Back to Stories
Yellowstone On Ice
February 15, 2021
Yellowstone On Ice
Deep in the frozen maw of America's first national park, Yellowstone winterkeeper Steven Fuller chronicles the aftermath of a snowstorm
The mighty Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its signature focal point, the Lower Falls, has been left to a more muted roar in the aftermath of several days in which the mercury reading remained well below zero. The waterfall is seen in a pastel green sheath, with mist rising as flows from the Yellowstone River tumble into the cold, cold air, turning mist into ice crystals.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The noted geophysicist Dr. Robert Smith, who has spent decades studying the geodynamics and evolution of the Yellowstone caldera and the park's status as a globally-known "geothermal hotspot," has often noted that Yellowstone should be called "a hydrothermal park." How water moves through the landscape, beneath it, and spouts from it is expressed in many forms. This is the essence of wonderland. In the photo essay below, Yellowstone winterkeeper (and Mountain Journal columnist) Steven Fuller shares some observations about a recent foray into the sub-zero realm of America's first national park.
Photos and words by Steven Fuller
Deep cold creates an abundance of geothermal water vapor in the air that precipitates to form spectacular clumps of frost crystals on the snow pack. Later, when temperatures rises and snow storms return the frost gardens will be suffocated.
Snow shadows covered with hoar frost crystals give the surface of the snowfield the appearance of coarse sandpaper and on deep cold mornings skiing this surface is resistant to a glide unless you’ve waxed your skis properly.
Crepuscular rays are at their best on deep cold, body-core chilling mornings: -25 degrees F is beautiful and generally sufferable, though the temperature can diminish aesthetic sensibilities. After spending hours during the early morning wandering in a crystalline garden I arrive back home bone cold.
After clearing my moustache and beard of frost and icicles and changing into house clothes I sit on top of the living room stove and chat with the cats while my fingers silently scream as they return to body temp, then the tea kettle calls from the kitchen. Below are some glimpses of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone following the rise of dawn light.
Snow pillows and a mild diamond dust sun pillar hang below the rim of the canyon. The sky is cold and clear while I watch, one after another poofs of steam rise up 1200 feet from a fumarole at the edge of the river far down at the bottom of the canyon. I am reminded of smoke signals but I can’t read the message.
After tea, I am outside again, looking south toward Hayden Valley on this cold morning in which the temperature is rising from 25- to reach a high of 15- below 0 F. A translucent plume of vapor is rising up out of the canyon from the base of the Lower Falls (308 feet high) which is tucked down in the rim timber. (See photo at top). In the middle distance beyond is a hilly thermal area four miles away. In the farther distance is another thermal area eight miles to the south in the Hayden.
Beyond the ice clouds marking the location of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (left of cabin) Hayden Valley opens up in the distance. Fuller took this photo behind his historic winterkeeper's cottage not far from where the Canyon Hotel, designed by architect Robert Reamer in the early 20th century, once stood but has been gone since the late 1950s.
Early morning after a snowstorm and then cold nights have nourished hoar frost atop the snow pillows in a hydrothermal area. Super-cooled water vapor, abundant in hydrothermal basins collects as frost formations on any available armature.
On this geo-thermally heated ground every snow pillow, large or small, accumulates throughout the winter where a fallen log or rocks and stones provide insulation from the warm ground. The rest of the floor of the thermal basin nourishes columnar frost and will until the days and nights warm up, when the frost will collapse and leave curious spoor such as wildlife tracks on the sandy floor of the basin—until the next cold spell when it will reappear.
As the sun continues its rise, some of the frost crystals that have grown overnight in the pine tree canopy overhead rain down as they are ever so lightly touched by the sun. In the micro world water in all of its states is ever so volatile in response to the slightest shifts of heat and cold just as it is in the macro world of the planet.
What is this curiosity found on the shore of a high mountain river in Yellowstone? I have long been viscerally smitten by curios morphologies. In my limited experience women seem particularly adept at discerning shapes in clouds or in nature. Famously another example occurs between two guys you might have heard of:
Hamlet: “Do you see yonder cloud, that’s almost in shape like a camel?
Polonius: “By the mass, and ’tis—like a camel, indeed”
Hamlet: “Methinks it is like a weasel...or like a whale,”
Polonius: ”Very like a whale."
On first sight such curious snow shapes immediately recall long ago when I walked down onto a beach in Whitby, on the east seacoast of Yorkshire in England and spied what I took to be a large lorry tire washed up on the beach. Actually it was a wave eroded large fossilized Jurassic ammonite. This snow form is more seasonally transitory than that ancient ammonite though both in deep time are ephemeral after-images.
Winter conditions are always changing, giving us Yellowstone anew.
I see it in the crepuscular light and the frozen, fading wind-blown tracks of a coyote.
EDITOR'S NOTE: To learn more about Steven Fuller read MoJo's profile Twilight Of The Yellowstone Winterkeepers