After a very scenic drive through the Grande Ronde/Snake canyon country I arrived at the trailhead at about 9:30 am and immediately started up the East Fork Wallowa River trail 1804. The beginning of this trail climbs a headwall at the mouth of the canyon and left my old fat self sucking air pretty hard, but I soon made the top where things got pretty level. It had been several years since I had been here and was surprised that the heavy forest that once covered the first stretch of trail was dramatically thinned out. In fact in many areas very few trees were alive having succumbed to an unknown insect.
I made good time and passed Aneroid Lake about noon. Above the lake the upper headwater valley of the East Fork opens into a spectacular basin encircled by Aneroid Peak and Dollar Ridge. Good lunch spot. Soon I climbed toward Tenderfoot Pass across the vast open alpine plateau at the east foot of Pete’s Point. I crossed the gentle rise and fall of the pass into the North Fork of the Imnaha basin and in a very short distance found trial 1831 that heads west toward Polaris Pass. The trail from here on was very narrow and evidently doesn't get much stock use. I know this because it was the first time all day I wasn’t breathing residual horse fumes or stirring up fly swarms from off the piles on the trail.
Given the lateness of the season I packed the heavy sleeping bag and the tent. The heavy pack was now wearing on me and I was fading; time to look for camp. Due to the lateness of the season, water was hard to find near camp, but I eventually decided on a spot just inside the sparse tree line and about 150 feet below the trail on the southeast slope of Polaris Point.
As dusk settled in, the whole world was so quiet and outrageously beautiful. The only sounds were an occasional coyote outburst from the valley below. This glacial U-shaped valley was filled with dense coniferous forest mottled gold by the turning larch. Some small snow cornices left over from the dumping two weeks before laced the high ridges. The open country at and above tree line was a bright red from dead alpine knotweed, which complemented nicely with the general tawny cured grass. This side of Tenderfoot Pass I saw one hunter's camp far off in the basin below, which was much too far to consider as a fellow inhabitant. Except for the two goats basking in the setting sun high on the southwest face of Pete’s Point, it was as if I had the entire range to myself. As the world darkened, except for the big peaks glowing orange in the dieing light of dusk, I felt very happy to be were I was. After basking in my situation I turned in looking forward to the big day ahead.
I was out of the tent before the sun arose over the southern Seven Devils far to the east across Hells Canyon in Idaho. In the early morning light of dawn the red knotweed caused the entire basin to glow a spectacular red in the faint light. It was a spectacular start to the best day of hiking I would have in years. After a quick breakfast, I was on my way.
The day was clear and cool, but the hike kept me warm. That is until I topped Polaris Pass and a strong, icy wind from the west shot through me. But the view west was too much to seek shelter from. The granodiorite points of Glacier Peak and Eagle Cap to the southwest and the massive Matterhorn, Sacajawea and Hurwal block to the northwest glowed bright in the morning sun. The gulf of the lake basin filled the space between them. Below this rugged glowing landscape the entire length of the West Fork Wallowa River valley was in the dark shadow of predawn.
I turned south and walked the ridge toward Sentinel Peak, which was about a mile away. This ridgeline was narrow and made up of mostly loose scree, but thanks to thin but well worn goat trails, the footing was usually good. Here I was finally walking beside the remnant cornices that were surprisingly continuous and deep for such an apparently warm stretch in October. The storm in September must have been quite the event.
Not long after this I was atop 9,401 ft. Sentinel Peak. This peak is formed by the junction of the main divide ridge and the ridge separating the North Fork Imnaha and Middle Fork Imnaha basins. The ridges forming the peak’s pyramid are very gradual and provide easy routes to the top; however, the slopes between them are very steep giving the mountain three impressive faces. The north face is especially imposing and can only be climbed with difficult or technical climbing. There was no summit register. Off to the next mountain.
The next peak is a point unofficially known as North Imnaha that is approximately 9,340 ft. in elevation. The trail from Sentinel is fairly level and easy to navigate on the goat trails. But there are some very precipitous points falling off to the west where one should pay attention. It was on the northwest face of North Imnaha that I ran into the first goats of the day. As I moved toward them, they got up and started moving up the ridge. The closer I got the more I saw. First there were 7 then 12, then 18. I ended up seeing 27 in this group. Two of the large males stood in their tracks until all the others had moved beyond them, and then they too turned and walked on. I held back and walked slowly so as not to push them too much.
As I neared the summit of this mountain and worked around to the west, I got my first close look at Cusick Mountain. It forms a spectacular glacial horn with radiating ridges of pale limestone and marble. The north facing cirque held residual moraines that were hundreds of feet above the hanging basin at the foot of the mountain. Certainly as the Little Ice Age closed in the mid-1800s there would have been active glaciers here.
The east face of North Imnaha is made up of huge scree slopes with deep erosion gullies topped by what are probably the most massive and tallest basalt pinnacles in the entire Wallowa Range. The west side is about 2/3 Hurwal Formation shale and the south 1/3 is dark-belted limestone. A wide marble vein cuts across the west side of the mountain forming a dramatic cliff the entire length. There were a few small fossils in the limestone of the south flank.
I dropped off the south side of this mountain and headed southwest to the saddle separating Cusick Mountain and an unnamed summit (9,180 ft.). To get there I had to pick my way across the marble cleft then it was an easy slope down to the saddle and the east ridge of Cusick.
I had planned to go up the east ridge all the way to the summit, but upon inspection, it was obvious that it was beyond my meager skills. Dropping down into the south fork of the Middle Fork Imnaha basin and heading up the broad southeast face of the mountain appeared to be the best route. But I didn’t want to drop down all that way just to climb it again so I thought I would cut across low on the east ridge. This went well for a time, but slowly became more difficult as the blocky limestone became steeper and smoother. The going was very very slow as I tried to keep a safe grip on smaller hand holds in loose rock that was covered by a fine and slippery powder of decomposing rock. It wasn’t good. I decided I should just drop down, but at this point the safe descent points were very limited so I just inched along, finally coming to some talus that got me off the little nightmare. But what should have taken me 15 minutes probably took over an hour. Well so much for not wanting to lose time.
From the talus I made it to some erosion chutes that offered firm rock and stair steps to gain some altitude. But I couldn’t take them too far or I would have found myself up in technical basalt and limestone pillars, so I had to cut sideways across scree until finally clear of the pillars before I had a straight slope above me. Eventually the scree gave way to firm limestone and travel up to the knife edge ridge line was just a steep scramble. Finally I was looking down into the north cirque with its huge moraines.
From here there was only the final summit pyramid to ascend. As long as I kept close to the ridge, the footing wasn’t too bad, but if I moved too far toward the southeast face, the scree got nasty. Finally the slope began to fall away as this tilted mound began to turn horizontal. Soon I was on the expansive top at last where a lunch break and the incredible views revived me somewhat.
Much of the range in this area is steel colored limestone with brighter low-grade marble cutting through it. Creepy black basalt dikes jut out in several places; all of this above the tree line by hundreds or more feet. Few people visit this peak as indicated by the summit register with only 6 entries for 2004. This is likely the remotest of the big peaks in the Wallowa Mountains, with the shortest route requiring a 13 mile hike on trail plus 2 miles of steep and rugged cross country scrambling. The alpine flora here is in much better shape than most of the big mountains where frequent climbers have trampled it down.
To descend I dropped down the north side to the hanging basin below. Once the north face cliffs are cleared, the scree could be surfed all the way down to the moraines. An easier way is to get on the limestone north ridge, which gives a nice firm descent down a broad surface. It looked like there might be some routes on some ledges of the north face, but these would be much more difficult.
The high basin between Cusick and North Imnaha, locally known as Honeymoon Basin, is something to behold. First, there are no trees anywhere. The dominant vegetation is a dwarf matted willow that stands all of 1-2 inches high. The springs bubble out of the ground and form a broad braided stream channel. There are what appear to be much older and larger moraines and possibly eskers. There are also some tarns and high peaks are all around. It looks more like the Brooks Range in Alaska than eastern Oregon. I could spend a long time here in the future.
I climbed some of the lumpy limestone ground for a look at a large alpine marsh where my goat herd had relocated. There they were, spread out grazing just like a bunch of cows. I was 150 yards away, but the only sound was the soft, but definite munching as they fed. After taking some pictures and taking it all in I had to get going. I turned to the south toward the saddle at the end of Cusick’s east ridge and climbed back up to the ridge line between Pt. 9,180 and North Imnaha. After a quick run up Pt. 9,180 I decided to return through the basin at the east foot of North Imnaha.
This turned out to be a real time killer. I ended up climbing much more to get back onto Sentinel Peak than if I had just returned via North Imnaha. I also lost time when I walked into a hunter and wasted 45 minutes chatting with him. He was the only person I met on this trip. By the time I regained the main ridge it was getting late and I was exhausted, but I had to hustle on if I was to get one more mountain in before dark. The orange glow of the late afternoon allowed me to get the best photos of the trip and distracted me from my sorry state.
By the time I passed Polaris Pass and headed up Polaris Point, the sun was setting and before I got to the summit, it was mostly dark. I could see the top OK, but it was so dim I could not tell if there was a summit register. It’s a neat mountain formed of Hurwal shale. The spectacular view to the south basically included everywhere I went on the day's hike. I would have liked to have been able to explore the top, but I had to get down.
To descend, I simply dropped off the southeast side straight to camp. This was loose scree so I was very happy to be going down rather than up. I headed for some of the basalt pinnacles because I knew they were at one of the trail switchbacks. It was dark enough that I had trouble following the trail the last little bit. It was a good thing I camped where I did because now it was totally dark and if I didn’t know camp was about 150 feet below me on a narrow ridge, I wouldn’t have found it.
Once in camp, I tried to eat, but after only a little food I was done. My body didn’t feel like it was mine, which was a very strange experience, but I can’t express how happy I was not to be moving. I was absolutely soaked with sweat and it was getting very cold. Not wanting to get hypothermia, I got in the tent and stripped, put on dry cloths and felt like I might actually survive. I tried to write some notes, but didn’t feel well enough to. So I ate 5 ibuprofen and tried to sleep, but being so in shock the body just wouldn’t have it for a long time.
The next morning I didn’t beat the sun out of bed, but camp went down and I was on my way in the cold morning breeze early enough. Though I was moving pretty slow, I soon reached the top of Tenderfoot Pass where I surveyed Pete’s Pt. to decide which way to go. I decided to take the longer, but gentler south ridge and after stashing my pack in some stunted subalpine fir thickets, I was off.
The walk down across the bowl and its old moraine was easy and would provide some great camping on another trip. It was very level and nestled amid huge rock/scree walls on three sides. The start up the south ridge was steep at first, but soon leveled off into a leisurely alpine stroll to the summit.
The view of the north side of Polaris Pt. and the rest of the divide beyond was really spectacular. The view to the east across the Tenderfoot plateau with Dollar Ridge was also beautiful in the soft morning light. Jewet Lake was an interesting green color due to its shallow depth. The north side of Polaris and west side of Pete’s have interesting little benches or small hanging basins with ponds and meadows. These are very inaccessible, but would be great places to camp and explore. The sky was clear, but there was a bit of a cool breeze.
This is a big mountain with a lot of ground forming its summit. There are two summit registers with hundreds of names indicating this mountain get a lot of traffic. After signing in I started the descent of the north ridge. Part of the upper north ridge is basalt and looks absolutely lunar. There are some limestone ledges to scramble down, but no major obstacles along this steep route. The rest of the trip would be downhill.
I walked fast on down to Aneroid Lake and just kept going with an occasional photo stop. By the time I was even with East Peak, it was feeling like late afternoon and I still had a good ways to go. It’s amazing how fast the days end in October! The switchbacks down the headwall seemed to take a very long time as usual. I really don’t like the lower end of this trail, but had to do it to get home. Finally I arrived at the trailhead and limped on over to the car, physically exhausted but emotionally recharged.
Total climb: 9,691 ft.
People seen: 1