Day 1 - China Burgers
As we did in 2009, Flanders and I decided to head back to the Wallowas for our annual hike to finish some unfinished business. Last time a fire and erroneous advice kept us out of the Lakes Basin, and, having my dog along kept us from doing a few peaks we wanted to hit. Plus, it was friggin’ hot in 2009 when we were there. This time we were blessed with damn near perfect weather and, although there was a fire on the western side of the Wallowas, it did not threaten any of the areas we were going.
Flanders flew in from the East Coast on a Thursday night and we were driving east on I-84 by lunch on a Friday in the sweltering 99 degree heat in Portland. We drove to LaGrande where we ate (‘twas decided later that eating at La Fiesta is best when headed home from a hike, not heading into it, if you know what I mean) and from there we drove Highway 203 east to Catherine Creek State Park to camp. Our objective was going to be China Cap and Burger Butte in the far southwestern corner of the Wallowas. Actually, our original objective was to climb Chief Joseph and Hurwal Divide, however, I was apparently the only one of our group of 4 that thought that was a good idea. 6700 feet of elevation gain up scree carrying 5 day packs did not much appeal to the team, and I had to agree upon reflection. Our next idea was Sawtooth and Twin Peaks, but Flanders had not been able to do much pre-training this season and 4500 feet for a dayhike also seemed on the optimistic side of things to start the trip off with. Thus, we settled on China Cap and Burger Butte.
So, upon reaching Catherine Creek State Park, we were dismayed to find no campsites available. Well, what could we expect at 9 pm on a Friday? We decided to just drive to the trailhead and sleep in the car. We headed up the appropriate forest roads and only had to backtrack once. We were treated along the way to see a bobcat in the middle of the road looking at us. He bounced away to our left in the headlights and then into the dark woods. That was my first ever sighting of the reclusive bobcat.
Sleeping in the car was less than ideal, especially after Mexican food. We were glad when morning came. The car doors opened with a Cheech and Chong-like cloud of methane, or so we imagined. We got off early from the huge parking lot where multiple horse trailers were coming and going. The trail, as you may imagine, is one of the dustiest I have ever seen due to all the horse use. We hiked through the woods and eventually into a huge swath of downed trees.
My take was a big avalanche zone as they were all pointing downhill and in a huge rectangle shape coming down from Burger Butte. Flanders wondered about one of those weather microbursts. Whatever the cause was, it was weird. And I barely made it across the swath before I had to run into the woods due to that dang Mexican food. Shortly after this we were moving up through thinner forests. We saw the unmarked trail to our left we had to take to the pass on China Cap’s shoulder. While unmarked, there is a huge cairn to mark it. Can’t miss it!
We were soon at the pass where we switchbacked right and ascended the slopes to the summit. We got our first view into the Wallowas at that point as well. It was a bit hazy here as this was closer to the fire going on to the west, but still lots of snowy peaks to behold. Radek’s route page noted to stay to the right of the ridge crest for a bit but in retrospect we went too far doing so. When we got to the end of the ridge and could see the cliffs below the summit back behind us to the left, we had to scramble back left into the rocks and find our way up to the summit.
It was easy to just pick a new line and do some easy Class 3 up to where it opens up and was a nice walk to the summit where we signed the register. I saw Radek and Shirley’s entry from 2007 mentioning the bad weather they had. We then snacked and headed to see if we could do a direct scramble over the ridge connecting China Cap and Burger Butte.
There were small springs draining down in spots which made the going squishy before we got to the ridge. We were delighted to see that the ridge changed from the normal basalt on China Cap to wonderfully grippy granite.
Where the basalt changes to granite
That is the beauty of the Wallowas, you get everything here. Anyway, we had fun picking our way and enjoying the views along the ridge all the way to Burger Pass. From here, we were not sure of the line up to Burger Butte’s summit as there appeared to be basalt (Dang, the rock changed back again!) cliffs in places and we didn’t want to cliff out. We decided to take a line slightly left of the ridge until we thought we could get up onto the ridge and not be blocked to the summit. I scrambled up onto the ridge a couple times for views until a ways up and along the ridge, I found what I thought would be an easy walk to the summit. Flanders scrambled up after me and indeed, we had a nice line to the top.
At the summit, there were many annoying flying insects that forced us to take a few quick photos and then beat a retreat down one side to where we could snack in peace. From there, we decided we did not want to descend the same way and make a huge unnecessary loop to the trail. The most direct route would be NW off the summit down a gully that looked do-able and then we could parallel the avalanche/microburst swath to pick up the trail where I had to squat earlier. (I know, I know, TMI.)
The descent in the rocky gully turned out to be a bit looser than we thought. Scree over hard rock makes for slow going but we made it to the fields and then into the woods where we followed the right side of the downed trees, passing a deer, elk or cow skeleton until we reacquired the trail. After that, it was just a dusty, choke-filled hike back to the car where we hiked about a tenth of a mile apart to not inhale too much of each other’s trail dust.
From there we drove all the way back to La Grande and then into Joseph via Highway 82. It should be noted that the temps in the eastern part of Oregon were much more pleasant than Portland and we enjoyed a traffic-less drive in sunny, 70 degree weather to the Wallowa Lake Campground where we met up with the rest of our team (Mark and Natasha) for the next 4 day part of our trip.
Day 2 - To the Lakes!
We were all up and on the trail early as we were hoping to get to the Lakes Basin in time to enjoy an afternoon there. We set off down the West Fork Wallowa River Trail, one that I’d done a number of times before, and it passed pretty unremarkably. There were still some wild raspberries along the way to enjoy and we snacked at Six Mile Meadow before beginning the climb to the lakes and the granite.
This section of the trail is pretty much like the one that heads up to Ice Lake, except much shorter. The only downside of this hike was watching a mid-day thunderstorm form at the north end of the valley and slowly move its way toward us. We caught some rain and donned pack covers but I think we got lucky in that the full force of the storm stayed north of us.
Storm coming up the valley
Arriving at Horseshoe Lake, we were beneath the large granite walls that form the southern end of the Matterhorn Ridge. We hiked along taking a lot of photos and enjoying the serenity of the lakes. We passed this lake as there were already others on it (and really we wanted to get in a bit further to make the next day easier). There were a few other smaller lakes before we came to Douglas Lake and a little rock promontory that looked like an ideal spot. I was going to try out my new hammock tent and I found a nice spot between two trees with great views of the lake. It was obvious this was my first attempt at this since the trees I chose were a bit small. One of them bent over when weighted but I was not going to take the hammock down at that point so it stayed. I have to say it swayed a little in the night but in the end, it did not fail. I just got made fun of by the others as it appeared a bit cartoonish.
We did get to enjoy a nice afternoon cooling our feet in the lake, snacking and generally goofing around. Flanders built a nice fire that we enjoyed until well after the sun was down. I did not sleep that well as, being my first time in a hammock tent and not being able to roll around when I wanted felt odd.
Day 3 - Up and Over the Pass
We got up and ready at a leisurely pace on day three as the plan was to hike up and over Glacier Pass to camp at Frazier Lake the next day. We just wanted to position ourselves for that expected hideousness of ascending Polaris Pass and bagging two peaks in one day the day after that.
We got going mid-morning and hiked in sunshine climbing slightly over some more granite and around more lakes. We came to Moccasin Lake, which is spectacularly clear and took a break on a small granite dome. There were several parties camping around this larger lake with great views of Eagle Cap. After our snack, we hiked around the lake and started ascending more granite. We climbed through some forest and then down into a meadow with a small stream running through it with great views of Cusick Mountain to the east. From there, it was up and up more granite next to a creek coming down from the pass.
Many switchbacks were switched until you cross the creek and get back to more switching on its other side. It was here than Mark and Natasha had gotten a bit ahead of Flanders and me. I was taking more photos than a crime scene investigator and suddenly we found ourselves with a looming dark cloud overhead. Another lunchtime thunderstorm. The sky was creaking and booming and we took a quick break in some cover thinking we were about to be pummeled. It never happened so we continued in a few minutes and met up with Mark and Natasha up near the pass. We all quickly got up and over Glacier Pass and soon were above Glacier Lake. While very pretty and scenic, there was decidedly less vegetation here with more talus around the lake than trees.
It started raining and we all took cover in some trees above Glacier Lake (there were a few). We waited out the shower with some snacks and were soon on our way down to Frazier Lake. This area from Glacier Pass to Frazier Lake is really not to be missed. While not as forested and alpine as the Lakes Basin are we had just come from, it has views of more larger peaks, colorful displays of plants along the lakes and streams and large granite walls on all sides. You feel smaller than on the other side of the pass, if that is possible.
We descended gradually past Glacier Lake and traversed around a flowing stream with green plants by the stream and red and yellow shrubs along our path. It was only mid-September but it felt very autumnal here. As we followed the path along the stream down, we got a view of a small lake beneath Cusick Mountain. The cliffs of Cusick were impressive with vertical faces of different colors. Fortunately, we were headed down and not up those. We continued on and made Frazier Lake by mid-afternoon.
It took us a while to find a camping spot; there were surprisingly more people here that I thought there would be. I figured we’d have it to ourselves but apparently this is a popular spot for a hike in from Six Mile Meadow (where we separated from this trail the day before). There were some horses around the lake and several people setting up camps in various spots. We did find one that looked suitable and we could also see the very top of Sentinel Peak to the northeast. That was one of our objectives the next day.
While we tended to filtering water, setting up tents and fixing dehydrated dinners, we talked about the next day’s plans. I suggested a 4 am rise to be moving by 5 am as we had full packs to carry, along with a lot of elevation and ground to cover to do what we planned. The plan was to get up Polaris Pass, tag Sentinel and Polaris Peaks and then get down from Polaris Pass over to Tenderfoot Pass and finally on to Jewett Lake to camp the next night. I also thought this prudent as the previous two days had seen noontime thunderstorms and we wanted to be up and over that pass while tagging two peaks before anything like that came again. While no one relished the idea, it seemed like the appropriate thing to do so that was the plan. Needless to say, after dinner we did not stay up long. Sure, we chatted and goofed around like normal but we were tucked in by dark.
I was happy to say that I figured out a bit more on the set-up of the hammock tent this night and slept much better.
Day 4 - The Pass and Peaks
Surprisingly, the 4 am start was not fought by anyone. All awoke quickly and tents were down and packs packed easily. We were on the go, in the dark, at 5 am. (That almost never happens!) The trail heads into the valley of the West Fork of the Wallowa River. In fact, where we camped was the headwater. We lost several hundred feet along switchbacked and overgrown trails as we headed north from camp. Then, once we reached the bottom near the river, we could see large snow bridges still crossing the river with it churning underneath. The trail was a thin ledge along the rocks here and we had to pay attention in the dark. When the trail ended, it seemed logical (and verified by the map) that the trail crossed the river here. We managed to find some rocks and logs to cross slowly on but were then on an overgrown island with weeds as tall as we were. There seemed to be a trail, then it disappeared. We decided it must have been a game trail and checked the map again. It seemed possible that the trail crossed the other braid of the river on the east side of this small island so we checked that out. It is always a good feeling to re-find a proper trail, especially in the dark.
We now were able to make really good time as we continued north along the east side of the river. The trail was flat and we cruised the next mile or two to the junction with the trail that heads up Polaris Pass. We rested and pumped some water here and put away headlamps as it had gotten pre-dawnish here. From here, we were referring to the expected grind up 2100 feet of switchbacks in scree as “The Suck.” So, we then started The Suck.
I divided the hike here mentally into three 700 foot sections with a rest in between them. The first part was nicely graded switchbacks among trees and shrubs. Mark and Natasha put in their headphones here and pulled ahead of us. At 700 feet up, we caught up with them and all rested.
After the break, we strung out along the trail again and Flanders and I continued up enjoying the views from Cusick to the Matterhorn to points north in the yellowish morning light. It was incredibly scenic and I started to doubt the Suckiness of the Suck. There was a cascading waterfall on the right of the switchbacks and the shrubs were all the colors of autumn. Trees remained with us higher than I thought they would be. It was not scree but a wonderful trail with colorful views and features. We moved pretty quickly too, enjoying a light breeze that kept us from sweating. It was in a word, great. Not Suck.
Flanders and I rested again at 1400 feet while we could see Mark and Natasha snaking their way back and forth above us. I was taking all sorts of photos, a few of which actually turned out nicely. The trail though was starting to change with a few more reddish basalt rocks underfoot. The trees thinned a bit too until we broke out of them and into what appeared to be the space of a small camp. There was a flat area with some rock boundaries in a cirque of rock walls from the north curving around to the east and extending to the south. We knew the south wall here was actually the ridge to the summit of Sentinel Peak and the north curve would be one of the ridges coming down from Polaris Peak.
At this point, I was a bit ahead of Flanders who was having his turn at the tree and I kept going. Above now was only scree but we managed to miss any Suckiness for at least the first 2/3 of this trail up. It was actually a very pleasant hike to this point. And it did not get much worse. The rest was just some more switchbacks in red rocks and scree. Mark and Natasha had used a smaller unofficial part of the trail to head to a pass a little south of the actual Polaris Pass but it cut off a longer traverse than going the normal way. I missed their cutoff, however, and did not hear them in the wind yelling for me. When I finally did look back to see Flanders at that point about to head to this other pass, I realized my mistake and had to retrace my steps. But, we all were at this other pass on the shoulder of Sentinel before the sun had risen enough to hit the western sides of the ridges.
As we stepped out into the sunlight on the Pass, Flanders decided he did not want to hit Sentinel. This turned out to be a good thing as the ridge was infested with large reddish-brown crickets, the likes of which I had only ever seen before on Dollar Ridge (which incidentally could now been seen from this ridge) a couple years earlier. They liked to chew trekking pole handwraps and backpack material so it was good he would stay with the packs to ward them off.
Mark, Natasha and I started up the ridge to Sentinel. What looked to be a loose and somewhat sketchy scramble over the first knob of rock actually turned out to be easy. And it got easier from there. This was a simple ridgewalk in the sun with great views. And, you know how sometimes you look at a point far away on a climb and think you are almost there, only to find out it took you 5x longer to reach it? Well, this thankfully was the opposite of that. This long-looking ridge went very quickly and I think it was only about 20 minutes or so until we were on the summit. We took some photos and headed down to catch up with Flanders.
Once back down at the packs, we then walked north along the ridge over to the actual Polaris Pass. From here it was a short 500 feet up north to hit Polaris Peak, where Flanders and I two years earlier had wanted to hike up the other side but, having my dog with us at the time, decided against it. Now, Mark and Natasha decided to wait by the packs and forego this one, while Flanders and I tagged it. We were up it quickly but once on top, saw that there were three or so peaks that could arguable be the summit. Not knowing which was, and there being no survey markers or summit registers, we just walked the ridge and touched all of them. We did note that the ridge down to the north from here was a bit steeper and rockier than we had thought it would be so were glad we did not try that route two years prior. We had also actually thought about doing an up-and-over here but had decided against it prior to climbing up from the Pass. Seemed like we made the right choice.
Once back down at Polaris Pass, the four of us headed down the switchbacks on the other side of Polaris Pass (the east side) on our way to Tenderfoot Pass in the valley below. We traversed north around the base of Polaris Peak and were in between it and Petes Point to its north where we came to the point we had scrambled down to this trail two years before. The large snowfield was still below the trail were Flanders, Lunadog and I had lounged in the sweltering sun on the snow trying to cool off after tagging Petes Point.
This year was different though. The weather was sunny but mild with a light breeze. We had missed any thunderstorm and it was about 1 pm now. Some clouds were forming to the north but they never did materialize into anything that day. It was just a long hike on the dry side of the Wallowas now. We were running low on water though and on our last stop before Tenderfoot Pass, I had to bum some H2O from Flanders. Then we were up and over Tenderfoot Pass on the short descent to Jewett Lake. Our plan worked and we made it by mid-afternoon in time to enjoy a relaxing camp set-up and lounge before dinner.
We debated to hit Bonneville Mountain, our next objective, that afternoon but it looked like it might be one of those farther-than-you-think things so we stuck to our plan to do it the next day. Flanders, however, had developed a nasty case of chafing (I took his word for it, didn’t inspect) so he was going to wait and see how he felt the next morning.
There was a sign indicating no fires allowed here this year so it was a short night after dinner until we were in our respective tents.
Day 5 - Redemption on Bonneville
We woke up fairly early because we wanted to be able to hit Bonneville and hike back to camp, break camp and get back to the trailhead in a reasonable amount of time to be able to drive back to Portland. We had originally thought about doing an up-and-over coming down some flank on the NW or NE side of Bonneville. The maps were vague about possible routes. There seem to be cliffs at least everywhere at some point. Barstad mentions two routes in his book of the area but these are Class 4ish and with full-sized packs, we didn’t like the idea of downclimbing. So, we decided to do it as a dayhike with light packs and come back to camp before hiking out a proper trail. I’m sure we could have done an up-and-over but I am also sure it would have resulted in delays and tempers and stress.
Anyway, at first light, I talked to Flanders who informed us he was not in shape to do the climb. He preferred to start hiking back slowly and meet us along the way. We estimated he’d end up about 4 hours ahead of us and even if he was moving slowly and delicately, he’d probably beat us back to the car as it was only about 7.5 miles out from camp.
Mark, Natasha and I headed out north across a marshy area next to Jewett Lake to go up and over a ridge to the north. Two years prior, Flanders, myself and Luna
had tried this only to get into some third class rock I did not think I could safely hoist Luna up and over. We had retreated and hiked out back then but this time I was determined to tag Bonneville. I did not want to have to hike out again all the way around this mountain with it mocking me a second time.
We quickly worked our way up to the ridge to a notch. To my surprise, it was just a scree chute on the other side. Two years before, we missed this obvious notch (I don’t know how) and ended up on rockier and steeper terrain. Had we seen this notch, it would have been no issue to summit even with Luna. So, we slid down the scree on the other side and then across another marshy field to yet another ridge climb. This one though led to the south ridge on Bonneville. It was similar to the first one and we were soon on the ridge looking at a set of gendarmes.
We weaved our way through the trees and rocks until we were at a point where the ridge narrows and you need to decide if you want to skirt the left side or the right. The route info I had seen indicated a left side scramble, however, Mark and Natasha chose the right side. I indicated I would head left and climb back to the ridge. I did so and worked my way to a spot between rocks on the ridge where I saw them and they said they were continuing on. I kept on the left side, enjoying a nice scramble along that slope and soon was back to a break in the rocks on the ridge. I looked down but did not see them. I yelled out to no reply. I looked down and could see footprints in the sand below so I knew they had gone on.
I scrambled around some more rocks on the slope and it took me longer to go around this time to the next break in the rocks on the ridge I could scramble up to. No sign of them here either. I yelled loudly but still no reply. Here I thought they had decided to just go ahead. I yelled again. And again. Nothing but wind. I could see the sandy walk below me on their side of the ridge so figured they had just kept going as they were faster than my scrambling.
So, I kept going. I could see I was getting close now to the part of the ridge where this gendarme-filled narrowness opened up into a broad mounded open ridge and kept going to a spot where I could see past the rocks and trees to the slopes to the summit. The only problem is that Mark and Natasha were not there. There was nothing between me and the summit so they must still be behind me!
I headed back down calling their names. Finally, I got a reply. It was Mark. He thought I had left them behind, I thought the same. Apparently, just after the one time I saw them through the rocks, they cliffed out and had to hike back to where I hopped to the left side of the ridge and they followed my tracks from there.
After we rested and cleared thing up, we continued on the open mound to the summit which came a lot quicker than expected. Fortunately, this was one of those times where it looks farther than it is (I know, that never happens! Except on Sentinel the day before and now.).
We took some photos on the summit, scrambled out to the black thumb of rock which may or may not be the true summit (but it is where the summit register is) and then headed back to camp. Knowing the route now, we scooted on back rather quickly and were soon back to the first scree chute we slid down which separated us from Jewett Lake. There was a buck and doe mule deer walking up the scree and we plodded after them while they seemed to simply glide up the scree.
Once back at camp, we discovered Flanders had packed out our garbage for us. Too cool! We broke camp and headed out on the trail that descends to Aneroid Lake. The hike down this time seemed to go much quicker than two years prior. I don’t know why and I don’t care, I just love it when that happens. We chatted and wondered if we would catch Flanders on the trail. We snacked at the lake but pretty much hiked straight out noticing that the places where the map appeared to show a possible descent route off Bonneville on the NE side, looked cliffier than the map would lead you to believe. I think we did the right thing by hiking back and around, rather than try to find a way down with full packs off the NE or NW side.
We did break at the little pond where there is some apparent machinery to measure river flow and there appears to be a small dam. This is where some water is diverted to the power station below. Below this, the trail descends in switchbacks along the east side of Bonneville. It got dustier as we got closer to the trailhead but we finally got back and found Flanders sitting at a park bench near the cars.
From here, it was an easy choice. Back to the Outlaw Restaurant for some cheeseburgers. Then, the long drive back to Portland and a rest day to follow.
Day 7 - Flanders and the Volcano
After taking a rest day, we embarked on a new mission for Flanders – hitting the Cascade volcanoes. We had thrown one in earlier in 2003 hitting Lassen on our way to Yosemite, and since Flanders doesn’t do technical, we decided to tag South Sister. I had not done this one in many years so it seemed like a good one to add in.
We decided to do this as an overnight and got to the Devil’s Lake Trailhead late in the afternoon. I had completely forgotten most of the hike in and how much “up” there is in the first part of this. We trudged our way through the forest and got to the plateau and noticed a nice breeze had picked up. We headed off the main trail to the right down to Moraine Lake where we hoped to still get a camping spot this late in the day.
We needn’t have worried. The weather was going to be a bit cloudy and this was really going to be the first colder weekend of the year. After a very windy walk down to the lake, we bundled up at a camp site noting there seemed to be maybe one or two other parties among the 20+ sites. After some dehydrated dinner and water pumping, we hit the hay early with a nice view of our objective from the tent.
In the morning, it appeared clouds were coming in so we got going as soon as we could. After getting back to the main trail, the route heads straight north from the lava plains up into some rockier territory. Well, rockier is a bit misleading. Although there is a decent amount of elevation gain on South Sister (about 5000 feet), it is a hike among mostly scree and sand. The prototypical volcano, South Sister is that two steps up-one step back cliché. But the hike was mostly easy to the next main rest point at the base of the Lewis Glacier.
There is a shoulder here where most people take a rest and some decide not to continue at about 9000 feet. The route changes here to that of a steeper ridge climb on red lava dust and cinder. And being on a ridge, you are now exposed to the wind which was quite brisk this day. I put my hood up over my head and plunged upward. The clouds were now enveloping the summit from about this point on so there would be no views and they whipped around us drowning out most of the sound under the level of a shout.
The crowd also thinned but there was still a steady stream of mountain customers that would be expected on the highest but most docile Sister. We worked our way up and up with our thoughts to ourselves as talking was not an option due to wind noise. Soon the angle lessened and we were at the footsteps of the crater lip. I remember Teardrop Pool, Oregon’s highest lake, and how lovely that was when I summited on a sunny day in 2001. Unfortunately, we would barely be able to make out more than 20-30 feet visibility today. I headed right around the crater lip on a way trail to track the actual summit. Flanders followed and we continued without stopping in the biting wind. We made our way around and then north to the high point but wasted little time in tagging it and heading back. We stopped in a stone shelter back near where the trail comes up and had some water and snacks. It was quite nice out of the wind but we still had to get back to the car so we didn’t tarry long.
Heading back down was a blur. We took turns swapping the lead as we scree-skied down, passing people right and left. Once back at camp, we packed up quickly and headed to the car. Only one stop in Sisters for gas and then we were back to my house with another annual backpacking trip under our belts. This was year 14 for us. Every year since 1998, we’ve gotten together to hike, scramble or climb somewhere. From Acadia to the Olympics to the Redwoods and all points between. Next year will be back in New Hampshire as we draw closer to our goal of hitting all the 4000ers there. Join us then, for another Brian-Squared adventure.
I know there are a lot of photos in this trip report but if you would like to see the complete set (with more scenery shots), click here for the album
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