Of course, the whole trip was a little silly. Time constraints and Mother Nature's stubborn refusal to melt the late spring snowpack according to my calendar put the whole trip in doubt. I scheduled one week vacation to fly out from Greensboro, spend a couple days with my parents in southeastern Washington State and then drive with my mom three hours to the Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon. She would then drop me off at the trailhead, I’d backpack for three days, we’d drive back to Washington, and I’d fly out the following morning. Before I left North Carolina, I'd been watching the snow monitors online, and obsessively counting every inch of decrease. When I finally got on the plane, I figured my chances of even making it to the trailhead at 80 percent.
Anticipating snow, I packed snowshoes and light crampons but no ice axe. Along with backpacking and camera gear, I was dangerously close to tripping into Delta Airlines wonderful world of oversize luggage. I determined that between using stuff sacks and duct taping every loose piece of fabric down, I could shove 67 linear inches of gear into a 60 linear inch duffel bag. I'm not sure how that works, but I believe duct tape shunts any excess volume off to another dimension until its unwrapped, at which point the wormhole is reopened and the headlamp, water filter, or fleece jacket comes back through to this dimension. Hey, YOU come up with a better explanation!
After an uneventful cross country flight, I arrived in Richland, Washington, home of the Hanford Reach. The Reach is the last free flowing section of the Columbia River which flows out of British Columbia and empties into the Pacific off the Oregon coast. The reason it remains free flowing is that development of the area had functionally stopped in 1943, which is the time the reactors that would provide fissionable material for the first atomic weapons were built. The entire Hanford Reach of the Columbia, named after a long northern bend in a river that normally flows south, was a buffer area for security and safety reasons. The river provided the water necessary to cool the reactors, and thus a future superfund site was born. It was the superfund cleanup that had brought my family here in the early nineties. My dad’s job was to help monitor the health of the workers involved in the cleanup.
Aside from power lines, the area is unspoiled northwest scrub desert with regions of large sand dunes close to the river. In my family's time in Richland, none of us ever made the hour drive to the north side of the river, and this was going to be my father’s last contract here. We knew we would most likely not return in the foreseeable future, so we loaded up the car and made the trip. The river was swollen with snow melt and provided the somewhat confusing sight of hundreds of tumbleweeds swirling in an eddy sixty feet wide. We reached a rise where we could overlook the entire reach and count all nine reactors that had once refined plutonium. It was a rather odd, discordant sight. Human interaction that had polluted one area had, in effect, protected another. Only 10 percent of the reach was used for plutonium refinement. The other 90 percent was buffer in case anything went wrong. Most of the area was much as it had been in the 1940s. The cleanup goes on as a race against time. The tanks that held radioactive material have disintegrated and are slowly leaking waste toward the river.
The next day, Mom and I loaded up the car, said goodbye to my dad, and set off for Joseph Oregon. Joseph is a small town at the foot of the Wallowas and one of the three main entrances to the Eagle Cap Wilderness. It was also where we hoped to get information on which trailheads and forest service roads, if any, were snow free. My first choice was to go up the East Fork of the Lostine River, ascend over Carver Pass and return down the West Fork of the Lostine. The chance of the pass being open was slim, but even if I had to turn around and descend the East fork it would be a trip well worth taking. Second choice would be up Hurricane Creek, but that would mean 13 snow covered miles to get to the same point as 7 miles would get me going up the Lostine. The third choice would be to follow the Wallowa River south to Ice Lake, but I'd already done that in 2007.
Finding the Forest Service Ranger station closed, we resigned ourselves to driving from trailhead to trailhead to figure things out. We stopped at Terminal Gravity Brewery for lunch and my favorite IPA, and engaged a local who looked like he might have an idea about trail conditions. When he said that the Upper Lostine Road had finally been cleared two days prior I nearly hugged him, but I knew that randomly hugging strangers is a sure way to get shot in eastern Oregon, or at least dragged behind a horse. Instead, I simply thanked him, and Mom and I made for the trail.
It was 4:45 when she dropped me off at the trailhead which left about four and a half hours of hiking time before dark. Mom was going to spend a couple of nights at a local B&B while I was going to spend a couple of nights in a tent under the stars. Each of us thought we had the better plan. I set off feeling ambivalent about my chances of making it into the Lakes Basin by bedtime. The Lakes Basin, as its name implies, is an area in which several lakes are clustered together at the base of spectacular peaks. The area is also the most popular in the Wilderness. The idea of having such a place all to myself was almost overwhelming, and 7.3 miles seemed perfectly doable in four hours. Doubt crept in when I remembered that I had no information about the snow conditions, downed trees, or anything at all. I was going in blind.
A couple hundred of yards in, I encountered an older local couple walking back toward the parking lot. The way they moved comfortably through woods made me suspect they were locals. They eyed my large backpack suspiciously. “Out for a day hike?” the woman asked. “Nope, going to try to make it to the Lakes Basin.” I replied. “Wow, we only went as far as the first cascade. There were trees down and no maintenance on the trail. And there is still a ton of snow up there.” I turned around so they could see the snowshoes strapped to my pack. “Oh, OK. Good luck, I hope you make it.” I could hear the doubt in her voice.
I began climbing through an understory clear of snow, but blocked with the winter’s deadfall. As I climbed over trees on the trail sap from broken branches stuck to my clothes. The smell of evergreen followed me down the trail. The Lostine River had been in near flood for several days but was receding. The weather for the next couple of days called for mild to cool conditions, so I was hoping the water would level off or continue to drop as it had the day before. About 150 yards upstream of a waterfall I came to the first bridge, or at least where the first bridge once stood. The span had washed away, but someone left a note on the ruins informing hikers that a good log crossing was about 60 yards upstream. The log was about a foot wide and two feet above the water. Only its proximity to the cascade downstream gave me any pause, but the water was moving at a reasonable pace and had several large eddies just down stream before the falls began. I undid my pack belt, walked across and promptly forgot about it.
About a quarter of a mile later I ran into my first patch of snow, a quarter mile after that I put on my snowshoes. Shortly thereafter, the trail disappeared. I continued along where I thought the trail should be, when suddenly the path sloped upward drastically and what I thought was the rustling of wind through evergreens grew louder. I found myself at the base of a walled-in gorge with a massive waterfall forcing its way through. “Aw, shit.” I turned around and backtracked. I checked my GPS and did my best to find the switchbacks that were supposed to lead up to the valley and around the falls. About half an hour later, I sat in the snow, stumped. I could see where the trail had been, but then there was nothing. Thoroughly confused, I turned my gaze upslope. After a moment, I saw something way up high. It might be a continuation of the trail, but the intervening space consisted of “Aw… SHIT.” An avalanche had obliterated the trail. I couldn't tell how old the slide was, but there was NO WAY I was going to traverse an avalanche prone slope this late in the season. I thought that this might be the shortest pack trip I’d ever taken.
I wandered back toward the falls, hoping to at least get some pictures, but even here I was confounded. There was no way to get a clear shot without risking getting too close to the creek edge where the depth and stability of the snow was unknown. Frustrated, I started to walk back down. I looked to my left and saw a steep, clear, snow covered slope, maybe 60 feet high. Above that large evergreen trees grew tightly packed together.
Hmm, If I could make it up the slope, I could climb the rest of the way moving from tree trunk to tree. The slope was short and steep enough that the chances of an avalanche were slim. I climbed to the base of the slope, put on my crampons and started to slowly test the snow conditions. I kicked a foot in with my toes pointed at a downward thirty degree angle. That way when I put pressure on it, the snow would compress under it leaving my foot level with a solid platform to stand on. "So far, so good." I mumbled. I shortened my hiking poles to their minimum length and maintained three points of contact at all times. Slowly, I made my way up the slope. "Silly, silly silly.” The word had become my mantra.
At the top of the slope, I rested in a melted out area around a tree. Dirt, grass, and rocks peeked through the snow. I looked down slope at where I started. My footprints resembled those of some drunken bug whom had found a sudden urge to get to the top of the mountain. I turned around and started to climb. Each tree was both a handhold and a resting spot. An hour and 15 minutes passed before I reached the top of the falls.
Twice more I encountered waterfalls that required slow, careful negotiation. In addition, the trees here had melted out holes several feet in diameter and created narrow paths between them. Some of the pits were two to three feet deep. Falling in probably wouldn't hurt much but climbing out would not be fun, and that assumed that the walls didn't collapse and suffocate me before I had the chance. Both times I had encountered the waterfalls I had let myself wander too low next to the creek where I was boxed in by cliffs as I ascended the watershed. And both times I retreated downstream and made a steep climb up the banks to more manageable terrain. When I heard the third falls, I decided to remain high on the slope. It was going to get dark soon and the prospects for campsites were slim.
I reached a point on top of small hill but couldn't see a way to get much farther. Glancing about, I realized there was not a level spot in sight to set up my tent. I went to the base of a tree and found a hole that was too small for the tent, but large enough for me to lie down in and be protected from any wind that might come up. I laid down my closed cell mat, my down filled mat then my sleeping bag. Dinner consisted of dried fruit, wasabi covered almonds, and Gatorade. It was almost 10pm, I had been on the trail for five hours, and had made two and a half miles. I slept like a baby for five hours. I awoke at three am to a sky full of stars, grabbed my camera and tripod and pointed it up. My headlamp illuminated the tree I was under.
I took a couple pics and went back to sleep for about 20 minutes. A bit before five I broke camp as the sun started to rise. I was disappointed that I was not in the Lostine Meadows for sunrise as it was one of my goals for the trip. I looked around for a reasonable way above the river but it was all tough and going would be slow. "Oh, what the heck." I slowly made my way down toward the creek. "Son of a…” There it was. A gap in the trees and rocks just to the right of the cascade. Not exactly flat, but definitely much more doable than the path I'd been on. Plodding my way upstream, I finally broke into the first clearing. To my left a towering waterfall poured snowmelt down a cliff face. Something seemed odd.
At the base of the falls the creek should enter the river, but instead it disappeared into the snow. My confusion resolved into understanding as I rounded a small knoll. An avalanche had buried the base of the waterfall and the Lostine River. Snapped off trees and displaced rocks laid strewn about me in a chaotic mess.
It's a bit unnerving standing on an avalanche debris field, especially on one that seems to have recently been created based on the still-green condition of the snapped off trunks. The urge to hurry across this area almost overwhelmed me. You must not run. Completely irrational, but there it was. I reached the far side of the avalanche slope and made my way to the creek. I watched fascinated as the water disappeared into the snow and carved out a tunnel. The bones of snapped trees hung from the top of the snow tunnel and broke the rushing water.
The avalanche caused the water to back up a bit and form a placid area on the creek, The first I'd seen since the trip started. I stopped and set up the tripod. Finally, the type of view that got me out here in the first place. The low sun illuminated the western side of the valley and the ice created a beautiful scalloped edge to the river. I spent several minutes just sitting and enjoying the view until I remembered how much time I'd lost. I started out again.
My expectations were that the route would be easier once I had reached the relatively gentle grade of the upper valley. What I hadn't counted on were the sun cups. Despite their happy name, I'm reasonably sure that if hell froze over it would be covered in sun cups. Melting snow, like many of us, is lazy given the choice. Water gathers in the lowest areas and helps speed the melting process. It creates little pools that help melt out the snow around it. They ranged anywhere from a few inches to about a foot and a half wide. The result is a snowfield that looks like either a honeycomb or an egg crate.
Snowshoes could bridge some of the cups and tended to keep my feet from getting wet as the bottom of the cups were often filled with slush. On the other hand, very careful foot placement was required. Once again snow conditions were going to slow me down. Any hope I'd had of reaching the Lakes Basin were shot. Instead I concentrated on just getting as far as I could.
I moved on for a few hundred yards when the valley took a turn to The Southeast, and there it was, the Eagle Cap. While not the highest mountain in the range, Its considered the geographic center of it. Most of the major Valleys in the Eagle Cap Wilderness originate on it's slopes.
I slowly moved up the valley for the next couple of hours, shooting pics as I went. About this time I started to notice that it was getting warmer, much warmer than the meteorologist had predicted. I sat with my face to the sun, enjoying the warmth. Then it hit me. Uh Oh.
Clunk, clunk, clunk. Like tumblers on a lock. The pieces of my predicament came slowly together. Here I was in a valley surrounded by rapidly melting snow. A fact punctuated by an occasion crack as large chunks of ice and snow broke loose from the bank and fell into the creek. I had seen almost no snow low on the trail. That meant that most of the volume of the creek was pouring into a relatively small bed rather quickly from this open valley. The prior night had been warm enough that I had been comfortable in a 30 degree bag out in the open, indicating that it had probably stayed above freezing all night (a fact I later confirmed). The log I had crossed had been two feet out of the water. That didn't leave a whole lot of room for increased volume in a riverbed that size. I pondered for a time, perhaps a minute, and then proceeded to get my butt into high gear getting down. It was about 1:30 in the afternoon.
The previously empty suncups were filling up with turquoise colored water, and my snowshoes were sliding all over snow the consistency of mashed potatoes. I finally resigned myself to blisters and soaking wet feet and went to boots only. This time,I had the advantage of knowing the terrain better and I was headed downhill, both of which helped me make better time, but the snow conditions were getting worse rapidly. As I hiked down past one of the cascades I noticed that the volume was indeed higher than I remembered.
When I reached the top of the big falls, I was careful not to let my hurry cloud my judgement. No need for crampons as what was icy before was now slush. I plunge stepped as carefully as I could, but there was no reasonable way to know what was below the surface. Several times, I sank past my knee into pits or into hidden streams doing their best to add volume to the creek I needed to cross. Once, on a steep down hill slope, my foot sank too rapidly and rather then risk twisting my knee or ankle I let myself tuck and roll. If the conditions had been icier, I probably would have stopped when I hit a tree or ended up in the river. Luckily for me, the snow was so soft I simply ended up looking like a turtle on its back, arms and legs in the air with my ass and backpack buried in snow. As the snowmelt slowly invaded my pants, I thought- Silly.
Eventually I made it to the base of the bottom falls completely soaked. I backtracked along the river and noticed a couple of downed trees across the trail that hadn't been there the day before. I reached the log crossing and caught my breath. One end of the log was out of the water but the far end had water splashing over it. Worse, every eddy between the log and the big cascade was gone. It was the same log I'd crossed before, and besides a bit of water lapping over the far side it was just as safe to cross as it had before, but the pucker factor was on a whole other level. I decided to leave my pack belt on because I thought the load stability it provided took precedence over being able to get out of it quickly in case I went in the water. Frankly, I considered my chances of getting out without going over the cascade marginal at best. I started across.
Did I say it was just as safe as it was before? The additional vibration of the current loading up on the wood did add an extra, um, flavor to the experience. About two-thirds of the way across I thought I was going to lose my balance. I stood on one foot with my arms spread wide as if in supplication. My brain went blank as my body dumped adrenaline into my system. All I remember was shaking a bit when I finally stepped onto the ground on the far side.
I kept asking myself, if I should have waited. The river generally peaks mid-evening and starts dropping around midnight. Should I have camped by the river and waited to see if it went down? All I know was the log was out of the water, the footing was pretty firm and if the river didn't go down, I could be stuck for days or risk bushwhacking downstream. At this point I didn't care. In a completely pointless display of bravado I set up my tent fifty feet from the rock overlooking the cascade. I made dinner, patched up my blistered feet, got in my sleeping bag and let the river sing me to sleep.
The following morning, I sat and thought of the predicament I got myself into. I had hiked solo, as usual. I was the first one to break trail up to the meadow, so I was hiking with seasons old information. I barely knew the basics of avalanche education. I knew that most avalanches occurred on slopes between 25 and 45 degrees so I stayed off the open slopes and down by the creek, but the buried water in the middle of the valley proved that there was no guarantee of safety.
The trip had been risky and I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of getting trapped on one side of the creek by a rapid snow melt. When I reached the washed-out bridge, water level should have been the first thing to enter my mind. Instead I just tried to find the most expedient way across the creek. All of these realizations should have dampened my enthusiasm for the trip but I came away with a new respect for my ability to deal with adversity on the fly. Not everything can be anticipated. I made mistakes, but I dealt with the consequences. Mother nature had however, cut me slack.
I hiked the last stretch to the parking lot at Two Pan Trailhead and found a picnic table, sat and waited for my mom to come pick me up. The sun warmed me. This time I allowed myself to bask in peace.