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Snowstorms, Skinny Skis, Yurts, and Tradition

Michael Lanza is a freelance photographer and writer. The creator of TheBigOutside.com, Lanza dedicates his site to sharing personal hiking adventures and offering guidance to fellow wilderness enthusiasts. He is the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, blogs for backpacker.com, and a former editor for AMC Outdoors magazine. Author of previously published hiking guides, Lanza's newest book, Before They're Gone (Beacon Press, spring 2012), examines climate change in national parks through the lens of family hiking excursions.

Fat, perfect snowflakes pour down in a silent, frozen torrent from a blank white page of sky, as if the mountains are inside a Christmas snow globe that someone just shook vigorously. Powder lays several feet deep on the ground and smothers the tall ponderosa pines, looking like dozens of clean, white mittens on their boughs. No wind stirs the still air, and it’s not too cold. The quiet could drown out any negative thoughts.

It’s the kind of day that can make you wish winter lasted all year.

I ask four of my skiing partners what they think of the storm. My question triggers a blizzard of opinions.

“It’s pretty snowy.”

“It’s great!”

“I’m getting snow in my face. I love it!”

“I say it’s perfect.”

They’re strikingly casual about skiing into a snowstorm, but not entirely out of ignorance. They’ve all skied into the backcountry in these conditions before—four years in a row in these same mountains on almost exactly the same dates, in fact. So they’ve come to expect this.

The four are my son Nate, 10, and daughter Alex, seven, and family friends Lili and Sofi, 10-year-old twins. Also with us on this cross-country ski trail are my wife, Penny, and Lili and Sofi’s parents, Vince and Cat. It’s just after Christmas, and we’re on our way to the Skyline yurt, two miles and several hundred vertical feet uphill from ID 21 in Idaho’s Boise National Forest.

The Banner Ridge yurt in the Boise National Forest, Idaho.

For anything else, we’d have trouble tearing our kids away from their new Christmas loot. Not for this annual expedition, though. They’ve been talking about it for weeks.

Three Decembers ago, our two families started what has become a tradition of skiing to a backcountry yurt to ring in the new year. We spent two nights the first year, which convinced us to spend three nights ever since. Managed by the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department and rented year-round (they’re accessible on foot or mountain bike in snow-free months), the six yurts are north of Idaho City, within two to three miles of the highway, tucked out of sight along forest roads groomed for Nordic skiing.

Reasonably fit adults carrying packs filled with supplies for a few days can reach any of the yurts in 90 minutes or less. But for families with young kids, getting in and out can be a multi-hour adventure—especially in a snowstorm, which, as I say, we’ve encountered every year.

The first year, when the kids were seven and four, we skied to the yurt farthest from the highway, Elkhorn, three miles in with a big uphill climb. It dumped snow the day we skied in and the day we came out. It took us more than five hours to get the entire group, including two loaded gear sleds, to the yurt. My favorite photo from that trip is of my four-year-old daughter wrapped in a blanket in the gear sled because she got tired, all but her face covered in snow.

The second year, an even bigger storm hit on the day we skied in, and the trail-grooming machine was out of commission. We had to shovel our way into the parking lot and break trail all the way to the Banner Ridge yurt—the adults wallowing thigh-deep in sugary snow on windblown Banner Ridge, although the kids were light enough to float atop the breakable crust. Some of us made three trips to get everybody and everything in. I couldn’t drag a loaded sled uphill through the deep snow, so Penny and I emptied our packs at the yurt, and then skied back out to load the sled’s contents into our packs. We finished that seven-hour day after dark and laugh about it still.

Last year’s trip to the Skyline yurt was less epic than the previous two, even though another lovely snowstorm greeted us. But the trail to that yurt is entirely protected by forest and not as difficult as Elkhorn or Banner Ridge; plus, the kids were a year older and stronger on skis. They made one of the best discoveries of all of these trips: that the ski track to the Skyline yurt lays at a perfect angle for a sled luge run that goes for about two hundred feet. I think they made a hundred runs down it in three days.

Two weeks ago, the biggest storm we’ve seen so far on these annual excursions dumped more than two feet of champagne powder. But we skied in to Skyline before most of the new snow fell—shaving our approach time down to two hours—and a heroic effort by the groomer driver gave us untracked corduroy to play on for a couple of days. On our last day, I pulled Alex and Lili in the gear sled while Sofi raced us on her skis on the long, screaming downhill run back to the cars.

Check out a video of this year's trip and this gallery of photos from the yurts and ski trails.

There’s nothing elaborate about our tradition, and virtually no structure to events. Once at the yurt, the kids don’t click into their skis again until the morning we leave. They spend most of the daytime hours sledding or playing in the snow, constructing their “snow city.” When we adults are not eating or consuming the substantial liquid weight we haul in, we take turns touring some of the 50 miles of marked, groomed and ungroomed trails through ponderosa forest. Because the yurts are miles apart and there are few day-trip skiers and snowshoers, we rarely see other people. On our last night, we hold a “Talent Show” that’s decidedly more show than talent and hilarious for everyone involved.

Our annual trip is less about skiing to a backcountry yurt—it could be any number of other activities—than it is about doing this thing every year with our kids and these same friends. It’s about getting outdoors and going somewhere under our own power. We can see how it has given our kids added confidence in their physical abilities. It thrills us to see how much they look forward to it.

I’ve celebrated a lot of New Year’s Eves. I’ve danced and drank in loud nightclubs, even spent one Eve in Times Square—sort of. (Actually, we got within about 20 blocks of Times Square before the crowd became so dense it was impossible to move any farther.)

But the most fun way I’ve ever had welcoming a new year has been skiing to a backcountry yurt with my wife, kids, and good friends. We’ll be eagerly anticipating to another storm when we take this trip next December.

THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR anyone capable of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing two or three miles and several hundred feet uphill on groomed trails, including families with young children. Some members of the group must be capable of carrying a heavy pack, because you have to bring in all of your food and some other supplies, including propane canisters for the cooking stove and lanterns.

Make It Happen

The skiing season generally runs from December through April, and the peak snow-free season from June into October. Trails are muddy in spring, but the yurts are available year-round.

The Itinerary There are 50 miles of marked trails linking the yurts, 20 miles of which are usually groomed once a week, on Thursday or Friday.

Getting There The yurts are reached from four parking areas along ID 21 between Idaho City and Lowman, an hour to 90 minutes from Boise, depending on road conditions. To get to Skyline yurt, start from the Gold Fork Park ’n’ Ski lot, 20 miles north of Idaho City, just past highway mile marker 59. An Idaho Park N’ Ski permit is required to park in these lots from Nov. 15 to April 30. They can be purchased at locations in Boise and Idaho City; see the Idaho Parks and Recreation website (below).

The Yurts The backcountry yurts sleep six and rent for $75 per night, Monday through Thursday, and $90 per night, Friday through Sunday, for the first six people, with a maximum of nine people. Three people can sleep on the floor; bring sleeping pads. The yurts are popular; make your reservation nine months in advance of your trip’s start date.

Map Print out copies of the trail maps at parksandrecreation.idaho.gov .

Contact Idaho Parks and Recreation Department, (208) 334-4199, parksandrecreation.idaho.gov.

This post orginally appeared at The Big Outside.