Dinner's over, and I have to go to the bathroom. Walking to the "facilities" -- a tree 50 feet from the front door -- I stumble into a snowdrift. My landing is soft -- Wyoming's Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has reported 10 inches of fresh snow in the past 24 hours -- and I don't have to go that badly, so I lie down rather than rush.
With the day's storm over, more stars than I've ever seen twinkle above. Someone told me that if I stare at the sky here long enough, I'm certain to spot a satellite. I give it until a pine bough above releases a poof of powder into my upturned face. Snow fast melting inside my down jacket, I get a bit chilled. Which would be a problem if I were truly winter camping.
But my ski buddies and I have rented the resort's yurt for the night. I'm embarrassed to have lived in this valley and skied at this resort for 15 years and to have just now discovered this accommodation. Everyone else in my group has done yurt trips and winter camping excursions -- specifically the Bench Hut in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, the Beaver Creek Cabin in Montana's Gallatin National Forest, and tent/snow cave camping deep in nearby Grand Teton National Park.
I definitely prefer yurts to tents. The former, which are circular one-room structures that Central Asian nomads have been living in for thousands of years, give you room to spread out, space to dry your wet clothes and boots, a basic kitchen, bunks and, most important when spending a night in the wild where temperatures routinely dip below zero, a wood-burning stove.
Tents, which I've spent more winter nights in than I can count, are just a pain. Do it to say you've done it. Once. And then reserve a yurt, preferably this one.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's yurt surpasses any that I've ever seen. Most yurts are in the backcountry. Getting to them requires several hours of exertion, schlepping backpacks loaded with food and supplies using snowshoes or specialized ski gear.
At Jackson Hole, you take the 100-passenger tram to the 10,450-foot summit of Rendezvous Mountain and ski down to the yurt.
And it comes with a yurtmeister.
Even before yurtmeister Mike Ross called me to go over menu details and explain what a yurtmeister does, the word itself made me smile. After learning that Mike would be taking care of all the cooking and cleaning during our stay and carrying in our food, I graduate from smiling. I'm in love.
Enter the yurtmeister
Without a yurtmeister, yurts can be fairly labor-intensive. There's wood to split, snow to melt and strain for water, dinner to cook under beams of light from headlamps and dishes to wash and rinse in water often flecked with pine needles. Of course, these chores don't go away here, but the responsibility for them does.
My group meets yurtmeister Mike at the staff-only entrance to the tram on the deck of the resort's Nick Wilson's Cowboy Cafe at 3 p.m. (The usual meeting time is earlier, but we voted to ski some more rather than settle into the yurt early.)
Thinking ahead to the flask of Baileys Irish Cream in my pack, I ask Mike whether there's time to run next door to the Village Cafe, which uses beans from my favorite roaster (Caffe Ibis in Logan, Utah) to brew espresso topped with some of the thickest crema around. I have the barista fill my insulated stainless-steel spill-proof Thermos coffee mug with a double.
Following Mike onto the tram, I marvel at the size of his pack compared with mine. Not that it surprises me.
After several days of back-and-forth about the menus -- we get appetizers, dinner and breakfast -- we'd finally settled on a cheese, fruit and salami plate as an appetizer, tortellini with a smoked salmon tomato cream sauce and fresh bread for dinner, and bagels, eggs, fruit and coffee for breakfast. All of this is in Mike's pack.
Getting to the yurt
Sitting on a ridge between the Hobacks and Rock Springs Canyon, which is part of the resort's 3,000 acres of side-country terrain, the yurt is accessible by different routes.
My friends and I are all experienced backcountry skiers with the gear and avalanche knowledge to ski the sidecountry -- terrain that's accessible via lifts but is not patrolled, controlled for avalanches or marked for hazards. Wanting to settle in as quickly as possible, we opt for the fastest route: inbounds down Rendezvous Bowl to Rendezvous Trail to the South Hoback.
Though Rendezvous Bowl and the South Hoback are ungroomed black-diamond runs, Mike says that he has helped intermediate skiers get to the yurt. "We just take our time," he says. Less-skilled skiers can also talk to the resort about getting to the yurt via a combination of snowmobile and snowshoe. Parents with young kids have sometimes done this.
Advanced skiers looking for adventure can hire a trained backcountry guide for a half-day of side-country skiing that ends at the yurt.
Following Mike down the South Hoback, we ski past a "Resort Boundary" sign. Several more turns and we're at the yurt, which is literally a snowball's throw outside the boundary. (I test this later.)
Unaware of the two igloos just uphill of the yurt -- built as overflow accommodations -- I almost launch off one. (Mike tells us that he once yurtmeistered for a group of 27; there's room for only 10 inside the yurt.)
Having propped our skis up against the deck's railing, we head inside. Bunk beds line the walls. Just to the left of the door are a kitchen counter and cabinets. Prayer flags stretch across the ceiling. There's a skylight in the center over the dining table.
We throw our packs onto bunks, which come with two-inch-thick sleeping pads. Some bunks are wide enough to sleep couples comfortably. Mike gets the wood-burning stove going and then wanders outdoors to collect snow to melt for water.
Life without chores
On usual yurt trips, the time between post-skiing snacks and dinner is spent doing chores. But here we have no chores. The dice and cards come out. Kelly puts her headlamp on, pulls up a chair to the wood-burning stove and settles in to the book she brought.
I consider offering to help Mike with dinner, but don't.
Three hours later, it's obvious that he didn't miss me. I'd never guess that the tortellini in creamy tomato sauce with smoked salmon was cooked on a two-burner Coleman stove.
Rather than watch Mike wash the dishes, I make my way outside to the pee tree and get waylaid by the snowdrift and looking for satellites. I don't see one.
Back inside, it's easily 80-some degrees. I want to stay up and play dice but instead give in to the heat and my food coma. I wake up once in the middle of the night, sweating profusely, to toss off the yurt's minus-20-degree sleeping bag.
Mike's alarm should wake us all up -- the yurt is 20 feet in diameter and the alarm is on the table in the center -- but no one (aside from Mike) stirs until the yurt fills with the smells of coffee and toasting bagels.
Taking a mug of coffee and my sleeping bag outside onto the deck, I open a canvas folding chair, drape the bag over me and soak up some early-morning sun. Skiers who've caught an early tram and skied down Rock Springs fly by no more than 100 feet away. Shielded by pine trees, they have no idea that the yurt or I are there.
Fifteen minutes later, we're packed and stepping into our skis. Twenty minutes later, we're back at the resort base, no cleanup or schlepping of heavy packs required.