The following describes an incident that occurred during a late winter/early spring cross country ski trip in Yellowstone National Park. For some reason this story makes me laugh, despite the potentially serious nature of the incident.
My friend Mike and I were a couple of poor college students on vacation during spring break in 1976. Mike had experience as a cross country skier, but this trip was the first time I’d ever been on skis, not to mention on skis and carrying a full backpack. Mike had some decent equipment whereas mine was basic. My poles were bamboo and the skis were wooden and old. One had a cracked tip that was covered with a plastic cap. My boots were a pair of poorly insulated, flexible three-pin boots that were likely made for day touring and not for backcountry use. But that’s the kind of equipment I had and so that’s what I went with. Being new to skiing, I really didn’t know any better anyway. Ignorance is bliss.
I fell down a lot at first, including the time I had to crash to avoid sliding into a group of apprehensive bison along the Madison River. Mike and I were pretty young and my inexperience, in retrospect, was comical. But we learned some good lessons and had a great trip overall. The weather was mostly sunny, the snowpack was deep and spring was just starting. Wildlife was becoming active and we daily saw bison, elk, deer, coyotes, trumpeter swans, geese and more. We skied on a snowy groomed road shared with snowmobiles and snow coaches. The trip took us from West Yellowstone up to the Old Faithful geyser basin and back, camping out several nights along the way. Everything went smoothly until our final camp along the Madison River, just seven miles from West Yellowstone.
It was the early morning of March 12, 1976 and the temperature was down to around minus 30 Fharenheit. As that night grew colder, I shivered and dozed off and on until about 0500 when Mike and I both woke up shaking uncontrollably. My REI down bag was rated to minus 30 but I discovered that the rating just means that it barely keeps you alive. I was wearing two pair socks, long underwear, jeans, t-shirt, undershirt, wool shirt, down sweater, down coat, scarf, hat and mitts in my sleeping bag. I was sleeping alongside my boots and water bottle too, so it was crowded in there! There wasn’t enough room to move, aside from shivering.
We were so damn cold we turned on a flashlight and decided to start the stove. Our rented four-season expedition tent had a zip-out section of floor for using a cook stove in the tent (our stove was a small Svea 123 white gas stove). Supposed to be safe , but we hadn’t tried that yet as we had, up to that time, been cooking outside the tent.
Despite our initial efforts, the damn stove wouldn’t start. We topped it off with more fuel and added more to the spirit cup to prime the stove. I closed the stove’s fuel valve and we lit the fuel in the spirit cup and behold! We had flamage and a lot of it. Apparently the valve had frozen part way open and we couldn’t get it shut off. The tent lit up with orange flames and heat as flaming gas sputtered out of the stove faster and faster. I held our cook pot inverted over the growing flames and Mike pressed out the frost covered tent walls to stop them from burning. We didn’t know what to do and were almost in a state of panic.
Mike suddenly rushed to the zippered door at the far end of the tent and told me to throw the stove out when he got it open. He pulled at the zipper, but nothing happened. It was frozen. I yelled at him to hurry. There was burning fuel on my mittens and sleeping bag. Mike gave a mighty heave and the zipper finally gave way in a shower of frost flakes. Mike ducked aside and I tossed the flaming stove out into the snowy darkness, scattering more burning gas on the tent and on me. We put the fires out quickly, beating at them with our mittens. Mike lurched halfway out of the tent and wrestled with the fiery stove and finally got it out. We crawled back into our bags, shaking (but not from cold). We ate a large amount of granola and that, along with adrenaline, warmed us up. We went back to sleep, each of us very glad to be alive. That was too close a call. If we’d lost the tent, in that kind of temperature and without our gear (or partial gear even), seven miles from civilization, we likely wouldn’t have survived very long.
The next day at noon, we arrived in West Yellowstone after a fine morning’s travel in the warmish sunlight, under a crisp blue sky. West Yellowstone was chock full of noisy, fume-belching snowmobiles for the annual races that weekend, so we retrieved the car, bought some bread, cheese and ale and got the hell out of there. We drove to Salmon, where we spent a night and from there back to Spokane.
Looking back on this incident makes me laugh, but it could’ve turned out very badly for us. I’m once again grateful that Mike and I survived and that we learned a very valuable lesson: no fire of any kind in the tent! I still have that venerable old Svea, but never use it. Modern butane canister stoves are much safer and much lighter. That being said, I still don’t think it’s a good idea to cook in the tent!