Our plan was to head south from Two Pan up the East Lostine River Valley, climb Eagle Cap, cross the pass above Upper Lake over to Minam Lake, drop down to the Copper River, follow it up to the pass by Sky lake, drop down to Swamp Lake, climb the western flank of Elkhorn, head north along the ridge from there, drop down to Maxwell Lake and then return to Two Pan.
It seemed like a reasonable plan despite the paucity of reports of successful summits of Elkhorn and the dearth of reports of anyone following the ridgeline from it north. It would have been fun to be the first to report a summit of Elkhorn on Summit Post. There are several summiting reports on PeakBagger but little detail on how they were accomplished.
Days 1 and 2
We arrived at Two Pan rather late on Labor Day, but we made good progress up in the gathering dusk and found a nice camping spot near the top of a falls just as the light was failing.
The trail up the East Lostine River Valley is heavily used by hikers and livestock. Plenty of dust and horse apples.
On day 2, we made it to Upper Lake earlier than planned and after setting up camp, headed up the trail to Eagle Cap despite distant thunder and some threatening clouds. We started about 2:30 and made it to the top by 4:20. It was no real challenge at all. A simple walk up the trail. I had brought up crampons in the hopes of snow, but the only snowy trail section we found on September 6 was about 6 feet long and easily circumnavigable. I was disappointed by that fact but my buddy noticed that there was an alternate descent where crampons might feel good. We did it and they did feel good! The first 10 yards or so were a bit scary. After that, it was a fun jaunt down the snowfield, our only concern being postholing.
That evening, we drank whiskey and talked statistics under the stars. Deer grazing near my tent made it a little difficult to drop off to sleep, but sleep did eventually grace me.
We wanted to cross two passes to reach Swamp Lake, but I started to get blisters by the time we hit Minam Lake after crossing the first pass. We ended up camping on the lower end of the upper Copper Creek Basin. Beautiful campsite with potential viewing of elk but we failed to notice in a timely manner that there was a giant mound of fragrant horse poop near our intended dining area.
We finished the climb over the pass just above Sky Lake. Somehow we passed very close to Sky Lake without actually seeing it. When I trace our tracks with Google Earth, it appears that it was just over a little ridge from us.
When we got the top of the pass and looked at the west approach to Elkhorn we abandoned thoughts of climbing it from that side. There is a nasty buttress on the way that looks very difficult to either climb over or skirt. Also, even if we succeeded in summiting, it looked as if the ridge north from it had one very steep notch that might also have stopped us in our tracks. So we recomputed our plans and decided to head for the Wilson Pass back to the Lostine.
On the way down to Swamp Lake from the pass, we met a couple on horseback. The only people we met that day although there was a couple following us up the pass for a while. They probably turned back after reaching Sky Lake. The horse couple told us there were no fish in Swamp Lake. When we visited, their information appeared to be accurate.
So we forged onto to Steamboat Lake. We thought we had the lake to ourselves that night bt we met a loner on the trail the next day who said that he had been there, too. My buddy caught a couple small trout and so we had a tasty fish stew that night.
We left Steamboat Lake for North Minam Meadows. Some magnificent Douglas and White Fir stands on the way down. At the meadows we met this Russian-Israeli-Canadian sound engineer and master backcountry enthusiast. Only other human we saw that day. We crossed paths intermittently with him on the way up to Wilson Basin and John Henry Lake. Beautiful camping that night and free-ranging discussions of literature, backpacking, statistics, and sound engineering.
Headed over Wilson Pass and down to the Lostine River Valley. Met a strange extended family with guns and very little water. Met another family with young kids and dad carrying an amazing load of stuff for the kids. My buddies said my pack was bigger. Hey! I was ready for a major blizzard. But the weather was mostly hot, so I ended up looking foolish. Lots of people heading up to Chimney Lake. Once we were down, it was still a four mile road trek back to the cars at Two Pan but a very nice young couple picked up my scruffy companions while I stayed with the backpacks.