sector of the broader-focused Mission Outdoors. Military Outdoors initially started in 2006 and extends from one basic principle: if the Sierra Club is designed to protect and promote exploration of the outdoors, then those who dedicate their lives to protecting these spaces should get a chance to enjoy them. Plus, being outside can help ease the transition from military service to civilian life and provide mental and physical health benefits. And while previous military outings have included rafting, climbing and adaptive skiing, this is the first of the backcountry skiing variety.
Before I booked my ticket to Bozeman, Stacy and I caught up on the phone, where he told me about the project’s genesis—a brainchild created by himself and Doug Peacock, the Vietnam veteran who served as Edward Abbey’s inspiration for Hayduke, the Green Berets character in The Monkey Wrench Gang. The goal: educate veterans about high-elevation whitebark pine trees, a keystone species for the surrounding ecosystem (the pine nut is a main food source for grizzlies), and how climate change is impacting them. Whitebark pine forests, it turns out, offer some fantastic skiing, too, and the trip would serve as a chance for veterans to relax and take some turns together.
“When Doug came home from Vietnam, he went into Montana and spent the last 35 years tracking grizzly bears and spending time with grizzly bears,” Stacy explained. “I got to know Doug, and we started talking about what we could do together, and one of the biggest issues [for grizzlies] is the whitebark pine. So Doug introduced me to Jesse Logan, who is one of the world’s experts on whitebark pine, and Jesse and I put this plan together.”At the trailhead, we slowly circle up, and I do a quick scan: there are stubbled faces and gray beards and No. 2-pencil posture. I quickly push my shoulders back.
Photographer Kt Miller skins up, floating across The Dump on her skis, and our guides roll in, too—Ben Zavora and Brian “Wolfy” Campbell from Beartooth Powder Guides. As I later learn from Kt, a Cooke City gal, no trip into Yellowstone’s expanse is complete without “The Good Doctor”—Jesse Logan, a Vietnam veteran himself and a retired U.S. Forest Service entomologist who smiles and chats while adjusting skins. Jeremy Jones is here, as well, partnering with the Sierra Club for this trip through Protect Our Winters (POW), the nonprofit he founded to organize outdoorspeople around climate-change education and advocacy.
It’s a two-mile skin through lodgepole pines to Woody Creek Cabin, a cozy lodge that Ben built by hand in 2012. It’s early March, and the sticky snow—about half of this region’s normal snowpack—is proof of the unseasonably warm spring. For Chris Roup, an Army National Guard veteran from Pennsylvania, and William Rimmer, a Navy guy who’s moved nine times in the past 12 years (with four boys, nonetheless), skinning is uncharted territory. Others like Rick Meade, another Navy veteran from Washington, and Josh Jespersen, a Navy Seal and Leadville, Colo. resident, glide effortlessly up.
It’s slow going, but we eventually make it to the cabin, tucked back at almost 9,000 feet near the confluence of Hayden and Woody Creeks. We eat a spread of sandwiches, trail mix and gummy bears and review avalanche basics before slapping our skins back on.
Öllie Woods, a section of whitebark pine off the nearby Hayden Ridge, is a short trek, made a little longer by our ecology lesson. Jesse pauses every few minutes, explaining the two battles that whitebark pine face. One is Blister Rust, a fungus introduced from Asia in the 1900s. “It takes 20 years to kill a tree,” Jesse says. “Trees can’t produce cones in the meantime. They’re essentially zombies.”
The other newer threat? Mountain pine beetles, native insects that, thanks to warming temperatures, are beginning to creep from lodgepole and ponderosa pine forests into high-elevation whitebark pines. “There’s enough heat during summer and throughout the year to complete a [pine beetle] life cycle in one year, which is really important for the beetles,” Jesse says, the vets visibly leaning toward him as they listen. “Plus, the lack of cold temperatures in winter—it takes temperatures down in the range of minus 40 to kill off the beetle—and we’re just not seeing those temperatures.”
Then Jesse delivers the final blow: the whitebark pine’s survival strategy has been, evolutionarily, to flee to higher ground. In doing so, it didn’t develop the defensive chemistry against the beetles that’s present in lodgepoles and ponderosas. “They’re sitting ducks,” Jesse says, matter of factly. Those sitting ducks don’t just drop to the ground and disappear, either. They stand, eerily twisted and dead, as warnings to their neighbors of what might be to come.
I catch a few guys looking at each other, eyes widened. It’s hard to believe this forest and its tight ski lines between gnarled branches could be obliterated. That’s when Ben chimes in. “Yeah, Jesse’s really turned me into a tree dork,” he says from behind a blonde mustache.
We split off into two groups to take our first run, a low-angle scramble through Öllie Woods. There’s tangible excitement, both at finally going downhill and because we all want to watch Jeremy Jones do his thing. “Go slowly, take your time,” Jeremy says over his shoulder. “It’s spicy meatballs out here.”
“Now may be your chance to see Jeremy Jones fall,” Stacy replies in his reverberating voice. “Don’t miss it.”
Turns out, Jeremy isn’t the one to take a nosedive. Stacy, bending forward from his 6’7″ height to avoid branches, goes down. William, on his first backcountry run ever, forgets to lock into ski mode and follows suit. It really is spicy out here, and as we slog back to the cabin, I’m ready for a beer.
Alcohol, however, is a no-go on the Military Outdoors trips. And once we’re sitting around the long table in Woody Creek Cabin, I’m fine without it, listening instead to the honest conversations that hut trips always seem to stir up. The last time I was in this region was for a girls’ ski camp, and we talked about boys, pop stars and ski racing. It’s a little different this time, and the discussion ranges from the 2016 election—“America will always be America,” Josh says. “We have checks and balances for a reason.”—to hometowns and war stories. The mood fluctuates between raucous and somber, then back again, as they swap tales about friends and friends lost, the best place to stargaze without light pollution (the middle of the ocean, insist the Navy guys), mud-hut living quarters in Afghanistan and the politics that sent some of them overseas. Despite their service decades apart and in different parts of the world, they’re tied together.After reviewing the morning’s avalanche forecast and the day’s plan—to travel up Hayden Ridge again, farther past yesterday’s run—Jesse dives into today’s lesson. It’s the next piece of the larger picture on the surrounding ecosystem: grizzly bears.
About a week before this trip, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the grizzlies of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the Endangered and Threatened Wildlife List, which they’ve been on since 1975. Instead of federal regulation, grizzlies within Yellowstone would be protected under Wyoming, Montana and Idaho laws, which could mean the issuing of hunting permits in regions that currently disallow such practices. It’s a threat, Jesse notes, to a species whose homeland has already shrunk down to two to four percent of its original range.
Stacy chimes in. “The grizzly bear population is not healthy [enough] to sustain itself,” he says. “It’s already overhunted and has a lot of pressure, because grizzly bears don’t know about park boundaries, and they don’t stay within them.” Factor in climate-change threats to whitebark pines, grizzlies’ main food source, and the thought of delisting seems ill advised.
Today, we’re hunting turns, not bears. We split into two groups, and Wolfy leads the charge back up into the Beartooths. Chris is also in our group, and while he’s ditched most of the contents in his 50-pound pack, it’s taxing to drop in from Pennsylvania’s sea level, click into a new AT setup and keep up with a Wolfy’s lanky stride. Around mid morning, we stop skinning to dig a snow pit, and it’s a welcomed break.
“This is a dream for a ski patroller,” says Chris, a patroller at Lewisberry, Penn.’s Roundtop Mountain Resort as Wolfy does a column test. I dig a little deeper, and, it turns out, Chris heads the Wounded Warrior Patrol, a ski foundation for veterans that he created in 2011 after returning home from Iraq to find himself without the sense of close-knit camaraderie he felt while in the Guard. Now, the Wounded Warrior Patrol puts on ski events for vets and their family to provide a sense of community. “You should come do a story there,” he says, laughing goodheartedly, white teeth flashing, before jumping into the pit to try out his own column test.
Chris isn’t alone in his work to use skiing and the outdoors to heal and create community among military veterans. After returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Josh founded Mission Memorial Day, an initiative to bring meaning back to the holiday by carrying flags adorned with names of fallen soldiers to the top of Denali. The organization first attempted the summit in 2015, but cut the mission short at 18,000 feet due to weather and health complications. (In May of 2016, Josh and his Mission Memorial Day teammates would go on to summit Denali, bringing with them 500 solders’ names.)
Now, as we drop into our first run of the morning down a low-angle, open face into Hayden Creek’s drainage, it’s easy to see Chris’s PSIA-perfect tracks, and he’s quickly ready for another lap. Going uphill might be new territory for him, but fast turns come naturally.
That’s how the remainder of the day goes: slow ascents—sometimes the group counting 30 steps before stopping for a momentary breather—and fast, darting runs back through the whitebark pines to the base of the drainage. Given the moderate avalanche danger and the varied backcountry experience, we stick to low-angle slopes, and we pause frequently to pass around gummy bears and words of encouragement as the Beartooths stretch upward around us.We’re back in the cabin, and, after bowls of spaghetti and sausage, Chris and I sit down across from each other, each perched on two lower bunks. I ask him how he wound up on this trip, and he tells me that he came across it somewhat by accident. He was looking around the Internet for Outward Bound programs to connect with his Wounded Warrior Patrol when he stumbled upon this Military Outdoors trip.
“In Pennsylvania, the Sierra Club is this thing no one knows anything about,” Chris says. “So I found this trip and was like, a backcountry ski trip in the Beartooths? I was just here this summer with my family. I just love this country. Then they were talking about grizzly habitat, and I was like, this is the perfect time to check out grizzly habitat, because they’re asleep, right?”
We laugh, and then he refers back to a “grateful circle” we did earlier during dinner, where we all went around and shared how the trip was impacting us. When it was Chris’s turn, he shared that, for the first time since returning from Iraq, he chose to do something for himself.
“I said what I did there, because since I’ve been home, it’s novel for me to be a participant,” he says, his trademark grin replaced with something deeper, more reflective. “I’m usually the guy who plans everything, runs everything and cleans up the mess after. For me to be able to come here and just be in the moment and be a participant—it’s refreshing. I’ve been trying to take care of everyone else.”
I nod and smile, trying to understand something that I can’t really begin to imagine. Chris spent 21 years in the military—I was in kindergarten when he enrolled—and he’s been deployed to Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq and Kuwait. Now, he runs his own financial strategy business, is chairman and CEO of a nonprofit and patrols at his hometown mountain. I, meanwhile, pat myself on the back when I take out the trash.
He goes on, “When I say I hope these are lifelong friends, I really mean it. Like Jesse teaching me about trees—I always thought trees were cool, but this is another level. That guy is more passionate about trees than most people are about their spouses. The fact that he has room for a spouse in his life is amazing.”
And really, it’s true. By the time we’re back at the Republic Creek Trailhead two days later, Jesse’s enthusiasm has everyone spewing off questions and facts about whitebark pines and grizzlies, and we all decide to grab burgers back in Bozeman before officially parting ways.
As we drive out along Highway 212, cutting back through Yellowstone, our caravan rounds a corner to find a group of cars pulled over. There’s a grizzly bear about 100 meters away from the road, awoken early by this year’s warm temperatures. It’s sitting by a swamp, moving slowly and somewhat dazedly, and a bald eagle swirls above its head. It’s symbolic to the point where it almost feels corny, and I wonder if Chris and Jeremy, riding in Chris’s rental truck behind me, are laughing like Stacy and I are.
As we watch the bear slowly lumber, something Jesse said a few days ago resurfaces. He’d been talking about how a bird, the clark nutcracker, plants whitebark pine seeds up in high sites. When those seeds germinate, soils develop and, eventually, whole communities evolve.
“My friend has a really good statement,” he’d said, in reference to the phenomenon. “Whitebark pine turns granite to grizzlies.” I think back to the developing friendship between these men here over the past couple days, and how a kind word in the skintrack and a slap on the back can lead to one more run. It was, maybe, a seed being planted.