Trip Report: Commissary Ridge Yurt

Teton-based adventure photographer Katie Cooney, teamed up with five other ripping skiers to create the trip of a lifetime—a hut excursion in the backcountry of their home zone of Jackson, Wyoming. The team faced a variety of challenges in their exploits, but using onX Backcountry, they were able to mitigate avalanche danger and emerged with some amazing photos to share. Tune in as Cooney recounts her experience.

January 7, 2022

Spirits were high as we pulled packs from our cars, applied skins to our skis, and lifted heavy packs onto our backs. Following a week-long storm, wind event, and day of departure warming, the local avalanche danger had been elevated to “high” at mid and upper elevations. With caution in mind, we set out on our trek to the Commissary Yurt. Half of the crew—Tyler, Kelly, and Maxine—would be first-time yurt dwellers, while Nick, John, and I had previous hut trips under our belts. 

After a few miles of relatively flat skinning on a forest service road, we began climbing Commissary Ridge. Our skin track wound through dense groves of old-growth pines and stands of aspens, then suddenly gave way to one of the most magnificent views in the world: the peaks of the Grand, Middle, and South Teton.

A short while later, we arrived at the yurt. Our first-timers quickly caught on to the necessary camp chores, which are not so different from a summertime backpacking trip: water, wood, and warmth. The wood stove crackled in the center of the yurt while we harvested buckets of fresh snow to melt for drinking water. We shed our heavy packs, stored food, and re-organized gear to head out for an exploratory mission.

As we skinned up the ridge away from the yurt, the cloud level crept lower. We took a couple of quick laps through a low-angle, north-facing meadow, and continued up the ridge. With low visibility, limited daylight, and snow moving in, the crew opted to turn back to the hut and settle in for the night, knowing we had a full day of fun ahead of us.

The wind had covered our skin track from just a few hours earlier, and clouds had drowned out views of any nearby mountains. With no visual landmarks other than the trees in front of us, we were glad to have the Offline Maps and Tracker features in onX Backcountry to retrace our steps. 

January 8, 2022

Saturday morning presented more favorable weather and we bustled around the hut, eager to make our way toward Beard’s Mountain. The forecast called for light snow and wind through mid-afternoon. Knowing the Teton Range’s propensity to hold onto low-lying clouds during the winter, we studied our maps and outlined a few options for the day.  

As we made our way up the ridge toward Beard’s, thick cloud cover and fierce winds cut our ascent short once again. With little desire to spend the day in “cloud soup,” we made the call to stop short of the summit and move to Plan B. 

Plan B’s slope offered several lanes of skiable terrain which was a reasonable compromise to satisfy our desire for powder and safety. Patches of blue and a view of the Teton Valley, Idaho began to emerge as the clouds rolled through. The mountains that illuminated were a welcome reprieve from the sea of gray that enveloped us since the previous afternoon.

Tired, happy, and hungry, we made our final transition of the day and headed back to the yurt, where libations and a pasta dinner were on the docket. As we looked back on our day, a vibrant sunset illuminated the tracks we’d made on the face of the mountain.

Back at the yurt, we eased into another lively evening of good food, laughter, and stories. We stoked the fire and crawled into our sleeping bags, grateful to spend another night high in the mountains with some of our best friends.

January 9, 2022

We awoke to a clear, crisp January morning. The clouds had lifted, and the Grand Teton loomed behind the ridge, standing sentinel over the canyons and valleys below. I spent the pre-dawn hours running around with my camera, delighted that the Tetons presented such a glorious spectacle. 

The rest of the morning was spent packing up, cleaning, and prepping the yurt for its next inhabitants. That primarily consists of dishes, cleaning out food storage, stocking firewood, and covering any snow stains (read: pee or coffee) outside of the yurt with fresh snow. Like any campsite, our goal was to leave it better than we found it. 

We said goodbye to our beloved temporary home, grabbed one last group selfie, and donned our heavy packs to ski back into the canyon, eager to return in 2023.

Questions For Katie

What were you most nervous about heading into the trip?

KC: Our team was most concerned about staying warm and relatively dry after long days in the snow—particularly at night. We were also apprehensive about the avalanche hazard (the trip started at high), but conditions improved throughout the trip.

Did you bring too much of anything? 

Clothes and active snacks. Several group members noted that they had more clothes than needed because they were concerned that their clothing wouldn’t dry out. This concern was mitigated by regularly tending the woodstove. We also had excess “active snacks” like bars and gummies at the end of the trip, but we’d rather have too much food than not enough.

Was there anything you regretted not bringing?

While we had plenty of food and we were well-nourished, the group agreed that next time, we’d bring along more fun snack foods like popcorn and Goldfish. The gentlemen in the group sorely regretted not bringing more beer, but survived on their whiskey stash.

What were the most essential items in your backpack other than your ski gear?

Slippers, dry socks, and good coffee. Do not skip the slippers, or you’ll be putting your ski boots on every time you need to go outside or badgering a friend to borrow theirs. Having a pair of yurt shoes also helped us keep things dry inside—always take ski boots off at the door!

Were there any elements of the yurt trip that you found challenging?

Juggling gear management, organization, and yurt chores were the primary challenges of the trip. On the first night of our trip, we were so excited about dinner and evening activities that we forgot to take our boot liners out. We all sorely regretted that the next morning as we missed out on ski time while we let them dry out a touch. We also had to be very mindful about staying on top of melting snow—six active people go through water pretty quickly.

Did you find navigation in a new backcountry zone difficult? 

Yes and no. We’d done our due diligence and research prior to the trip. Online trip reports, beta from friends, guide books, and onX Backcountry all helped us feel prepared to enter South Leigh Canyon with confidence. We saved the yurt’s coordinates as a Waypoint in onX Backcountry prior to our departure, and planned out an estimated skin track for the way in, which saved some time. 

Having maps saved offline in onX Backcountry helped us when the weather went south or we got slightly off-track. In addition to our maps, having competent group members that all have ample backcountry experience and navigation skills was essential.

Did anything surprise you? 

Our first-timers were pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to keep the yurt at a comfortable temperature for both hanging out and sleeping. Proper fire management throughout the evenings ensured that we stayed in a goldilocks zone and didn’t wake up freezing in the middle of the night. 

Another member mentioned that they really appreciated the importance of planning the trip with people they feel completely comfortable with—both for backcountry travel purposes and for occupying a small space together.

Anything you’d do differently for your next yurt trip? 

“More beer” was the repeated refrain from the gentlemen on our trip. Libations aside, we plan to book a longer trip so that we have more than one full ski day and time to really settle in. We’d also take full advantage of the daylight and ski a bit longer. 

Any other highlights to note? 
Staying immersed in the mountains was a highlight for everyone on the trip. Having a few days of no laundry, notifications, or other distractions gave us all a valuable opportunity to slow down, enjoy one another’s company, and soak up some magic in the mountains.

Katie Cooney

Katie Cooney is a freelance adventure, outdoor, and lifestyle photographer and artist based in Driggs, Idaho. Her two crafts help her find inspiration in every moment, and she thrives on capturing the celebration of adventurous lifestyle and connection to the outdoors. Katie works with clients like onX, Gnarly Nutrition, Visit Idaho, Backcountry Magazine, and more. When she’s not recreating or behind a camera, you’ll find Katie in her garden, painting, or attempting to get her dogs and partner enough exercise. 
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