New book highlights outdoorsman's adventures

Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2001

LIVINGSTON (AP) -- Former Park County Sheriff Charley Johnson remembers a surprise October blizzard that blew through this area nine years ago.

Two hunters, inadequately dressed and ill prepared, were lost in the Gallatin Range.

The tracking dogs froze their noses in the bitter cold and what little hope the rescuers had was fading fast. The dogs had to give up, but Tom Murphy didn't. Down on his hands and knees, he wafted snow from old footprints until he found the right ones and stayed on the job, finally tracking the doomed hunters to their icy end.

''Somehow, he was able to cipher it and find those guys,'' Johnson recalled. ''It took a lot of work to figure that out. I think he's that way in everything. He's pretty much of a perfectionist.''

Murphy, 51, has a prodigious set of outdoor skills that he combines with a knowledge of the natural world few people can match. After teaching wilderness photography courses in Yellowstone National Park for 16 years, he's now published his first book, ''Silence and Solitude, Yellowstone's Winter Wilderness.''

It's a project people have encouraged him to do for years.

The photography is remarkable, but that's no surprise. The Livingston resident's work has been widely published in major magazines and frequently appears in art galleries around the region.

The book's unexpected delight arises from Murphy's elegant test; accompanying each picture is a brief lesson in natural history, whether it's the survival strategies of bison, or an explanation of how ice crystals grow.

Murphy spends about 45 days of every winter in the park, enough time that he's able to put himself in the cold little shoes of a field mouse. He understands that snow isn't just a boring form of water. He is intimate with a world in which the loudest sound is a snowflake whizzing past your ear.

None of this knowledge came easy.

In 1985, Murphy became the first person to ski -- alone-- the 125 miles from Grant Teton National Park to Gardiner, taking the long way around the east side of Yellowstone Lake.

He forded waist-deep rivers, camped alone in bitter weather and lost 18 of the 165 pounds he stretched over an already lean 6-foot-3 inch frame. By the time he completed the 14-day trek, his 70-pound pack equaled almost half his body weight.

''I was burning muscle tissue,'' he said. ''I didn't have any fat on me at all.''

Still, he skied 18 miles on the final day.

The reason for the trip was simple: He wanted to take pictures nobody had taken before.

The reason he went alone was simple: He couldn't talk anybody into going with him.

Since then he's done a number of trips like that one, trips on which he carries twice as much gear as anybody else.

''With the equipment he carries, he should be dead,'' said outdoor writer Tim Cahill, who has accompanied Murphy on expeditions for magazine assignments.

During a trip this summer, said Cahill, who wrote an introduction for the book, Murphy shouldered a 90-pound pack (most of it camera gear) for a 60-mile hike.

Even under that load, ''You can't keep up with him,'' Cahill said. ''Nobody can keep up with him.''

Then, at the end of a hard day, when everybody else is relaxing in camp, Murphy often climbs a nearby hill to take pictures in the evening light.

''He's pretty much tireless,'' said Cahill, who's trekked with the best on every continent.

When Murphy isn't guiding students or taking his own pictures, he helps run the Park County Search and Rescue Team, teaches tracking skills and runs a whitewater rescue team, ''which amazes people because I can't swim,'' he said. ''But that makes me run the boat better.''

And he still takes those long and arduous ski trips every winter.

He taught himself both photography and natural history. The photography, Murphy said, was learned at ''Trash Can University: I shot a lot of stuff and threw a lot of it away.''

He's the kind of guy, Cahill said, who can identify all the wildflowers, age a grizzly's track and ski forever in only a cotton T-shirt.

''He should freeze, but he doesn't,'' Cahill said.

Murphy shrugs off such conditions as part of what it takes to get the job done.

The book, he said, is a chance to spread his passion for Yellowstone, a place about which he is ''a fanatic.'' He wants people to recognize its worth.

''It's my chance to at least say a little something,'' he said. ''The most valuable part of Yellowstone is the wildlands and I want to help create some more value there.''

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