Words and photos by Coron Polley
I don’t ever recall being in the mountains, alone or in a group, and not being happy. For me, whether you look at individual slices of the wilderness or the whole portrait, there is beauty and purpose in all of it. Most recently, I got to be part of that beauty and purpose on a ski trip to the Wallowa Mountains (northeast Oregon) where I was continually awed by the range’s forests, bowls, glades, ridge tops, mountaintops, and chutes.
I have skied the Wallowas for a few years in a row now and each trip has brought new experiences. As with all mountain trips, this year’s outing was splendid. The company was good, we found quality snow, and we engage in great conversations each night. This year, however, the attention-grabbing parts of the experience were the decisions made by the group each day about where we would ski and how we would handle the avalanche hazard.
Both the Wallowa Avalanche Center (www.wallowaavalanchecenter.org) and Payette Avalanche Center (www.payetteavalanche.org) were reporting considerable avalanche danger on the day we skied into the huts. Each forecast also warned that slides could be large in size. The afternoon of our arrival we took a short tour above camp. We dug a pit on the edge of a north-facing slope. The snow pack was clearly ugly with a nasty layer of sugary snow about four inches thick on top of an ice layer at the ground. The meter of snow on top of this layer was relatively consolidated with about five inches of fresh snow at the very top. Due to anchors on the slope, we felt safe skiing down through the old burn for a few good turns late in the day.
With the knowledge gained on our first day, we decided the upper bowls were not safe. The previous year most of the skiing had taken place on steeper terrain along the high flanks of Wing Ridge, but on our second day we concentrated on the treed terrain northeast of the huts. We stuck to glades, and skied a variety of east-facing slopes. The slopes were not steep and it was not the terrain we would typically ski, but it was fun nonetheless and everyone enjoyed the sun and spectacular scenery.
Each time I looked into the upper bowls, I wanted to ski them. But we continually felt the snow pack drop as the sugar layer collapsed beneath us. The ‘whumps’ from those collapses kept bringing me back to my senses. This was not the cycle to ski steep.
I have been backcountry skiing for about five years, and something new happened to me during this trip. On day three, our group dug a pit and chose not to ski a particular slope. This happened a few times over the course of the day. Maybe we’re getting wiser?
Photo: Our 'hut' was really a canvas tent sheltered by an A-frame roof.
During the night, the temperature remained warm and did not drop below 35 degrees. On day four as we left the huts it was drizzling. The sprinkle did not last long and the high clouds thinned as the sun fought to break free. The air was warm and we were all shedding layers. While breaking snow I could feel the difference between the wet mess of surface snow and the colder underlying powder. As we slogged up a treed area on a protected ridge, the snow improved with elevation. A few of our crew dug a quick pit on a southeast slope. The sugar layer was less defined and, with additional consolidation, in the upper snow pack we felt the slope was safe to ski.
We skied a confined slope offering an 800 vertical foot drop twice and re-climbed it for a lunch break on its windless ridge. On our third climb up, two skiers who were close together caused a whump on the 35-degree incline. We moved a little north into another bowl. Two of us dug a pit, and the results were the same, but all were concerned about the whump and the fact the slope was slightly steeper and had even heavier surface snow. We went the other way and dug another pit and found the results even worse. The snow pack was very shallow and slid on the ice at ground level with an arm tap.
The decision to stay off these slopes was easily made and we worked our way down the ridge and over to safer slopes we had skied the day before. The overnight wind had filled in our previous tracks and, while the snow was not as good as it had been yesterday, we still enjoyed the turns. We were also entertained by animal tracks and were shown details of the pine beetle problem present in the Wallowas by one of our group members.
Everyone had a long journey home so, on our final day, we cleaned up the huts, packed our gear, and skied out to the sno-park. With low snow cover and heavy packs we had an entertaining time dodging fallen logs and stumps on the descent. As packs were dropped at the sno-park we all wore big smiles.
Thinking back over the pits we dug and the slopes we skied, there was a lot of ambiguity over the decisions made on this trip. Several times, more than a few of us said, “I think this slope is alright.” Then someone would say, “but what if…,” and there would be a list of things that could or might happen. Those discussions altered what we skied. Maybe we would have been OK on some of the slopes we chose not to ski, but there was one thing we can't contest about the decisions we did make: They brought us safely back home. And even though we gave up a few plums, we had a great time. You don’t have to pick all the plums to find joy in the mountains.
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Although this trip is outside of WenatcheeOutdoors’ one-hour-drive zone, it is a fantastic getaway for local skiers. Joseph is about 320 miles from Wenatchee and is a six-to seven-hour drive. There are two backcountry ski outfitters in the Wallowas.
1) We’ve stayed and skied at the Wing Ridge Shelter the last two years. Wing Ridge Ski Tours (www.wingski.com) offers both guided and unguided trips to their two shelters. It is about two miles and 1100-vertical feet from the trailhead (Sno-Park) to the Wing Ridge Huts. Their other shelter is located along Sheep Creek about four miles from the Salt Creek Summit Sno- Park.
2) Also available and deeper into the range are the Wallowa Huts, (www.wallowahuts.com) with yurts in both the McCully and Norway Basins.
Read more about skiing in the Wallowas. Article 1 and Article 2.