Technically it was the 4th day of spring when we started our trip, but with the weather and conditions we encountered I think it can be justifiably called winter mountaineering.
The Plan was to climb Chief Joseph Mountain by it's Northwest ridge, the same route we had taken the summer of 2005. We would camp at a flat meadow we had spotted on that trip and then continue on to the summit of Chief Joseph, The Hurwal Divide, Sacajawea Peak, and the Matterhorn. Staying on the ridge line that connects the four peaks. We would then simply follow Thorp creek trail to hurricane creek trail to the trailhead where my car would be parked.
Simple enough right?
This route had been a plan of mine for some time. It had been devised while playing around on topozone.com. Originally I had meant to do it the summer, but there was no way we could wait that long, we had to climb in the Wallowas, and we had to climb now.
After the date was set we could hardly wait, we bragged to friends about how fun it would be, and how simple and logical the route was. When the day finally came to start the 9 hour drive I was boiling with excitement, I was so anxious to leave I forgot my hardshell pants and jacket.
We arrived in the town of Joseph just as the sun was about to set on saturday. The majestic east face of Mount Joseph loomed above the tiny town and glowed in the setting suns last rays of light. We were teeming with ambition and after packing our packs went strait to sleep, anxious for the sun to rise so we could begin our climb.
Tracy Scrambling up the lower parts of Chief Joseph Mountain
When we awoke the next morning we were disappointed to see not the sun but dark clouds engulfing the mountain tops. Still in high spirits we went to the hardware store to buy a poncho to replace my forgotten hardshell (better then nothing right?). When we told the people at the hardware store our plans they were flabbergasted. They assured us that people don't climb these mountains this time of year and warned us of the many dangers of winter mountaineering. I guess I can't blame them for thinking we were novices, after all we had just came in and bought a poncho for serious winter mountaineering.
Now that I had my new hardshell we set off to Hurricane Creek trail head. After parking the car we began looking for a way to cross the creek. We found a nice log and then headed up the west face of Chief Joseph mountain.
The climbing consisted mainly of steep bushwacking, scree, and talus slopes with some occasional 3rd class scrambling. Easy but tiring with our 50+ pound packs, and painful with heavy mountaineering boots. The real pain, however, didn't start until higher up on the face when scrambling was replaced with miserable postholing, and the mist with heavy snow.
After many hours of suffering our way through the deep snow we finally reached the ridge. Our flat meadow was nowhere in sight, in fact it was over 1000 vertical feet below us and about a half mile to the north. Pleased at having a head start on the next days climb we set up camp on the ridge and had a feast of Mountain House mac and cheese. Despite how tired we were we didn't get much sleep, eager to eat we hadn't flattened out a platform for the tent and it was less then comfortable.
Our first camp
The next morning when I poked my head out of the tent to check the weather I was treated with an amazing sunrise over the farmlands below. Pleased with the weather we packed up camp quickly and were on our way.
Sunrise from my tent
My heart sank as we emerged from the tree line onto the open ridge, the sight that lay before us exceeded all of my expectations, it was just plain beautiful. I had dreamed about what the wallowas would look like covered in snow, but I had no idea it would be this amazing.
The ridge was corniced on east and windswept on the west, just as expected. The conditions were perfect and no crampons were needed. But there was one problem, the wind was intense and it was getting stronger with every step. Before long the visibility started to decrease and the winds were stronger then I had ever experienced anywhere.
Tracy demonstrating how powerful the wind was
The poncho was a joke and went to the bottom of the pack where it stayed for the rest of the trip. However we were confident in our ability's and eager to see what lie ahead so we pushed on through the horrible weather and before long we were at the summit plateau. The winds here were so powerful that I had to crawl on my hands and knees, moving slowly and carefully to reach the true summit.
Our thoughts now turned to finding a place to camp. We headed south to the Hurwal Divide, and found a nice flat saddle at 9200' to make camp. The winds were showing no sign of mercy and camping in such an exposed area meant we would have to build a wall.
Being the first time either of us had cut blocks the going was slow at first, but we soon developed a good system and after a few hours of labor we had a couple dozen blocks. We built a small snow wall around 3 sides of the tent with the highest part facing the wind. Satisfied with our shelter we climbed in and went to bed exhausted.
Tracy nearing the windy summit.
When we awoke our tent was covered in snow, the walls were collapsing in on us and our gear was all buried. The wind had changed directions during the night and blew all the powder from what had been the lee slope right onto us were it accumulated, stopped by the snow wall on the now lee side of our tent where it built up and nearly buried us.
To make matters worse visibility was now about 20 feet and the winds stronger then ever. We would not be climbing today. We dragged ourself out of our warm tent and into the bitter weather and started shoveling. When we had the area clear we started cutting more blocks. This time we would not stop short. Good snow for blocks was hard to find but we eventually made enough to build a nice snow wall all around our tent.
The weather got worse as the day went on and even with the now higher and complete snow wall the tent walls shook vigorously. We listened to music and ate food all day and slept well that night.
Our finished snow shelter
When we awoke the winds were still strong, expecting to see the same old white out, when I poked my head out I was amazed to see a flawless blue sky with an endless sea of clouds below us. I hurried out of the tent to take pictures and get ready for what I knew would be a long and exciting day.
Our camp in the morning
After a bowl of cereal and some licorice tea we packed up camp and set off to climb the Hurwal divide. The wind had packed the snow nicely and aside from a few pockets of powder the snow conditions were great.
Being well rested we made good time summiting Hurwal. The summit plateau was incredibly windy but the sky was still clear and the views were breathtaking. I had never seen this area of the Wallowas, nor had I seen the northeast face of Sacajawea peak up close, the beauty of it all was almost to much to take in.
This was also the first time we got a look at our planned route to Sacajawea and Matterhorn, we couldn't spot any camp sites on the southwest ridges of the Hurwal Divide, and the slopes coming down the sides were very avalanche prone after 2 days of heavy snowfall.
View from the summit of Hurwal
We decided we would not be able to follow the Hurwal divide to Sacajawea and the Matterhorn as we had planned. The only way we would have a shot at the two peaks was to descend the west face of Hurwal to Thorp creek and then climb the east face of Sacajawea, then if we had time, follow the ridge to Matterhorn.
The west face of Hurwal proved to be 2400 vertical feet of steep slippery frozen scree covered by a thin layer of snow, in between sections of knee high powder. After a cautious descent we were in the Thorp creek valley. We stashed all of our unneeded gear and started up Sacajawea Peak via a finger splitting the east and northeast faces.
The climbing here was the toughest yet. We encountered 4th class rock made slippery by the melting snow as well as steep wind packed snow fields, but the worst was the slabs of smooth rock hidden by a thin layer of snow. Multiple times I would be climbing or traversing what looked like good snow, only to hit smooth rock and then slip.
Quick self arrest skills and good route finding kept us alive and climbing. But then out of nowhere our sunny blue sky turned gray. The upper mountain was no longer visible and the winds were picking up. We could see dark storm clouds coming in fast from the east so we decided we had to give up. It was hard to leave that mountain after it seemed so certain we would summit.
Descending Sacajawea Peak
When we arrived back at our gear stash we decided to try and make it back to the car that day. From the slopes of Sacajawea we could see our planned return route and it looked easy. We figured it would take us 4 hours tops.
We were wrong.
Northeast face of Sacajawea Peak
The Return "Hike"
It was simple enough at first, we followed the valley to where we thought we would find Thorp creek, and if we were lucky a trail. We weren't lucky. When we found Thorp creek it was covered with a snow bridge that we dared not walk on. We traversed on the forested slopes along side the creek as the snow got softer and softer.
Before long we were sinking to our waist's with every step. We would sometimes have to walk on our knees using our lower legs like snowshoes to distribute our weight. It was the most miserable "hiking" I have ever done, each mile took us hours.
The whole time we could see that up ahead there wasn't as much snow, and we held on to the hope that once we got out of the snow it would be easy going. But when we finally came to the first bare area, there were no green meadows or a nice pack trail that we had been fantasizing about. Instead it was steep rock cliffs separated by loose flaky scree gully's.
After a series of 5th class down climbs and treacherous exposed traverses we finally made our way to Hurricane Creek. We located the trail just as it was getting dark and hiked back in a daze, unsure that we had really escaped "Thorp Creek Trail". We arrived at the car well after dark and headed strait for the nearest restaurant.
The girl at the Subway was pretty surprised when 2 tall mountain climbers who hadn't bathed in 5 days came in an ordered a foot long sub, 6 cookies, and 2 large milkshakes each.