Wild West Wyoming Winter Tour

Buffalo Bill – The Scout Statue outside the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

Over the winters I’ve gone to Cody, Wyoming for the ice climbing in the South Fork of the Shoshone River. Each of these trips consisted of arriving to Cody well after dark, driving up the canyon before sunrise, whacking ice all day, returning to town late, eating one pot meals off a single burner stove in a motel room, sleeping, then repeating the process until I was too tired to continue. The trips always ended with a bleary-eyed drive home to Salt Lake City without ever exploring the town and its surroundings. This February I fell into an opportunity to fix all that.

The North Fork of the Shoshone River, Park County, Wyoming.

Travel Wyoming had put together a Wild West Wyoming Winter Tour through the northwest corner of the state. Two days in and around Cody and one day in Thermopolis. Through luck, persistence, and perhaps a lack of oversight from Travel Wyoming, I managed to get an invite and before they could rescind or catch their error I was on the road rolling north through the sage plains of central Wyoming.

Sheridan Avenue, Cody, Wyoming.

Below the eastern slopes of the Absaroka Mountains near the banks of the Shoshone River is the town of Cody. The main drag through town, Sheridan Avenue, runs east/west and is lined with western themed hotels, cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops, all tipping their hats to the area’s frontier past.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

The tour began by meeting the rest of the crew of Brandon Eckroth, Courtney Steeves, Jenna Spesard, and Tia Troy at the Yellowstone Regional Airport then heading down Sheridan Ave to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. At first glance you could easily write the center off as a tourist trap, but that would be wrong. Within its walls are five museums. And when I say five, I mean that each of them could easily be stand-alone destinations in any metropolitan area. The Cody Firearms Museum houses the largest collection of American-made firearms in the world. The Whitney Museum of Western Art is a fascinating look at the western United States through the eyes of numerous artists and mediums. The Plains Indian Museum is a comprehensive look into the evolving lives of the Plains Indians. The Buffalo Bill Museum is focused on the life of guide, scout, frontiersman, actor, showman, and founder of Cody who became an American icon. The Draper Natural History Museum is an in-depth journey that takes you deep into greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Our entire group agreed that there are so many things to see and study at the Center of the West that one visit is definitely not enough. Luckily, a pass to the center is actually good for two days. I will definitely go back.

English double barrel flintlock shotgun, Cody Firearms Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
The Scout Bronze Statue of Buffalo Bill Cody as seen from the Whitney Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Teddy Roosevelt bust from the Rough Rider bronze, Whitney Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Seasons of Life gallery, The Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Arrow Heads, The Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Dime Novels, Buffalo Bill Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
A-Frame Western Saddle, Buffalo Bill Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Manaco Tree Slice, Draper Natural History Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
Bobcat, Draper Natural History Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

After having my mind blown at the Center of the West we drove down the avenue to the Cody Firearm Experience. The owner Paul Brock, a former curator for the Cody Firearms Museum, had the brilliant idea of combining the history of firearms in America with a gun range, giving visitors a one-of-a-kind interactive experience. A prominent display of replica firearms at the entrance shows the history and evolution of the guns in the West. Visitors have their choice of which firearms to use, ranging from way back up to the latest makes and models.  Under Paul’s supervision we were allowed to squeeze off a few rounds. Our group settled on a Colt Walker Conversion revolver (cowboy gun) and a Winchester Colt 45 Rifle. Paul offered up a Gatling gun to test out, but none of us had the nerve.

Paul Brock demonstrates how to fire at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Colt 45 Revolver, Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Paul Brock demonstrates to Courtney Steeves how to fire at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Brandon Eckrpth at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.
Courtney Steeves with her target at the Cody Firearms Experience, Cody, Wyoming.

Day two began in the dark with a predawn drive up the North Fork Highway, not too different from my previous visits to Cody. But for this early start we were rewarded with a technicolor light show above the Shoshone River. After a quick photo snapping session, we met Terry Dolan from Gary Fales Outfitting in the tiny town of Wapiti then headed west to where they stopped plowing U.S. Highway 14. Terry would be guiding us on a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone. We suited up as he ran us through the operations of the sleds and the do’s and do nots of a winter tour in the park. Stay on the road, single file, obey the speed limit, and pull over as far as possible when we stop.

Jenna Spesard photographs the sunrise above the North Fork of the Shoshone River, Park County, Wyoming.
Terry Dolan, Jenna Spesard, Courtney Steeves, Tia Troy, and Brandon Eckroth out for a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Winter landscape of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Under cloudy skies we hummed into the park via the east entrance. Up to Sylvan Pass we wound our way along the snow-covered road and witnessed the scenery open up into swaths of evergreens, steep canyons, and stark ghost forests – loud reminders of wildfires from the recent past. Descending to Yellowstone Lake the horizon opened to an undefinable expanse layered with subtle hues of winter. Along the way Terry pointed out land marks and wildlife. Snowy bison, a lethargic coyote, trumpeter swans, and birds of prey. We stopped to eat lunch at the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut while Ranger Miller give us an update on the winter happening in Yellowstone. After lunch we made our way to the jaw dropping views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I’ve never really considered taking a snowmobile tour of the park before this trip but having experienced the undeniable beauty of Yellowstone in winter, without the crowds, the pressure, and expectations, I have to say that it’s something I won’t forget. If you have the opportunity I highly recommend it.

A frozen Yellowstone Lake in winter, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Two-headed bison, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
It’s mating season for coyotes in Yellowstone National Park. This fellow was seen relaxing near a thermal pond in Pelican Valley.
A popular lunch spot, Fishing Bridge Warming Hut, Yellowstone National Park.
A winter view of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

The temperature plummeted going into the third day of our trip making it the perfect time to head to Hot Springs County. A short 85-mile drive through snowy pronghorn country landed us in the energy and tourism town of Thermopolis. Surrounded by mountains and sitting just north of the dramatic Wind River Canyon, Themop, as the locals call it, is home to one of the world’s largest natural hot springs and dinosaurs. That’s right, dinosaur remains were discovered in the area in the 1990’s and soon after the Wyoming Dinosaur Center was created. This paleontological gem is filled with life-size replicas, prehistoric skeletons, and numerous dioramas, a visit to the center is an awesome look back to a land before time and makes for a perfect pre-hot springs outing.

A herd of pronghorn in the sage plains between Thermopolis and Meeteetse, Wyoming.
Bronze cowboy and horse in downtown Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

Water from the Big Horn Spring flows over beautiful mineral colored terraces into the river at the north end of Thermopolis. This spring, which has been used by native Americans for millennia, was sold to the government from the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes through a treaty in 1896 with the condition they remain free to the public. Hot Springs State Park with it trails, swinging bridge, flower gardens, boat launches, bison herd, parks, picnic areas, and free public bathhouse is the result.

The terraces flowing into the Bighorn River, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
The terraces flowing into the Bighorn River, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

Full disclosure; I’ve been to Thermopolis several times during summer climbing and camping trips to Ten Sleep Canyon. At only sixty miles away the free bathhouse offered a great rest day recovery activity with the added bonus of a free shower! But, soaking in the public bathhouse’s outdoor pool in the middle of winter, with a water temperature near 104 degrees and an air temperature in the teens, was more refreshing than can be described. Doing it alone on Super Bowl Sunday, when everyone had gone home to watch the game, was more priceless than the admission.

The indoor pool at the free-to-the-public Bath House at the Hot Spring State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming
Courtney Steeves and Brandon Eckroth enjoy the outside pool at the free-to-the-public Bath House at the Hot Spring State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming

After having a good long soak, I opted for a quiet walk in the park while the rest of the crew headed into the Wind River Canyon. Watching the steam rise over Smoking Water Park is as amazing as the ice formations that cling to the mineral terraces. Making my way across the swinging bridge, over the Big Horn River I was given a fabulous vantage point of the entire park.

Trees at the Smoking Water Park, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Bison silhouettes at the Smoking Water Park, Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

The final morning of our trip was spent with Barb and Merlin Heinze at their place in Thermopolis. The visit was an incredible look inside the handcrafted fur and leather clothing trade. Merlin’s Hideout is a tannery, sewing studio, and custom clothing retail shop with a reputation for buffalo fur coats. Quick trivia: Merlin made eight buffalo coats for Kurt Russell’s character in the Quentin Tarantino movie “The Hateful Eight”. Stopping in and being shown around opened my eyes to a world I knew very little about and hearing Merlin’s story of making a pair of beaver gaiters for himself that quickly led to making a whole line of fur products for others was incredible. We concluded the visit with trying on a few of their jackets, being blown away by their warmth and comfort, and then promptly being turned down when asked if they would be willing to trade one for my nappy jacket.

Fox pelts at Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Merlin Heinze at the sewing machine, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
The sewing process at Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Courtney Steeves with a coyote vest and hat, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Tia Troy with a suede jacket and coyote hat, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Jenna Spesard with a beaver vest, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Brandon Eckroth models a coyote fur coat, Merlin’s Hideout, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

And just like that the trip was ending. Back in Cody after loading up the car and waving good bye I asked myself “why”. Why come to the northwest corner of Wyoming in the dead of winter? By default I’d be coming back for the ice climbing, but would I return for the history of the Wild West, Yellowstone, paleontology, or the hot springs? Or might I come again to meet and be inspired by folks living their very own American dream? While these thoughts ran through my head I recalled a quiet moment from the first day of the trip.

Brandon Eckroth walking Sheridan Avenue, Cody, Wyoming.

Before meeting the rest of the crew, I’d walked east along Sheridan Avenue leaving the shops and restaurants behind. At the top of a short hill I looked west over town to the Absaroka Mountains then turned my gaze north to Heart Mountain. Soaking up the scene I was startled by a prairie falcon sitting on a fence post not 20 feet from where I stood. At first the bird gazed at me with one eye then rotated its head and looked at me with the other. It repeated this a few times shaking its head before taking flight.

Prairie falcon on a post, Cody, Wyoming.

I’ll definitely be coming back to Cody and Thermopolis for the climbing and so much more. And next time it’ll be for a lot longer.

#WildWestWY

Recommended lodging –

Holiday Inn Cody at Buffalo Bill Village

Best Western Plus Plaza Hotel, Thermopolis

Recommended restaurants –

Wyoming Rib and Chop, Cody, Wyoming

The Local, Cody

Irma Hotel Restaurant and Saloon, Cody

Brewgards, Cody

Rawhide Coffee Company, Cody

One Eyed Buffalo Brewing, Thermopolis

 

Winter’s Sunrise.

I have never regretted waking before dawn… Especially in the snowy months.

Split board mission in Wyoming. Day after day of pre 4am wake ups definitely made a mark, but scenes like this one made everyone worthwhile. First light in the Grand Teton National Park.
Split board mission in Wyoming. Day after day of pre 4am wake ups definitely made a mark, but scenes like this one made everyone worthwhile. First light in the Grand Teton National Park.
March 2013. Wolverine Cirque sunrise mission take two. On our first trip the week prior clouds on the horizon obscured dawn. Second go, not a cloud in sight.
March 2013. Wolverine Cirque sunrise mission take two. On our first trip the week prior clouds on the horizon obscured dawn. Second go, not a cloud in sight.
December 2014. The iconic south face of Mount Superior is not a secret. It's been skied every which way and photographed as much… I sort of avoided shooting it until now… Don't ask me why.
December 2014. The iconic south face of Mount Superior is not a secret. It’s been skied every which way and photographed as much… I sort of avoided shooting it until now… Don’t ask me why.
January 2015. Morning twilight in the Little Cottonwood ridge line. The warm glow of the coming dawn makes it easy to forget that at the moment of this image temperatures were hovering in the single digits.
January 2015. Morning twilight in the Little Cottonwood ridge line. The warm glow of the coming dawn makes it easy to forget that at the moment of this image temperatures were hovering in the single digits.
April 2014. It's funny how much the Wasatch clears out once spring arrives. Luckily there are friends who take advantage of the deep snow pack and lack of crowds. Sunrise from Flagstaff.
April 2014. It’s funny how much the Wasatch clears out once spring arrives. Luckily there are friends who take advantage of the deep snow pack and lack of crowds. Sunrise from Flagstaff.
April 2014. The idea of connecting the seven ski areas of the Wasatch is not new. Last year there was new life breathed into it. If completed it would consume excellent backcountry terrain. Sunrise from Clayton Peak.
April 2014. The idea of connecting the seven ski areas of the Wasatch is not new. Last year there was new life breathed into it. If completed it would consume excellent backcountry terrain. Sunrise from Clayton Peak.

I believe in wilderness. What about you?

larevalo_perch_0814_0214-2In 2014 the Wilderness Act celebrated 50 years with 109,511,966 million acres of protected wilderness in the United States.

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.” Lyndon B. Johnson

This August I had the chance to head into the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho for an alpine climbing, backcountry camping and hiking experience. Joining organic chemistry PhD student Shiho Kobayashi and English Professor Bo Earle at the Redfish Lodge near Stanley, Idaho we boarded a motorboat carrying packs filled with food, camping gear, ropes and random items to see us through the next few days. Dropped at the Redfish Lake Inlet we entered the Sawtooth Wilderness Area and began the approach to Saddleback Lakes home of Saddleback Peak, aka Elephant’s Perch.Shiho Kobayashi and Bo Earle backpack into the Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.

On the trail our conversation drifted from literature to poetry to philosophy and even to beliefs. When asked what I believed in I could only respond, “Energy.” Personally, I lean toward the Buddhist thought that everything in the universe is connected. I even wear a tattoo on my back of an endless knot as a reminder.

In the morning twilight we awoke in camp high above the lowest of the Saddleback Lakes. Coffee was brewed and our spirits were high. Up to the golden wall we started up the line named Myopia. Climbing as a party of three could have been a struggle, but it wasn’t. “We’re a well oiled machine,” became our mantra as we managed the constant cluster of two ropes, dehydration and nerves while committing to the climb.larevalo_perch_0814_0031

Looking out from the belays we could see the other lakes and marveled at their marine color rimmed by a surreal turquoise. The jagged ridgelines surrounding us held occasional pine tree that stood in utter defiance of the inhospitable terrain.larevalo_perch_0814_0051

The next morning had us up early and to the rock for another route. I traveled only a couple pitches up before descending. I’d climbed the Beckey route before and with a forecast of afternoon thunderstorms I didn’t want to slow Shiho and Bo down.larevalo_perch_0814_0103

From camp and the lakes I watched their progress as clouds rolled in. A brief shower fell from the sky.larevalo_perch_0814_0171 Thunder rumbled from the unknown to the south. Pitch after pitch they continued up. The thunder ceased and the ceiling of clouds lifted some. As they disappeared on the summit dome a gust a wind rippled over the dark surface of the lakes. Hail fell from the sky then the sun appeared. The west face of Saddleback Peak burned amber in the late afternoon light while they made their final rappel.

The following day we managed one pitch before being rained off the wall. We rolled our camp into our packs and shouldered the weight. Walking down, out of the Sawtooth Wilderness we wore content smiles. I was still thinking about the question of what I believed and recalled a quote from Aldo Leopold.

“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.”

Faces

Portraits are some of the most difficult things for me to shoot and at the same time some of my favorite. While there is a wide range of subject matter within my work the focus for has always been authenticity. Is it natural and believable? These are the same questions I ask when I shoot people. Are they smiling for the camera or is that a genuine look? If a loved one saw the images would they recognize them as being true? Natural or strobe lighting, close-up or environmental, the goal is the same.  Skylar Patten takes the bus to the ski slopes. Icefall Lodge february 2014. Camille Backman larevalo_cstlvlly_1113_0240 larevalo_cthomas_0913_0004 larevalo_egodfrey_0514_0006 larevalo_imperialeforge_0513_0035-2 larevalo_jrrich_0314_0128-Edit larevalo_mlott_0514_0053-Edit Bowe Ellis, Echo Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah.

Am I a Skier?

“Oh, you’re that climbing photographer,” is the usual response I get when I meet skiers for the first time. I try to explain that I am a skier, climber, runner, biker, father, husband, brother, son, etc. who takes photographs, but it tends to get lost in the exchange.Icefall Lodge february 2014.

Saturday morning March 1st came clear and cold. The thermometer read -26 Celsius. My nose hairs froze and the wind stung my cheeks on the walk from the small bunkhouse to the main hut at Icefall Lodge. Changing shoes I heard the crackle of wood burning in the stove. Up to the dinning room and kitchen the smell of coffee made me smile. It was the eighth and final morning at the lodge. The week had comprised of perfect weather, non-stop skiing and unbelievable company. Coming to an end the long days, incredible scenery and constant laughter made an impression on me.larevalo_bcski6_0214_0005

After breakfast I sat at the table sniveling about what to do this final morning. I had originally thought I’d pack then relax until the helicopter arrived, but another bluebird day was tugging at my sleeve. The next question was, if I did ski would I bring the DSLR? For seven days I had carried it with me and shot non-stop and more. If I didn’t bring it would I miss the ultimate shot? As I voiced my inner struggle Pierre, the senior guide for our trip, looked at me. “What’s the problem? Let’s just go skiing.” The big camera would stay behind. Maybe today I would actually be a skier.larevalo_bcski6_0214_0069

As a group of four, Pierre, John, Tina and I, we made our way toward a ridge connecting Kemmel Mountain with La Clyte Mountain. We were gunning to drop into one of the small chutes off of the dividing Espresso Ridge, dubbed the Espresso Shots. I struggled to regulate my temperature. The March sun was strong, but any part of the body not in its direct rays frosted over. Up to Troll Pass the wind picked up. With no shelter we quickly bundled up and glanced north toward the skiing terrain that is the Canadian Rockies. My toes went numb immediately (a side effect from receiving second degree frost bite in the Teton’s in January is that they are now more susceptible). Heavy coat on, balaclava, heavy gloves and hood up, I marched in place willing the blood back to my toes. Tina brought up the rear and we all chipped in to get her wrapped up. Skis were strapped to our packs and we stomped on.

John gives me a frosty smile.
John gives me a frosty smile.

Constant movement was the only thing that would keep the chill at bay. Gusts of wind came so swift and cold they would steal your breath. I was worried about Tina. I think we all were. We continued up the sun-crusted ridge, booting easily for most and wallowing at times. Just below the ridge’s crest Pierre led us into a col and out of the wind. Tina’s hands had gone numb. I ripped open and shook warmers then handed them to her while she snacked on candy that John provided. Things were looking good… Just cold. We unloaded skis from our packs and got ready.

John, Tina and Pierre head up the ridge.
John, Tina and Pierre head up the ridge.

Pierre slid across the crusted south-facing slope to gain access to the main Espresso Shot. Tina slowly inched her way to Pierre. John and I exchanged a look. One false move would result in a slide for life into the Kemmel Basin. I pushed the negative thought away. Soon she was onto softer snow and standing next to Pierre.

Tina gets ready for her morning cup of espresso.
Tina gets ready for her morning cup of espresso.

Into the chute Pierre cut the top of the shot then skied down and out of sight. Tina followed linking strong alpine turns on her telemark skis. John offered for me to go, but I declined. He smiled then dropped out of view for a moment then appeared lower carving big turns into Seduction Drainage. It was then my turn.

Seven days of sidestepping and getting into position for the photos were behind me. No camera, no reason to hold back. I doubled checked my boots, buckled down, ski mode then synched the straps on my pack. I looked back to Icefall Peak, the Rostrum, Mount Arras, Kemmel and then over to La Clyte. A week in this place was not enough time.

I leaned forward rolling into the chute. Crust gave way to wind affected snow and soon creamy, consolidated powder. I let my skis respond to the slight drag and angle. Linking one wide turn to another I was clear of the chute and onto the apron. The skis opened up as I eased off the brakes. Floating right then eventually left I glided effortlessly over the Canadian snow. Down to John and Pierre we waited for Tina who gave us a Nordic-style finish by falling at our feet completely exhausted. Pierre was smiling, John was smiling, Tina was smiling and so was I.  Smack dab in the center of perfect ski country we all were flying high. And for a brief moment I really did feel like a skier.

Pierre, Tina and John beneath the Espresso Shots.
Pierre, Tina and John beneath the Espresso Shots.