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Cold Front

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Shuffling down a hot, dusty road in the Greys River Range last summer, my friend Ty Draney and I pondered what it might be like to traverse the range during the icy grip of winter. The heat may have cooked our good judgement, but on a smoldering August afternoon, Ty and I hatched the idea of traversing its 70-mile length, on foot, during the coldest time of year.

The Greys River Range lies about 50 miles south of Jackson Hole, in the northwest corner of the state, right in Ty’s backyard. It is a sleepy range, but not because of its lack of beauty. The area regularly posts the coldest temps in the state, and holds several feet of snow.

Last January, the forecast leading up to our planned three-day run was foreboding. A cold front was settling in with a forecasted high temperature of zero and lows south of negative 20. Ty and I had recruited Fred Marmsater, who is not only an amazing photographer but also a super-strong mountain athlete. In light of the forecast, we had a text conversation about whether or not we should proceed. The conclusion: It clearly was not a good idea, but we simply agreed to pack extra layers.

Draney manages a smile despite sub-zero temps. Photo by Fred Marmsater

As we pulled out of Ty’s driveway, the temperature was minus 30, and our equipment could have easily been confused for that of an Arctic expedition. Starting out, pulling pulks (homemade from plastic kids’ sleds) laden with our extra gear and food, I was cold, despite wearing all my clothes. After an hour of running uphill, I finally warmed up enough to slightly unzip my insulated jacket.

The trail was firm, and made a crunchy sound as we ran. As the sun crept over the horizon, it brought with it a couple of degrees of warmth. Pausing as we crested the hill, we looked down onto the headwaters of the Greys River. The air had a bite, quickly freezing any exposed skin. Our beards had long since frozen over, but childish grins broke through as we straddled our duffle bags, strapped to the pulks, and careened toward the river, whooping and hollering at our out-of-control descent.

Luke Nelson and Ty Draney running with their homemade sleds in Greys Range. Photo by Fred Marmsater

Not long after arriving in the valley, the groomed snowmobile path ended, contrary to what we had been told. Only 10 miles into the day, with 15 more to go, the postholing began. The unpredictable snow allowed for a few steps on the surface before a surprise collapse would swallow one or both legs. Several hours later I plunged through for the forty-thousandth time, and glanced back to see Ty standing awkwardly, with one leg on the surface of the snow, the other buried to his hip. He caught my glance and mumbled with a smirk, “Good times.”

Just before dark, exhausted, we arrived at the long-anticipated warming hut. A fire in the woodstove quickly warmed our cold bones and allowed us to strip off a few layers. The next morning, we lingered by the fire, puttering with gear, hesitant to head into the cold.

Planning (stalling) in the hut before plunging into the cold. Photo by Fred Marmsater

Over the next couple of days we ran, walked and crawled through more variable snow conditions in frigid temps. After three days, we arrived at the truck with magnificent ice beards and bodies cloaked in frost. The temperature had improved, rising all the way to negative 7.

As the truck heater thawed hands and feet, Ty chuckled, “Mission accomplished, but maybe we should try this in the heat next time.”