Saturday, February 18, 2012

Snow Coach Adventures

Our snow coach with 'Mattracks' named after
the inventor's son, Matt.
In the winter the majority of the roads in the Yellowstone Park Interior are closed to cars. They are not plowed, rather they are intermittently "groomed". So the only vehicles that can get through are snow coaches and snowmobiles. Snow coaches are vehicles like cars, mini-buses and the like (see picture) that have either matttracks (like tank tires) or ski/sled thingees on the front so they can grip and steer in the snow. So to get anywhere in the park beyond Lamar Valley and Mammoth in the north, you must be on one of these vehicles. On our 3rd day in the park we traveled from Mammoth to Old Faithful via a 4 hour snow coach ride. In additional to getting to see the stunning beauty of Yellowstone in the winter, and hearing the commentary of the tour driver about the geology, biology and history of the park, we get up close and personal with the animals. Many of the larger animals use the groomed roads for easier transit. This was the case with the bison stampede we we a part of, my 2nd favorite park moment on this trip. Stay tuned for the upcoming Animal Sightings post for details of the stampede!

On our way South, we stopped at the Roaring Mountain which is a hill with numerous fumaroles, which are superheated steam vents. They are the hottest thermal features in the park with steam upwards of 200 degrees Fahrenheit! One of the neat things about Yellowstone is that it is constantly changing. New fumaroles pop up, geysers turn to hot springs and hot springs that were thought to not erupt (hence called springs, not geysers) suddenly shoot water hundreds of feet into the sky! We drove past a mountain that was unremarkable until 6 years ago when 5 fumaroles broke through and now it is a steamer. Crazy stuff.

Adam, Me and Dad in front of Roaring Mountain

Us again on the road back to Mammoth.

On our way back from Old Faithful to Mammoth, we saw more interesting sites and wildlife but we also had a completely unplanned adventure. When we were about 1 hour (15 miles) outside of Mammoth, getting tired, hungry and ready to be home, we got a call from the snow coach behind us. Their driver was asking our driver for a tow. What????

Us: the coach squarely in the middle of the road.
Them: the van mired in a snow drift.
Yes, indeed, the snow coach got too up close and personal with the snow and got stuck. Stuck! Lest you should think this is a common event IT IS NOT! The snow coaches are very safe- in fact our driver has never been stuck in over 10 years of driving in the winter. But, nonetheless, we are out "in the wild" so to speak so anything can happen. And clearly, we needed to go rescue them. We first tried to tow the coach out from behind, but when this failed our driver needed to find a safe place to turn around to make a second attempt from the front. This is where things got dicey.

The sun was going down and it was getting COLD! We mostly had our cold weather gear on (I guess my mom's admonishments that "you should always dress for the weather even if you're driving" turned out to be true) so it was tolerable but one older lady only had a thin fleece jacket, gloves and no hat! Immediately, people tried to give her a hat, scarf, their coat etc but she refused, I think because she didn't want to ruin her hair. Oh my.

Our driver had to drive many miles to get to the turn around so we were outside for a while. I started to worry because the stuck vehicle was not nearly big enough to hold all of us if we needed to get in for warmth. I figured Adam, Dad and I could walk/run back to Mammoth if we had to but all these other folks? Another good reason to stay fit. But we remained optimistic and entertained ourselves in the meantime. We even tried to be useful:

The team trying to pull the van out from the snow. If you look closely
you will see Dad, Adam and me in the middle.

Eventually our driver did return (boy was I happy to see those headlights) and the 2nd tow was successful. I think we scared away all the animals in a 10 mile radius with our whooping and hollering as we ran back onto our warm snow coach with our very capable driver;)

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