Monday, September 7, 2015

Ice Lake Wallowas

This Labor Day weekend Emily and I decided to head out to the Wallowas in Eastern Oregon.  A year ago I had done an amazing loop hike with Anna and Nate but Emily couldn’t go because she couldn’t get the time off for that longer hike.  This time we chose a shorter out and back hike up to Ice Lake and convinced Conrad and Jason W. to meet us up there.  The trip turned out to be one of the most beautiful I’d been on in a long time and was a great introduction for Emily to the “Alps of Oregon”.  Read on….

Emily, Leo and I left Portland after work on Friday for the 6+ hour drive out to the tiny town of Joseph, stopping for dinner along.  We made it to town at around midnight and after some debate on whether or not we should just park the car and sleep in it behind the Terminal Gravity Brewery in Enterprise we decided to just head straight towards the trailhead and camp at the campground there… for $20…. Emily just didn’t feel comfortable crashing in the car in a parking lot, and honestly, it was nice to know we wouldn’t be bothered at the campground.

In the morning we drove back into Joseph to get a wonderfully delicious and big breakfast at the Old Town Cafe before hitting the trail at 9am.  We outfitted Leo with his dog backpack for the trip and headed in along the West Fork of the Wallowa River.  This part of the trail was super easy along a river without much of an incline and we cruised along through increasingly wet weather.  By about 10:45 am we had made it to the turnoff for Ice Lake and a bridge crossing over the river that Leo was a little nervous to cross.  He did his typical Leo army crawl across it.  

From there it was switchback after switchback as we gained a ton of elevation heading up towards Ice Lake.  At noon and about 6500 feet we hit the snow line and also saw a deer bound into the woods.  Leo of course didn’t care about the deer at all.  As we climbed up past a beautiful waterfall the trees became thick with snow and some of the clouds even began to clear out.  This made for some unbelievable photo opportunities.  

There was mist hanging on the peaks all around us and the tops of them with their wet, dark green dug firs and spruces were all  draped in a bright white sheet of snow.  Because the ground was warm the snow didn’t stick to the ground for another thousand feet or so resulting in a landscape that looked as if someone had dumped powdered sugar on everything!  The white contrasting with the red lichen and bright green trees was beautiful.

At around 1pm and about 7500 feet we found ourselves walking through 6 inches of fresh snow on the ground and winds that were slightly picking up.  Thankfully, by that point we were very close to the lake so I wasn’t too worried about the snow and wind, knowing that we would be setting up our tent shortly and could climb in to dry off and warm up while watching a movie and waiting for the storm to move on.  Leo was soaked form the rain and snow and when he climbed into the tent he was a big wuss and started to shiver so I ended up sticking him inside my sleeping bag while I remained in my full puffy outfit watching a movie with Emily and broke open the Bota box of wine that I had packed in for us.  We thought for sure that Conrad and Jason had bailed on us because of the weather.

But, around 6pm, to our utter amazement we heard voices, looked out and spotted Conrad and Jason tracking through the woods towards us!  They had almost given up on finding us but had asked the only other group we saw up at the lake and had followed our tracks to spot our orange tent through the trees from across the lake.   The two of them proved to be good luck with the weather because as soon as they showed up the weather began breaking up letting us have a little bit of a colorful sunset over the snowy white landscape.  

After Jason and Conrad set up a tent to snuggle up together in and I had given Jason one of my puffy jackets to stay warm (yes, I had two with me) we all cooked up some dinner to further warm up and settle in the for the night.  When Conrad picked Jason up he thought they were headed someplace closer and was a little surprised to find himself on a trip all the way out to the Wallowas in what appeared to be an early winter snow storm!  Thankfully, they got an early enough start on the drive to make it up to the lake by dark and find us or they may have had an even colder night then expected!  We capped off the night by sharing some beers and wine in our tent and playing cards with Mr. Leo snoring alongside us in his doggie coat.

On Saturday I awoke early and ventured out of the tent to pee off all the wine I had drank.  I awoke to beautiful blue skies all around and a gorgeous wintery landscape rising above the alpine lake we had made it to.  Truly one of the most beautiful scenes I had seen in the mountains.  My plan had been to climb the 9,826 Matterhorn above Ice Lake but after looking at all the snow covering the rocky peaks I decided that my hiking boots wouldn’t cut it on this trip and headed back to the tent to sleep in a bit more until the sun warmed the area up.  

We all slept in and by the time we crawled out of our tents the 6-8” of snow we had laid our tents down on the day before had nearly all melted away.  We ate some breakfast and relaxed in the sun that was now beaming down hard on the landscape and beginning to rapidly melt the snow away.  I even set up a time lapse with my phone that captured how rapidly everything was melting.   The idea of climbing the Matterhorn started to creep back into my brain just as Conrad and Jason inquired about circling around the lake for a hike to eat lunch on a sandy beach on the opposite shore.  I decided to take my backpack and some clothing around the lake with us in case I decided to make a run for the summit.  

The hike around the shore of the lake was stunning.  White-capped peaks all around us above a beautiful blue lake with bright green vegetation and brush on the landscape turning a rusty red color from fall temperatures.  The whole landscape was a colorful painting and I couldn’t wait to sprint up the 2,000 additional feet to the top of the Matterhorn, even if I didn’t actually end up making it.  The views alone of the Eagle Cap wilderness were worth the effort.  The three others, having stretched out their legs on the sandy beach in the sun had firmly decided that a relaxing day at the beach was better then climbing up a mountain which I was fine with because Leo was sore and I didn’t want to push him up a peak and overwork him.

I scarfed down some energy chews and a granola bar and left them at the beach around 12:45 pm to start my ascent.  With all the snow melting away it wasn’t too hard to follow the trail up the peak and thankfully the other group at the lake had also decided to go for the peak so I had a set of footprints to follow too, although at times solely following the footprints wasn’t the best idea either!  With every few hundred feet of elevation gain I paused to turn around and look back at the beautiful views.  As I ascended other peaks including Eagle Cap which I had climbed last year began to come into view and all were capped with beautiful white snow underneath blue skies.  

By 2pm I was just below the ridge to the summit the sun had baked off the majority of the snow.  It was a super easy climb I only had one section about 40 feet long of deep snow due to an overnight snow drift build up from the wind.  Otherwise it was a straight shot up the ridge to the summit where I could see a large cairn was placed to mark it.  Just below the summit I met up with the couple that had beat me to the top and thanked them with a smile for their footprints!  At the top I had amazing views of the entire Eagle Cap Wilderness.  I also noticed the backside of the Matterhorn was basically a 2,000+ ft cliff down to another valley.  I remembered seeing the colorful cliffs of the Matterhorn from Eagle Cap last fall and was super stoked that I had actually been able to climb it despite the snow storm the day before.

I put my pack down at the top and relaxed for about 15 minutes checking out all the views and running the summit ridgeline for a distance to see if I could see everyone at the lake below.  There was the option to also go for the high point of the Wallowas, Mt. Sacajawea, which lay along a ridgeline to the north of the Matterhorn but the guidebook warned about steep cliffs and allowing enough time.  I debated it briefly but decided that because I was a alone and it was already mid afternoon that it probably wasn’t the best idea to try for it.  So instead, I snapped a few more photos of the huge cliff below me, the surrounding peaks and myself at the top for good measure and headed down.

Dropping off the summit ridge was a bit of fun as at was a slightly overhanging snow cornice that I jumped down into up to my waist then slid down in my slippery boots.  From the hike in the day before and the climb that afternoon I realized that there was no way my boots were waterproof enough for Kilimanjaro and resolved myself to get a new pair that fall to break in before the trip.  I had made it to the top in 1hr 15min and decided to hustle it back down to everyone to perhaps be able to enjoy the sun along the shore of the lake so moving quickly I made it down to them in about 45 minutes.  Unfortunately, it was about the same time the sun began to pass below the tall surrounding peaks, quickly chilling the air.  

Instead of walking back the same way we came Jason wanted to walk around the shore of the lake on the other side.  I remembered from looking at the map and satellite photos before hand that there were a lot of inlets to the alpine lake and warned the group about it but I was outvoted and off we went with Leo jogging along beside us.  I don’t know why but Leo really loved this part of the trip, racing up and down the shore of the lake in sheer glee to greet us and urge us along to keep up with Jason and Conrad who were hiking faster.  I was a bit tired from the climb so I was moving a little slower for sure.  About half way around the lake clouds began to quickly move in and it started to sprinkle a little bit.  I definitely got lucky with the weather on my summit climb!

When we got back to camp it was about 4:45pm and clouds had once again covered the mountains and it was beginning to rain more steadily.  We all cooked up our meals and hung out for a bit but when it got dark we called it an early night so that we could get a reasonable start out of the woods on Monday to make it back to Portland by a decent hour.  I was super happy that I had been able to climb the Matterhorn and was already thinking about a different direction to come into the wilderness next time to pick off Sacajawea that I had missed on this trip.

On Monday morning we once again awoke to amazing weather and blue skies for our hike out.  We actually took the time to relax a bit in the morning and enjoy the sunshine before leaving camp around 10am.  Nearly all the snow had melted off from the tall peaks around us revealing their multi-colored rock layers above the blue of Ice Lake.  From the shore just before heading back down to the valley we could see the summit of the Matterhorn that I had reached so Emily and I posed with Leo for a few rare (clear) shots of the three of us together in the mountains (thank you Jason for knowing how to operate a camera).

We looked for the deer on the way out we had seen on the way in but didn’t see anything.  Leo was definitely less scared to cross the log over the river on the way out and we got to see a train of pack lamas heading into the wilderness as we left.  We were out of the woods by 2:15pm.  We enjoyed a couple beers at the trailhead before heading to Terminal Gravity in Enterprise for some craft beer and a late lunch before heading home.  It was a wonderful trip and I’m so glad that Jason and Conrad were able to join us for it.  I have so many wonderful photos from the trip that it’s probably going to take me quite some time to get through them all!

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