The journey through Yellowstone

Most people would never consider trekking over 100 miles of mountain, river and lake terrain in the dead of winter, but well-known professional natural history photographer Tom Murphy was crazy enough to do it twice.

Thirty-one years ago, on Feb. 24, 1985, a 34-year-old Murphy embarked on a 14-day, 170-mile solo ski trip through Yellowstone National Park’s (YNP) backcountry, braving blizzards and subzero temperatures from Wyoming’s YNP South Entrance to Montana’s YNP North Entrance to capture photographs of the relatively untouched natural world. Now 65 years old, Murphy has completed the trip for a second and final time.

During the Feb. 20-March 5, 15-day journey, Murphy led an expedition team retracing his steps across 160 miles of Yellowstone territory with one goal in mind, the same goal he had in 1985 — to show the beauty of the natural world and help preserve Yellowstone. Only this time, more than still photographs would record his trip.

Expedition producer and cameraman Shane Moore, who has worked for National Geographic, Discovery Channel, PBS and Disney, along with expedition producer Rick Smith, whose cinematography has been featured on television series for NBC and NatGeo Wild channels, followed Murphy along the wild backcountry ski trip for their independent film “The Journey Through Yellowstone” — set to be released later this year.  

“The reason (I redid the trip) is it’s not just for an ego thing, me being in a movie,” Murphy said. “… I saw it as an opportunity to show people a broader story about how hard some of this stuff is to get and get people committed to do conservation.”

As one can imagine, a lot has changed since the 1980s, and for Murphy, the biggest difference in his lengthy winter voyage was the accompaniment of five fellow trekkers.

“Completely alone was very risky, actually, and maybe a little foolish,” Murphy said. “In 1985, there wasn’t any such thing as a satellite phone or a cell phone or any way to communicate, really — with the exception of a Park Service radio … to call in to make sure I was still alive.”

Murphy said he enjoyed his expedition crew’s company and had no doubts about the team’s ability to survive in the wild.  

“One of my things I’ve learned over the years, doing difficult, physical things,” Murphy said, “(that) if you want to judge a person’s character, get ’em out in a very difficult, stressful, physically demanding situation, and you’ll find out what kind of people they are pretty fast.”

Conditions were also another big difference on the 2016 trip. In 1985, it stormed for 12 of Murphy’s 14-day journey — closing YNP roads for three days, with nighttime temperatures dropping as low as 35 below zero. This time around, conditions were less harsh, with the lowest night temperatures falling to 15 below zero.

“That’s actually not too bad,” Murphy laughed, adding that those conditions left a frost on everything in camp.

The most difficult aspect about keeping warm in 1985, Murphy said, was ice accumulation around his 3-pound, down sleeping bag’s opening. Sleeping bags have evolved over the last few decades, but Murphy said his new 2016 expedition bag still weighed 3 pounds. However, this time a modern, Gor-Tex covering kept him dry.

“There was this mask of ice impregnated in the sleeping bag — I had to melt that with my face,” he said of his 1980s bag. “So that was rather uncomfortable … Now, it’s the same amount of down, but that Gor-Tex helps keep the moisture out of the inside of the bag. Most of the time I could just, in the morning, scratch off the frost and ice and it didn’t get down inside.”

A sleeping bag upgrade was not the only gear improvement Murphy made. In 1985, he used sticky ski wax to help provide grip while sidestepping up snowy hill sides. This time around, the addition of ski skins significantly helped his skis’ grip, which aided him in the physically demanding task. 

“If I would have had (the skins) in ’85, it would have made it a lot easier,” he laughed. “But skins, this time, was sort of a trade-off between being 31 years older — it was still a difficult climb.”

With significant upgrades in bag and ski gear, what about upgrading his shelter? Since the 1980s, tents have made leaps and bounds in quality and weight — surely Murphy upgraded his sleeping quarters from the original simple, blue tarp he used 31 years ago? The answer: no. 

“I sort of do things in a goofy way,” Murphy chuckled. “… I’ve skied across the park three times now, and I’ve used that blue tarp every single time. There’s better equipment than a blue tarp, so I kinda did it just on a dare.”

Pitching his tarp in a triangular fashion, Murphy said he prefers the simple shelter because it allows for a view of the night sky, while keeping cold snow off his face.

“I find a tent kind of confining,” he quipped, adding he retired the nearly 40-year-old tarp during the final night on Dunraven Pass. “I like to look at the sky at night … (but) I’ll probably invest in a super light tent.”

The 2016 trip felt familiar to the photographer with numerous wildlife tracks in the snow, sparse winter animal sightings and beautiful landscapes surrounding him, but he did use his previous 1980s experience to his advantage — especially when repeating the Snake River crossing. 

In 1985, Murphy, naked from the waist down — with the exception of his woolly socks to protect his feet — waded the freezing Snake River as fast as possible. Once on the other side, he quickly peeled off his wet socks and changed back into his clothes to avoid hypothermia in the 5-degree weather. It wasn’t until he skied forward that he realized he had crossed onto an island in the middle of the Snake River and that he’d have to repeat the cold process all over again.

“I made sure I only had to do it once this time,” Murphy chuckled. “… So I learned a little bit — watch for an island.”

While Murphy took the wisdom gained from his 1985 journey and applied it to the 2016 expedition, he said he won’t be completing the trek for a third time.

“I doubt if I’ll ever do this trip again,” he said. “Twice is probably enough, I’ve learned my lesson by now.”

By Jasmine Hall / Yellowstone Newspapers

Photo courtesy of Tom Murphy

CUTLINE: Tom Murphy is pictured on Specimen Ridge while backcountry skiing in Yellowstone National Park in the early 1980s. 

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