High altitude 1 nglxm8

Image: Troy Boman

"I wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else in the world right now!” This exclamation from my 10-year-old daughter, Eliza, is both a welcome relief and a direct contrast to her declarations upon our arrival at the Castle Peak Yurt the day prior: “I hate snow! I hate snowmobiles! I hate skiing! We’re gonna die here! I’m never going to a yurt again! Ever!” 

Of course, I think that’s what she said. It was difficult to hear her clearly as her words were partly drowned out by those of her 12-year-old brother, Asa, who was as worked up and displeased on our arrival at the yurt as his little sister. 

Today, however, after 24 hours of pancakes, sledding, card-playing, and gliding on crystalline snow among white-blanketed trees, I take her 180-degree change of heart as a sign that maybe, just maybe, I have redeemed myself for bringing her here.

For the uninitiated, yurts are circular, portable shelters that are surprisingly warm, sturdy, and efficient. Used by Mongolian nomads for more than 2,000 years, they were built by a few ski-touring pioneers for backcountry shelter in the 1970s, and their use has grown steadily since. Castle Peak is one of 13 yurts available for nightly rental within a couple of hours of Park City and is operated and maintained by Park City’s White Pine Touring (435.649.8710, whitepinetouring.com).

We’ve taken family yurt trips each winter since our kids were out of diapers, but this was our first visit to Castle Peak. The yurt is six miles plus a couple thousand feet up from the nearest winter trailhead, so unlike past trips where we’ve skied in to a yurt, we borrowed a friend’s snowmobiles to reach this yurt. Simple enough, right? Well, in our case, not so much.

After 30 minutes of straightforward snowmobiling from the Mirror Lake Highway trailhead, I search for 2 hours off trail and still have not found the yurt. The sky is black, and the leading edge of a major winter storm is kicking up snow and wind, when my wife, Dana, finally pulls the responsible-mom card. “You have 10 minutes to find the yurt, or we’re calling the whole thing off and heading back to the car,” she says. 

Leaving Dana and the kids with one snowmobile, I throw up a Hail Mary and check out an improbable gully we’d passed just down the trail. It in no way matches the directions I’ve been given, but is marked by pieces of surveyor tape on a couple of trees. And voilà!

Up the gully and across a side hill I finally find the yurt, visible only by the top of its dome and a stovepipe pushing up through the deep snow. 

I make my way back to Dana and the kids, feeling like a hero; prematurely, it turns out. On the second trip through the gully, and right in front of my anxious wife and kids, I pitch myself ass-over-elbows off the snowmobile. Anxiety erupts into mayhem, but an adrenaline-fueled family effort rights the machine, and I manage to drive it the last 50 yards to the yurt. I then post-hole back through the deep snow for the second snowmobile, which Dana has judiciously decided to let me navigate through the gully section on my own.  

When I finally arrive back at the yurt, Asa has a fire going in the wood stove (parental diversion tactic no. 1), and Dana offers me hot soup, fried chicken (prepared in advance), fresh veggies, and hummus. Now warm, dry, and fed, the kids have relaxed from a vigorously reported, near-death 9 on the panic scale down to a 3 and a 5, respectively. It’s hard, after all, to feel insecure inside a yurt: round walls reverberate the woodstove-warmth, and the soft flickering firelight embodies camaraderie and good cheer. After dinner we settle in for a night of card games, journaling, and simply absorbing the sounds of the storm delivering fresh powder for tomorrow’s skiing.

Morning dawns clear and calm, and after a leisurely breakfast of pancakes, sausage, and plenty of coffee and hot cocoa, we grab our skis and head outside. It is on our morning ski tour that Eliza blesses me with the aforementioned redemptive words. Asa, a budding junior racer, wishes for more pitch than the rolling terrain close to the yurt provides. While there are steeper slopes nearby for those willing to hike, I have no desire to push any limits on our family outings—one of my criteria for family yurting is the availability of low-angle terrain that presents no avalanche threat. So, Asa instead takes advantage of the soft snow to do tricks off any stump, rock, or knoll that presents itself. 

After two hours of skiing, the kids are ready to return to the yurt. (Moving at a slower pace, we find the trail into the yurt that I’d missed the day before, which saves us the trauma of snowmobiling out through the Gully of Mishaps when we leave the next day.)
While I split firewood, Asa and Eliza pack out a sled run, deciding the perfect start ramp is launching off the roof of the wood-fired sauna next to the yurt. The kids help me stack the firewood and refill the snowmelt buckets, and then I take on my most important duty of the weekend: chief shoveler in charge of building banked turns, jumps, and other features on the sled track. Asa and Eliza are the speed engineers, suggesting a new tweak after nearly every run.

All too quickly the horizon turns pink then purple with the setting winter sun, and it is time to retreat to the shelter of the yurt, where a crackling woodstove fire sets the backdrop for another night of storytelling, laughter, and the kind of family connection that is rare in this world of constant distractions. I fall asleep thinking, Me too, Eliza. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now, either

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