West Yellowstone Ski Festival: Where Skiers Evolve
by Jen Dial Santoro
It starts in early October. First, it’s just one quick glance. By mid-October it becomes more regular, and by November, it’s a morning ritual. Checking the webcam at the trailhead of the Rendezvous Trails. Laying eyes on the arch. Squinting to see if maybe that’s not a patch of sunlight, but instead a hint of frost. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, the “refresh” button on the computer becomes worn, as if each click is worth another snowflake.
New Kids on the Trail
Being the new kid is weird. Being the new kid to a sport at 36 years-old is weirder. That was us — my husband Jonathan and me — ten years ago when we snapped into our bindings at The Yellowstone Rendezvous Race in March, 2010.
The year prior to our first time at Yellowstone Ski Festival we bought skate skis and did two races: Boulder Mountain Tour and the 50k at The Yellowstone Rendezvous Race. Crazy? Yes, it was. And knowing nothing about wax, cheating around on pure adrenaline, we lucked into a nice average March day.
We were hooked. The following fall we trekked up to West again for our first Thanksgiving of Nordic skiing.
Technique is Free Speed
Nordic skiing is hard. With an endurance background in cycling and a few years of hockey under our drink belts, we were ready to tackle the sport head on. We were overdressed and under skilled. We both fell down more than we ever expected. For some, that might have been the end, but with the encouragement of a different instructor every half-day, and trails like none we’d seen, quitting was not an option.
Wearing our 20-year accumulation of cold-weather cycling gear in what was a typical frigid, but beautiful Wednesday, we met up with our first instructor for the 3-day Skate Clinic. With instructors like Scot McGee, Don Camp, Emily Lovett, and many other greats, we started to feel less like fish out of water and more like…skiers.
Within those days we learned that with technique, speed can be free. And who doesn’t like free stuff?
By the end of the clinic we were ready to race locally in Salt Lake and become part of the Nordic ski community.
Call it What you Will
Yellowstone Ski Festival is a week known by many names. “Fall Camp,” “First Tracks,” or if you live and breathe skiing and you live anywhere nearby, just, “West.” The conversation between Nordies in Salt Lake starting in September is dominated by only a few questions: “Are you going to West?”, and, “When are you leaving for West?” Everyone knows what you mean.
It’s not just the comradery, the holiday, or the skiing. The Rendezvous Trails on the Custer Gallatin National Forest are pristine; whether you’ve just started skiing or are training for an Olympic spot. They are level, contoured, but not impossible, wide, and even in lean snow years Doug Edgerton and his crack team know how to lay out corduroy that makes even the clumsiest of us feel like Jessie Diggins for a few minutes.
Then there’s the Yellowstone Rendezvous Race in the spring, where you can fly through those same trails at full speed — even the wrong way on a few.
The nearby Boundary Trails, also part of the National Forest, are where all the dogs of the Ski Festival get to go with their tired owners to get some exercise.
Evolving into Skiers
We continued to make the trip to West Yellowstone for the Festival. Staying at the Grey Wolf, we were among most of the Salt Lake Nordic community and their kids. Little kids. Everywhere. With tiny skis, and yelling. Loud yelling. Especially in the pool. At first, we thought about looking for a quieter place to stay, but that scene started to grow on us a bit.
There were lean years and snowy years, frigid ones and ones that Nordic skiers call “too warm”. Our perspective on what is “cold” slid down the thermometer. I braved the SuperTour race in 2011 and since only a handful of crazy masters bother to do that, I got to stand on a podium next to Caitlin Gregg.
From our single pair of skis, our quiver has grown to too many. Some years we ski our “good skis”, scrambling for a spot in the garage to wax daily. Other years we slap two layers of sticky klister on our classic skis and just go skiing for the week. It all depends on what Mother Nature has left us in the end of November.
Gaining a new tolerance for cold weather, we also warmed up to those little kids a bit. We evolved.
Making More Skiers
We made our contribution to the Nordic ski community in 2012, when our Millicent was born. She was due on Thanksgiving, and forced us to stay home from West Yellowstone for the holiday. By spring, and through the generous babysitting of Gerry and Judy Wondrak of Hebgen Lake, we managed to make it to the Yellowstone Rendezvous to race. It just so happens the Wondraks are from my home town in Ohio. They moved to West after retiring from teaching and are now year-round residents of this town we were growing to love.
Finn was born in May of 2015, so by the time Thanksgiving came around that year we were ready to bring him to West, where he celebrated his first and every subsequent Turkey Day.
Now that Milli and Finn are 7 and 4, they have their own tiny skis. And they yell too. In fact, they are really, REALLY loud. They run wild at the Grey Wolf with a whole gaggle of little kids from TUNA (The Utah Nordic Alliance). Some of those kids who were their age when we started are more than willing to earn some cash babysitting while we ski, socialize, and experience Yellowstone Ski Festival through younger eyes.
More to Learn
Having little skiers means teaching little skiers. In 2017 we took our USSA Level 100 on-snow course — you guessed it — over Thanksgiving in West. Emily Lovett and the late, great, Jon Engen took us through our paces teaching us his Norwegian terms like, “paddle”, “dance”, and “double dance”. It was truly a privilege to have such an amazing piece of US Skiing history, as we would later appreciate when we lost him in 2018.
Nordic is a Lifelong Sport
We bring a grandparent to West every year to help with the kids. Our family knows that if we’re celebrating Thanksgiving it’s going to have to be a week early or late, unless you’re coming with us. My father-in-law has learned to wear a puffy and walk everywhere. Last year we convinced my mom, “Grandma Nancy”, to come skiing with the family on the Boundary Trail. She was blown away by the beauty.
We aren’t the only three-generation family celebrating the best fall holiday in Montana. We see so many peers of ours who are now dragging sleds, pole-less toddlers on skis, even escorting teenagers to the start line of various ski and biathlon races during the week.
Home Away from Home
This year will be number ten for us. I haven’t done much for ten years in my life — and for my kids, it’s the only Thanksgiving they’ve ever known. We keep it simple: I pre-make chicken pot pies with stuffing on top and we heat those up and dine on cylinders of cranberry jelly. As they get older, we’ll attend our official dinner with TUNA, but for now, they need to be contained.
“Fall Camp” is one of the few places we can let our kids run free, where we know all of our neighbors, and where we all share one common goal: gliding along on an inch and-a-half of expertly maintained p-tex for a week.
West Yellowstone is now our adopted home town. The Wondraks have introduced us to the Koniecznys, and every time we go up, we meet more amazing people who live there year-round. As I start to sort baselayers and pull ski boots out of our closet ahead of the five-hour drive north from Salt Lake, it seems less about skiing and more like “going home” for the holidays.
Now pardon me while I go check the webcam…
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: Jen Santoro