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Bunks ring the dining table inside the Rock Springs yurt in a pine forest at nearly 8,500 feet at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Dina Mishev, Washington post

IF YOU GO

For information about Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's yurt or skiing, call 1-800-450-0477 or go to www.jackson hole.com. On the site, click on "slopeside lodging" under the "lodging" link.

The yurt has enough bunks for eight people to have their own. Rates are $425 a night for eight; additional people are $10 each and responsible for their own sleeping bags.

Living the high life in a yurt

  • Article by: DINA MISHEV
  • Washington Post
  • December 8, 2012 - 1:12 PM

Dinner's over, and it's time for a trip to the "facilities," a tree 50 feet from the front door. Along the way, I stumble into a fresh snowdrift -- Wyoming's Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has reported 10 inches of snow in the past 24 hours -- and I lie down.

More stars than I've ever seen twinkle above. I study them until a pine bough releases a poof of powder onto 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, a definite upgrade from 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.

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.)

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.

My friends and I have small packs, but not particularly light ones. The yurt is BYOB.

I am carrying a flask of Baileys and another filled with Drambuie. And in case the card and dice games that are a yurt's usual evening entertainments get out of hand, an entire bottle of 12-year-old Macallan. Oh, and a toothbrush, a headlamp, clothes to sleep in and down booties to put on when my ski boots come off. (You really don't want to forget shoes to change into; using an outhouse, even in winter, isn't that bad ... unless you have to put on wet ski boots to walk outside.)

Snowshoeing to yurt is option

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 side-country, 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.

We prop our skis up against the deck's railing and 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 2-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.

Unpacking, I'm amazed at the breadth of our makeshift bar. We give Mike a locally brewed Snake River Lager and he begins slicing, preparing an hors d'oeuvres platter that could be dinner for a family of four.

We get out of our ski clothes. One friend sprawls out on his bunk.

As Mike continues slicing, I wander out onto the deck, which almost wraps around the yurt, to admire the early-evening light, take some photos and scope out the bathroom situation. A hundred feet from the yurt is a double outhouse, each stall with a toilet-seat frame that accommodates WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) bags. Mike has already promised to teach us how to use these.

Between the outhouses and the yurt are additional "facilities," two pee trees, one for men and one for women.

Mike sets his artfully arranged appetizer on the table and we pounce on it. Fifteen minutes later, it's nearly gone.

Yurtmeister cooks up feast

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. A friend 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.

Having extricated myself from the snow and emptied my bladder, I go back inside, where 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.

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.

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.

Dina Mishev is editor in chief of Jackson Hole magazine.

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