Wallowa Alpine Huts: Living the life of a backcountry rambler
We watch the dog trot down the middle of the empty street on a mission somewhere, lunch, maybe, on the other side of town. It’s mid-March and commanding mountains of deep blue, dark green and white rise above the dry Oregon winter landscape and tiny town in their foreground. In this farthest settled northeastern reach of the state, the attitude of dog seems on par with the cowboy outpost: quiet, independent, unbothered by rules, trails or boundaries.
We’re in the town of Joseph, Ore.: gateway to the Wallowas.
An ancient range that emerges from the brown eastern-Oregon vastness, the Wallowas are a jumbled mess of geology. The most important results of this are the approximately two dozen summits over 9,000 feet—and the endless playground of peaks, ridges, saddles, flanks, bowls, chutes and glades connecting them.
We’ve come for those.
There are six of us, four dogs, and four gentlemen from another party. We’re set up with the Wallowa Alpine Huts, an easy-going, spirited outfitter well-known for its guides’ touring expertise, gourmet cooking, and ability to serve up a riotous good time in the backcountry.
More than that, those guides—our guides—come with the territory. Three gents, they’re weathered, wise, full of cowboy grit and cowboy chivalry; backcountry ramblers with more than enough backcountry knowhow. And the humor and ease produced by a life swayed by the seasons.
They toss our overnight bags into a pile to be picked up by the sleds and shuttled into camp, where our gear will be waiting for us after a long day of pushing in. It feels like luxury to be left with only our day packs, but then, the point is to be able to get after it harder for four full days. At more than 3,000 vert feet a day, we will.
We leave Joseph and at the trailhead, head out in the scooting fashion of human-powered snow travelers, bound for Big Sheep Basin. Our camp of A-frame hut tents and main yurt lies within the massive Eagle Cap Wilderness. This is Columbia Plateau country and to the east the snow-covered mountains and flat-tops of Idaho create a blue, brown, and white sea beneath an ocean of gray clouds above us.
Our first destination is Wing Ridge, up through ghost glades, gaining views and elevation as we go. Off to the left is the whole of the valley that we’ll drop into.
At the top, we’ll be blessed and free of the typical wind that traps this zone in a flurry of biting chill and subtle chaos.
Then it’ll be all down hill from there—until we unstrap, switch our gear over and climb back up to do it all over again.
The next day, breakfast will be called by a loud bombing voice that echoes through camp at 7:00 a.m.
Then we’ll head out to pursue the routes less sun-baked. We’ll ride wide open flanks, terraced with benches, and divided by chutes with steep walls perfect for roosting.
Back at the yurt, dinner will be a three-course meal; the sauna will be hot and luxurious with eucalyptus oil. And we’ll top the night off with a birthday celebration, getting to know our backcountry mates as lifelong friends.
The snow of night two will cover the backcountry with five inches of light, dry fresh for day three—enough to deliver legit faceshots and feathery white rooms on The Scoreboard. This zone we’ll lap several times because—well, because riding like this, in the sun, in the powder, with a cheering squad of bold backcountry homies, in the untouchable wilderness of Oregon’s winter, is heaven on earth.
By day four we’ll be tired but not faded. We’ll rise quietly and prepare for the last climb—a steep one, straight up the mountainside, back to Wing Ridge.
From there we’ll drop into our final s-lines in the wide open, decorating this fleeting natural canvas with ribbons of our own beneath gaping, sun-pierced skies.