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Skiing Yellowstone: Top Notch Peak

Even a familiar place feels entirely different in the darkness of 3:45 a.m. The rangers’ cabins stood vaguely silhouetted, and a parking lot designed to hold throngs of July tourists lay cold and deserted. At the Roosevelt Archway, Yellowstone’s iconic north entrance, frozen silence replaced the usual selfie-taking rituals of happy visitors. We slid past the eerie infrastructure and followed our headlights into one of the largest areas of wild land in the Lower 48.

The northwest face of Top Notch Peak. [Photo] Chris Kerr

The northwest face of Top Notch Peak. [Photo] Chris Kerr

While Yellowstone National Park is familiar for its geysers, bison and the requisite family road trip, it also offers intriguing potential for backcountry skiers. With two million acres of terrain, easy access and a deep snowpack, it’s an alpine playground that skiers share only with grizzly bears and foxes. And on that mid-May morning, we had Yellowstone seemingly all to ourselves.

The magnitude of the landscape makes it hard to know where to get started. So I not-so-subtly invited myself along with two former park employees. While I had little in the way of knowledge or experience to offer, I do make decent baked goods. Apparently that was enough to get me the nod.

Our target that day was 10,245-foot Top Notch peak, not far from the frozen expanse of Yellowstone Lake. The freshly plowed road over Sylvan Pass offers a handy jumping-off point at 8,530 feet, and we rolled into the pullout around 5:45. As we made last-minute decisions about what to wear, we added one more safety item to our kits—bear spray. Grizzlies were just waking up from their winter slumber, and they’d probably love my homemade bacon-cheddar frittatas.

The upper slopes of Top Notch are accessible with a straightforward 90-minute ascent. Or so I’m told, for this was the second time in two attempts where we found ourselves off track. Last weekend, we booted up a steep, frozen wall to cross from one basin to the next. This morning we ascended the correct drainage, but our route dead-ended on a snowy spire. The guys eyed the spire while I opted for a less-heroic traverse, and we all managed to arrive at the top on our own terms.

From the summit, it’s easy to appreciate the Yellowstone’s potential. While Top Notch offers a dozen or more skiable routes, Mt. Stevenson and neighboring Mt. Doane lie three miles farther in, and look similarly tempting, with wide open bowls draping gracefully from their shoulders. Across the road lies Avalanche Peak with a broad, uninterrupted slope that begs for big GS turns. And on and on, across the wild expanse of the Absaroka Range, peak after peak, mile after mile.

An unanticipated summit scramble. [Photo] Karin Kirk

An unanticipated summit scramble. [Photo] Karin Kirk

Our opening run was a prominent couloir that had been tempting my partners for a couple of years. It drops straight from Top Notch’s pyramidal summit, a smooth alleyway sitting between craggy volcanic rock and a sharp spine of windblown snow.

We found an entrance with a manageably small cornice and, one by one, dropped into 600 vertical feet of 40-degree, breakable crust. Each turn unzipped a cascade of chunks, which funneled madly down the pitch. In this moment, heavy-handed moves were the only way to get the skis around; a sequence of stepping on the outside ski and holding on as the battle between grabby snow and the weighted ski worked itself out. In the back of my ski-instructor brain, I was not entirely pleased.

By the time I hit the apron, the crust was gone and order was restored. A few clean arcs brought me toward my partners, and I pulled up to view the couloir, at once breathless, relieved and excited.

Skinning back up allowed for reflection on where we might find better snow. While I was satisfied having skied the day’s big run, I hoped that Top Notch might yield something better. We found it off the south side in a run of lightly gladed ego pow that allowed for easygoing swoops to the valley floor.

Fueled by endorphins—and peanut butter bars—we looped to the summit for a third time and selected a steep, uncomplicated east-facing bowl. Agreeable powder greeted my skis as I settled into the wide, smooth upper face that led to a 45-degree rollover. The snow washed down beside me, offering the ideal balance between adrenaline and plain old fun.

As the snow began to warm, we ascended one last time and concluded our day in an adjacent bowl. Fresh pinwheels of snow let us know it was time to head down for the day.

Back at the roadside, we reveled in the universal post-skiing ritual—beer drinking, storytelling and plan making. I was pleased that my self-invitation had brought about a successful day in a fabulous location. Behind us, grizzly tracks revealed recent passage across the moist dirt, a gentle reminder that this land is truly wild, and that our playtime here is strictly on nature’s terms. After all, that is part of the attraction.

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