It was cold. Very cold. 8,000 feet above sea level in mid-Winter means bone numbingly cold. We wait for our tour bus. Hot flask in bag. Four layers on. Pyjamas (British Airways first class freebie) under trousers. My Boundary Park football socks on. It’s going to get colder than watching Oldham Athletic in January.
We board the bus and the guide immediately hands us a blanket each. From memory we reached our last high in Yellowstone last year, nudging over 10,000 feet as we drove the Beartooth Pass out of Wyoming into Montana. This time we will hit over 14,000 feet. To see the El Tatio geysers.
The two hour drive allows us to see the stars from the darkness of the narrow highway. A challenging road we decided not to risk the Peugeot 301 gearbox on. Justified as our bus struggled along. I nodded into and out of sleep. Eventually our two hour journey ended and, after payment of our entrance fee – a six thousand peso discount for Chris having a geological student ID – and a welcome cup of coca-tea – it’s hot, I don’t care if it’s not proper tea – we entered the geyser area.
Cold isn’t the word. A light wind bites hard. My aching bones suffer as the chilling atmosphere cuts through my clothes. I’m glad I didn’t go for jeans and a tee shirt this time!
Our guide calls out excitedly as the dawn sun appears from behind a lurking Ande. A wave of welcome warmth hits the earth and suddenly it happens. The whole site, some two miles long, spurts into action. The nearest geyser had been bubbling gently. Impressive to these two lovers of the geo-thermal. As the sun began to melt the surface ice it almost instantly erupted with a forty foot cloud of steam and water spurt. While the water was no Old Faithful, that’s the big so and so in Yellowstone, it was possibly more spectacular, with the backdrop of cliffs and new found sun adding to the experience. Chris captured the image above.
Activity in the surrounding geyser field was equally impressive as the sunlight reached slowly across it. There’s something that makes this crack of dawn experience better than what I’d seen in Iceland and the USA in recent months. Granted, both the alternatives fire their steam and hot water higher into the air. Yellowstone has the extraordinary and exquisite Grand Prismatic Spring. But somehow this location with over eighty steam vents felt better than those. Maybe that’s me living in the moment rather than making a logic assessment.
As we hit the last viewing area we were offered the chance to peel off our clothes and bathe in a small pool steaming away in the far corner of the park. The lack of heated changing facilities, and the fifteen minute time limit and “don’t get your hair wet” instruction meant we declined. Many others didn’t.
The journey back down the mountain, this time in bright daylight with unbroken blue skies, involved sites of a herd of picuna, a llama kebab and intermittent sleep.
The challenging start time and extreme cold took a bit out of us. But it was well worth it.