Bottomless Powder, Big Ski Lines in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains
By Michael Lanza
We reach a high saddle between two peaks, where the wind has sculpted the snow into stationary, perpetually cresting waves several feet high. Treeless slopes of clean, untracked powder fall away beneath us. Our group of several friends and a few guides have been climbing uphill in this remote corner of northeast Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains for more than two hours, ascending some 3,000 vertical feet under a clear, ice-blue winter sky, amid scenery that looks like a post card from an Alpine resort, but without the ski lifts and quaint villages.
Then we look up at the final grind awaiting us: a ridge of crusty, windblown snow rising another seven hundred feet to the 9,555-foot summit of Red Mountain, one of the highest in the Wallowas. It looks steep.
My companions all strap their skis onto their packs and begin kicking steps in the snow on a long slog that will consume almost another hour. Reluctant to carry skis—maybe reluctant to a fault—I keep mine on my feet and make hundreds of zigzags uphill, like a mechanized duck in a shooting gallery, an effort that one of the guides will later claim earns me the dubious distinction of making Red’s first ascent entirely on skis. She generously makes it sound like a proud accomplishment, but part of me prefers to believe that there must have been at least one person before me who was dumb or stubborn enough to try it.
At the top of Red, where it’s cold and breezy but also sunny, we hang out for a little while to soak up the views. The Wallowas sprawl to far horizons, an amazing panorama of jagged ridges capped with scalloped snow and rocky peaks jutting out of the white. Much of the range lies within the Eagle Cap Wilderness, 350,000 acres without any sign of civilization. To the northeast, the snowy and craggy Seven Devils Mountains of Idaho rise across the brown, 8,000-foot-deep trench of Hells Canyon.
It’s probably a safe bet that there aren’t another 20 people in this entire mountain range today, and possibly no one besides us. There certainly isn’t another soul in our corner of them.
After a short respite, we ski off Red’s crown down a 1,000-foot face, bashing through windblown snow that offers better turns than expected. Then, under a warm afternoon sun, we ski a couple of laps up and down a south-facing slope that is hitting the corn-snow cycle just as we arrive. Finally, with legs feeling heavy and stomachs rumbling commands to replace the several thousand calories we’ve each burned today, we ski back to our backcountry yurt, perched on a shoulder of a ridge, and cap a long day with a dinner of pork medallions and drafts from our five-gallon keg of IPA.
Because excess must logically be celebrated with excess.
At some point during the evening—perhaps inspired as much by the IPA as the day’s events—we quickly agree on returning to this yurt again next year.
Norway Basin, Wallowa Mountains
That was in March 2010, during the first four-day trip I made with this group of friends to the Norway Basin yurt in the Wallowas, operated by Wallowa Alpine Huts (WAH). That first visit was inspired by my friend Santiago “Chago” Rodriguez, a part-time (and excellent) avalanche-safety instructor and then-guide for WAH.
Throughout the previous winter, he kept e-mailing photos of skiers in the mountains surrounding Norway Basin to several friends and me. The photos showed big, Rockies-like peaks painted white, glades speckled with tall trees (much of the wilderness has been protected since 1940), and huge bowls and couloirs. Those photos suggested an infinite selection of untouched, skiable lines.
From the yurt, you could ski laps on Big Ridge, minutes away, or take daylong tours in any of several directions, cherry-picking runs in virgin powder at virtually any angle or aspect, even make non-technical ascents of peaks near 10,000 feet and ski off the summits. The typical day entails heading out for nine or 10 hours and skiing 5,000 or 6,000 vertical feet. When avalanche hazard is high, there are lower-angle, treed slopes offering safer, superb skiing. Evenings in the warm yurt would involve equally rigorous eating and partaking of the keg hauled in on a snowmobile by a WAH guide.
Chago knew he was showing meat to dogs, and we started salivating.
The Wallowas are situated in a climatological sweet spot for backcountry skiing. To the west, the Cascade Range receives ridiculously copious volumes of snow most winters, but it’s wet, heavy “Cascade cement” more often than light, skier-friendly powder. To the east, the Idaho mountains get fluffier but less generous snows. Like the talented middle child who picks up the finest attributes of the older and younger siblings, the Wallowas get more than 400 inches of snowfall in an average winter—and often, it falls as beautiful, deep powder.
Tucked into the southeast corner of the mountains, reached in a couple hours of uphill skiing (see Getting There, below), the Norway Basin yurt sits at 7,000 feet in a wooded bench just a few steps outside the wilderness boundary. Affectionately called “Yurtstar Gallactica” by the WAH guides, it has two levels: bunkroom above, kitchen and living area below. Visitors benefit from another of the Wallowas’ geographical blessings: these mountains aren’t near any population center, lying several hours from Portland and more than three hours from Boise. There are just not many people out here. Based in a yurt several miles from the nearest road, you’re virtually assured of having all of the mountains framing Norway Basin to yourselves.
We did return in March 2011 for another four days. This time, being familiar with the area and having a group strong on route-finding and avalanche safety skills, we rented the yurt for an unguided trip. But we weren’t willing to sacrifice certain necessities in the name of independence: we paid WAH to have their snowmobile driver haul in our keg of IPA.
We ski along the top of Big Ridge, staying off the enormous cornices of snow extending 10 feet or more out over thin air off the east edge of the ridge. It’s windy on the open ridge, but clear and sunny. To our left, snow-covered meadows drop down to forest and the valley of Norway Creek; across the valley, the land vaults abruptly upward again in a row of big peaks that seem to beckon to us. But we’re not going there today.
On this, our second trip to the Norway Basin yurt, the marker outside the yurt shows the snow depth at 11 feet. But yesterday’s strong winds and unstable snow conditions persuaded us to avoid steeper, exposed slopes above treeline, where avalanches are more likely. We won’t be skiing up and down Red Mountain this year. Instead, we’ll explore lower-angle terrain a few miles north of the yurt.
Reaching the northern end of Big Ridge, we look out over rolling terrain dropping into the valley of Blue Creek, and farther beyond, more walls of mountains shouldering toward the sky. We make a short climb over an unnamed summit, dig a pit to evaluate avalanche conditions again, and then stop above a slope that descends into forest.
And then it happens—one of those moments in backcountry skiing when it all clicks, when the effort and the cold all become minor expenses in the ledger recording our time out here. We ski down through widely spaced trees, the turns easy and fluid, the powder flying into our faces. Then we climb back up the slope and ski it again—and then repeat it yet again, until our legs start to feel rubbery and we remind ourselves that it’s late afternoon and a two-hour, mostly uphill traverse lies between us and the yurt.
As we’re heading back, watching blue shadows spread slowly over the mountains, it occurs to me that the Wallowas embody the essence of backcountry skiing: It’s about having beautiful peaks to yourself, where even when avalanche conditions are less than ideal, you can discover a surprise stash of perfect snow to carve turns in.
NOTE: See other stories about skiing at The Big Outside.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR experienced, fit backcountry skiers with intermediate or better skiing ability in variable snow conditions. If renting the yurt for an unguided trip, most of the party should have training in avalanche safety and rescue. If taking a guided trip (see below), the avalanche-safety skills are recommended but not mandatory; the guides evaluate avalanche conditions and put the group through practice rescue scenarios.
Make It Happen
Season The Norway yurt generally opens when there’s adequate snow cover in December and operates through April. Late winter and spring tend to bring more stable snow conditions that allow for safer skiing.
The Itinerary From the Norway Basin yurt, climb about 20 minutes up nearby Big Ridge, not named on the USGS quad but extending north of the yurt, to ski laps of several hundred feet on west-facing slopes down to Norway Creek—a good afternoon option on the day you ski in to the yurt. All-day tours to surrounding terrain include numerous options, depending on snow stability: Red Mountain; both sides of Clipper Gap (the unnamed pass at nearly 8,600 feet about a mile northeast of Red Mountain); east slopes of Big Ridge; and gentler terrain at the north end of Big Ridge, above Blue Creek. WAH guides know the area very well and are in there weekly through the winter, so they also know current avalanche conditions.
Getting There From OR 86 in Halfway, OR, about 3.5 hours from Boise, ID, and 6.5 hours from Portland, drive north (through town) on the Cornucopia Highway to where that road is no longer plowed in winter. From there, a WAH guide will tow skiers behind a snowmobile for six miles (20 minutes) farther up the road (which is groomed by a local snowmobiling club), to the summer trailhead in an open meadow at 4,827 feet (marked on the USGS quad, just past Cornucopia). Ski 2.5 miles and 2,200 feet uphill (about two hours), along East Fork Pine Creek and a trail roughly paralleling Simmons Creek, to the Norway Basin yurt, at 7,000 feet above Norway Creek.
The Yurt The Norway Basin yurt, owned and managed by Wallowa Alpine Huts, sleeps 10 and can be rented for guided trips (all meals provided) at a very reasonable rate, or for a DIY trip (see Contact below). The yurt is popular, so make your reservation several months in advance.
Map The USGS 7.5-minute Cornucopia, Oregon quad covers the Norway Basin area (topomaps.usgs.gov). For a map covering the entire mountain range, get the Wallowa Mountains—Eagle Cap Wilderness map, $5.95, from Geo-Graphics (geo-graphicsmaps.com), or the Eagle Cap Wilderness map, $7.25, from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest (fs.usda.gov/main/wallowa-whitman/maps-pubs).
Contact Wallowa Alpine Huts, (541) 398-1980, wallowahuts.com.