Wallowa Backcountry Ski
February 22-26, 2007
Fantastic powder, stunning scenery and an amazingly compatible group of Obsidians combined to give participants a truly memorable trip.
During the weeks leading up to departure for the Wallowas, snow conditions throughout Oregon were worsening. A dry spell, warm temperatures and then rain did nothing to alleviate fears that we would arrive in Joseph to find bare mountain slopes.
Our fears never materialized.
A few days before we left, the weather changed dramatically and this time concern arose about driving conditions just to get across the state. We had arranged ourselves into three carpool groups and all left from various points at about 8 a.m. on Thursday, February 22. Amazingly enough, we found all three vehicles in a caravan just outside La Grande — totally unplanned! The drive was fairly uneventful with the exception of snowy conditions going over the Blue Mountain summit, where trucks had stopped to chain up, and traffic slowed to a crawl.
The first night was spent at a wonderful B&B — Chandler’s — just a few blocks from downtown Joseph. For $29 per person, we got comfortable beds (even a couple of single rooms), access to the hot tub, coffee, tea & cookies when we arrived, an incredible full breakfast in the morning and for an extra $5 per person, showers, tea, coffee & cookies on our way out. (Nobody turned that latter opportunity down.) We backtracked a few miles to Enterprise for dinner at the Terminal Velocity brewpub, on recommendation by Bill Sullivan. A funky place that was a little hard to find, but a great menu and excellent beer.
Our outfitter, Roger Averback of Wing Ridge Ski Tours, met with us at the B&B the next morning for an extremely thorough briefing on the trip, including detailed information about avalanche danger, snow conditions and the weather. Mandatory equipment included avalanche transceivers, probes and snow shovels (Note: this equipment is available on free loan from UO Outdoor Program to its members, which is $15/year.) We were able to leave unneeded luggage at the B&B, and set off for the trailhead, about 18 miles from Joseph.
The trailhead at Salt Creek Summit offers restrooms and a new, large warming hut. You have to share the area with snowmobilers but Roger promised us that his part of Oregon has redneck crosscountry skiers and tree-hugging snowmobilers. Although we set off in windy, cold and snowy conditions, the weather brightened and most of the trip in was in sunny weather. We had to break trail thanks to the recent dumping of snow, but I don’t think anybody complained. The trail is about 4.5 miles with lots of little up-and-down, which seems more when you are carrying a loaded backpack. The very last part of the trail snakes down 200' in a series of switchbacks, and then you cross Big Sheep Creek and climb 50' up to the bench where the camp sits.
Very basic accommodations, but sufficient. Two sleeping tents with five bunks each, and a kitchen tent with two bunks, all of which are equipped with deluxe Thermarest sleeping pads. The tents also have efficient wood burning stoves. For those who didn’t mind a little smoke, the wood stove heated sauna helped them relax and clean up (a little) after a day of skiing. The only tent not heated was the outhouse, so nobody lingered there.
The group divided well into two types of skiers — the “Extreme Group” who climbed up high to telemark down, and “The Others” who opted for the lower trails in the valley.
The Extremes climbed the shoulder of Mt. Nebo twice on Saturday, gaining a total of 3000 vertical feet. They lost that elevation by floating down through powder snow, telemarking through little clearings. On Sunday they skied two miles up Big Sheep Creek and then climbed another three miles up the South Fork to a knoll at the 8200-foot level in Big Sheep Basin. This high valley is surrounded by a wall of icy cliffs. Bill dug an avalanche test pit and found a total of five feet of light powder snow on top of an icy crust. It was almost too much powder for easy telemarking. They skied back down with snow over their knees.
Meanwhile, The Others headed up to the Tenderfoot Trailhead with the intention of finding the Bonny Lakes trail. After finding a snowbridge to carry them over Big Sheep Creek, they bushwhacked up an old burned slope (breaking trail all the way of course), but never did find anything that resembled an official trail. But they had a great time, heading into the woods through the deep new powder and enjoying the beauty and peace of their surroundings. On Sunday they decided to follow the Extremes (letting those guys break trail after yet another dumping of snow), but that plan only last a couple of miles when the Extremes performed some extreme maneuvers that the Others decided not to emulate. But again, and especially because the sun came out, they had a wonderful time in the woods.
Dinners were group events, and the last night’s meal was a banquet. Bill orchestrated his group and the rest of us were treated to incredible hors d’oeuvres and homemade minestrone soup with Metropol bread—accompanied by plenty of wine.
We woke on our last morning to a glorious sunrise and even more new snow, which made it hard to pack up and leave. Throughout the weekend we had had sunshine, high winds, blizzards, soft snowflakes, temperatures dropping down to 12 degrees on one night, and about 18" of new snow total. The trip out was uneventful, and we got back to the B&B for the most wonderful showers before noon.
On the trip were: Jan Anselmo, Marsha Barr, Larry Dunlap, John Hegg, Bob Huntley, Sam Miller, Chris Stockdale (leader), Bill Sullivan, Charlie Van Deusen, Lyndell Wilken and Sue Wolling.