Whoosh. A gust of wind snatched my lucky hat from my head and sent it up and over the ridge. Our group, with guides, consisted of 4 split boarders and 6 skiers. It was windy and we were boot packing the last 100 ft up to a corniced ridge in the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon. The prize we were heading for was on the other side of the ridge: two steep wind loaded couloirs.
As we made our way just below the ridge, Brian, one of our guides, instructed us to hunker down while he fixed a rope that would allow us to access one of the steep couloirs. I dug out a small nook in the snow and started putting on extra layers to keep warm. The wind continued to rush at our backs and it became evident that we needed to be extra careful transitioning our gear. My lucky hat (and exposed head) served as a reminder that a miscalculation, or slip of the hand, could easily send crucial gear flying up and over the ridge or down the steep slope behind us.
“Ok folks we have two options here,” Joel, one of the lead guides from Wallowa Alpine Huts, shouted over the howling wind. “Two nice couloirs drop into a big cirque just on the other side of the ridge here. With the way the wind has been blowing, there is probably some nice loading going on. . . so we are going to do some stability tests before we send any of you down.” This is why we were here. The prospect of riding light snow deposited by wind on a steep leeward slope…. it’s every backcountry skier and rider’s dream. But safety comes first and it was incredible to watch our guides work to make sure our group remained safe.
Brian, the WAH intern, and Matt, our only split-board guide, were making good progress setting up the rope to drop into the skiers left couloir. Our two lead guides, Joel and Zobot, started cutting a 20 square foot cornice looming over the skier’s right couloir. I surveyed the scene; rushing wind, jagged mountain peaks, split-boards, rope systems, cornice cutting, good friends, and soon enough, fresh turns. All I could do was smile.
I was on a backcountry skiing and snowboarding trip in the Wallowa Mountains of North Eastern Oregon with a group of GreatOutdoors.com/Altrec.com employees. Skiers and snowboarders from around the Pacific Northwest have retreated to this pristine and lesser-known mountain range over the years to experience lighter snow and scenery reminiscent of the European Alps. Their reports always come back the same, “Epic on all fronts.” It was our goal to spend 5 days skiing and riding in the Wallowa backcountry. From what we had heard, this is some of the best snow and terrain in the country.
We hooked up with Wallowa Alpine Huts (WAH), one of two backcountry ski guide outfits servicing the area. WAH has provided multi day backcountry skiing trips with cabin/yurt accommodations in the northern Wallowas for over 30 years. In 2008, they expanded their operation by adding a yurt in the southern Wallowas’ Norway Basin, an area with an abundance of experienced/expert terrain (moderate terrain as well) and typically more snow accumulation than their McCully Basin location in the north. Both areas grant amazing access to the Wallowas pristine Eagle Cap Wilderness, where skiers and splitboarders can ride untouched terrain free of snowmobiles and other human traffic. For our trip, we chose the Norway Basin location with the allure of skiing and riding unnamed chutes and couloirs.
People refer to the area as “Oregon’s little Switzerland”. But unlike Switzerland, there are no major ski resorts and no major tourist conglomerates luring people into the area for winter recreation. Why? Much of the Wallowa Mountains are comprised of wilderness area. The 350,461 acre Eagle Cap Wilderness is the largest wilderness area in Oregon, and like all wilderness areas, it is off limits to motorized rigs (snowmobiles, ski lifts, cats, etc ). The craggy granite mountain peaks of the Eagle Cap Wilderness are hands down the area’s most celebrated features and because of wilderness use restrictions they lay virtually untouched throughout the winter months for skiers and split boarders.
So is it one of skiing’s best kept secrets? “Not intentionally”, exclaims Connelly Brown, owner of Wallowa Alpine Huts (WAH). In fact, local outfitters like Connelly want backcountry enthusiasts to know what the Wallowa’s offers skiers and snowboarders. The areas thirty-one 8,000 ft plus peaks receive an intercontinental snow pack in excess of 400 inches each winter. The terrain is known for its wide-open bowls, old growth glades, and classic couloirs. It is truly a wonderland for backcountry skiers and riders.
When we arrived in the little town of Halfway a virus meant we were down to just four: Matt (a skier) Juan, Jason and myself (splitboarders).
The White Fur Cabin in Halfway is where we met our guides and where we would spend our final night before heading into the backcountry. We also met Mike and Syde at the White Fur; a husband and wife backcountry skiing team that was joining us on the trip. After getting lined out with the logistics for the next morning’s trip into the Yurt we decided to get further acquainted with our guides and learn more about the area over a few pints at a local Halfway pub.
A mixture of ranchers and snowmobilers occupied the pub. Joel, our lead guide, explained that many of the local town’s have catered to snowmobiling enthusiasts for what they bring in winter tourism dollars. Snowmobilers have been rippin into the Wallowa’s amazing snow pack (outside of the wilderness) for a number of years now. Skiers and snowboarders are a relatively new group on the winter scene in Halfway. He went on to explain that so far, both the Halfway and snowmobile community has generously accepted WAH and its clients. Snowmobilers and Skiers/riders share a relatively small common corridor. Skiers only use snowmobile roads to access the wilderness area where snowmobiles are off limits. In fact, skiers often use snowmobiles to get to the wilderness boundary… so there really isn’t any inherent conflict between the two groups. WAH wants to keep it this way. They believe it is important for their business to maintain good relations with the townspeople and other recreationalists by fostering mutual respect for each other’s activities and interests in the area.
Getting to the Yurt was like entering through the gates of a snow covered castle; an amazing introduction to the areas splendor. We were towed 6 miles up Pine Creek behind a snowmobile on a groomed snowmobile road. When the groomer ended, we strapped on our skins and trekked another 2.5 miles (2000 vertical ft.) to the wilderness boundary where the yurt was perched on a bench overlooking the Norway Basin. Directly across the basin dramatic vistas of Conacopia, Granite, and Red Mountain make you feel like you could reach out and touch them. As we kicked and glided our last few yards to the yurt our guides were already busy chopping wood and unloading sleds to stock our home for the next 5 days. We had a quick minute to take our packs off and pick our bunks before we met in the downstairs (cooking, eating and general congregating) portion of the double decker yurt for a more formal orientation.
The weather was clear and cold for our first three days in the Wallowas. High pressure granted us the opportunity to do longer tours and enjoy the surrounding scenery to its fullest. There hadn’t been new snow in the area for little over a week but the cold evenings produced light faceted snow in shaded basins, forests, leeward slopes and north facing slopes. We climbed and skied an average of 4,000 vertical feet each day for the first three days including a summit of 9,537 ft Red Mountain. Some of our best turns during the high pressure came when we dropped off the north side of a saddle on Red Mountain’s east side. 900 vertical ft. of light knee-deep powder had everyone hootin’ and hollerin’ and grins were ear to ear. From that run we hiked to the ridge to claim the two couloirs I began describing in the outset of this article. Rosie, guide Joel’s Kiwi girlfriend, was on the trip and she dropped the left coul. first. When I finally dropped in and met up with Rosie at our rendezvous spot, she was holding my lucky hat that had blown up and over the ridge. Thanks Rosie.
Each night back at the yurt WAH guides prepared and served outstanding meals to help replenish our bodies. Breakfast was amazing too; for example eggs benedict was one of the group’s favorites. All in all WAH guides were on it. Whether we were crossing through extreme avalanche conditions or sitting in the yurt-side sauna, we were more than taken care of.
Laying in bed on the 4th morning everything seemed quieter, dampened. I looked up and noticed snow covering the window on the roof of the yurt. How much? I climbed off my bunk and opened the door to see 6 – 8 inches of fresh snow. Everyone was excited that our last full day in the Wallowa’s would be spent skiing around the yurt on steep tree runs. Our legs welcomed the shorter tours and the new snow was playful and rejuvenating. We were even able to have a hot lunch at the yurt that day.
The Wallowas were everything we expected and more. It is a place with unrivaled beauty and untouched terrain for every level of skier and snowboarder. A five-day yurt trip barely scratches the surface out there. Whether you want to brave unnamed couloirs or lay figure eights on wide-open slopes, WAH is a great outfit to get you there. Their experienced and knowledgeable guides not only get you to the good stashes safely, they are a gas to hang out with around the yurt as well. Thanks WAH for a great trip.
I-84 East to La Grande (McCully Basin, 332 miles) or Baker City (Norway Basin, 359 miles)