"How many downed trees do you think we've climbed over" Linette asks, "fifty?" I figure easily a hundred. We're hiking out the West fork Wallowa River trail, below six mile meadow. It's Monday July 3rd, 2006. I'm not sure if it's been a long time since they cleared the trail or if they just had a really bad winter, or both? Anyhow climbing over, under, and sometimes bushwacking around piles of downed trees makes for slow progress.
We made the five hour drive to Enterprise, OR after work on Friday and arrived at the clean and friendly Wilderness Inn around 10:30. It's the start to a mini vacation, especially compared to the usual ritual of searching for somewhere off the road to pitch a tent at 1AM. We sleep pretty well with the window wide open to the sound of the fountain and pond in the courtyard. After a big breakfast at Friends Restaurant Saturday morning we're heading up the East fork Wallowa River trail by 10AM.
Several parties on smelly horses are heading down the trial in the first mile or so then it's quiet. Above Aneroid lake the ground gets snowy, and only one other pair of hikers is following us. They disappear by the time we reach Tenderfoot Pass, and it feels like we have the whole place to ourselves. There are still some "S" turns in the chutes above Dollar Lake. In the basin on the backside of Tenderfoot Pass, about 10 miles in, we decide to make camp. We have trouble finding a spot remotely flat enough to sleep on. An evening thunderstorm threatens, which forces us to pick a spot, then only produces some distant thunder and some color at the end of the sunset.
The only people we see on Sunday are three rangers we met below Polaris Pass. They are heading over the pass down to six mile meadow, and envious of our proposed route. Kicking steps up the steep snow slope and over the cornice to the pass is fun and Linette is trying out the new aluminum crampons I brought along. The view from the top into the heart of the Wallowa's is spectacular. After pictures and snacks we're walking the ridge towards Sentinel Peak, the summit of which I walk over and keep right on going. The weather isn't bad but a couple of dark clouds are spitting raindrops which makes us a little nervous up here completely exposed.
A mother and kid mountain goat are facing us on the ridge ahead. They watch us make our way towards them, then turn and walk the ridge in front of us. That's when I noticed the large animal in the basin below us (a bear?) then two more, then a dozen. Elk. I put Denali on a leash to keep him from going after the goats and we ended up off the ridge trying to side-hill on a 9,000 foot pile of gravel. Back up to the ridge and over north Imnaha we break for snacks at a low saddle but the sun is hot. In the next pass over, an entire herd of mountain goats has congregated. They head over the pass and we head down into honeymoon basin, which is still mostly covered in snow to have a late lunch and get some water.
After much debate and a lot of wandering around we chose a campsite in a small snow-free meadow at the bottom of the basin, then moved the tent when we realized how dark the sky had gotten. We finished dinner just as the rain started, the thunder cracked around us for an hour, the rain lasted another hour and then it suddenly went quiet.
"I don't see a way down from the basin to the lower valley" Linette had worried from the ridge, and she was right, it hadn't looked good. I knew there must be a route down but I was up scouting at 6:30 in the morning, which didn't confirm much except that it was going to be tricky. After breakfast and Linette changing her mind six times about coming along on the climb (she decided to come partway), we were headed up the north ridge of Cusick Mtn. She turned around shortly to save energy for the decent later, and I made good progress. It was 1 hour and 10 minutes to the summit with only one sketchy part where the north ridge connects to the primary northwest ridge. I made the first entry in the summit register for 2006 - the previous entries were from September 2005 and July 2005. It felt pretty neat standing on the summit and looking down into the basin knowing another person hadn't been here in almost a year.
"That's a big grin." Linette said when I got back to camp. We break camp to find ourselves peering down from the edge of honeymoon basin again at Frazier Lake. It's obvious the only possible route down is to generally stay to the left (west) but I can only ever see one ledge below us. Descending to the next lower ledge comes with the possibility of a dead end each time. Fortunately the route goes, although much of it involves careful down-climbing, butt scooting, and using small trees for holds. Off the steepest part Denali knocks loose an enormous boulder which he outruns before it goes crashing thru the brush. Three hours later we're at the lake.
"That was way harder than the climb this morning." The trail is on the opposite side of the river which is over waist deep, fast and icy. We cross at the outlet of Frazier Lake where it's merely thigh deep (spending ten minutes trying to coax Denali across) and eat a late lunch on the shore of Frazier Lake. It's 4 miles to the meadow and 10 miles to the trailhead, and we don't have a definite plan. A mile on the trail crosses back to other side of the river - not us, it's impassable. I'm kicking myself for not reading the map more carefully. A short ways downstream the river braids and we forge thru a half dozen channels, knee deep or less and not unpleasant at all.
Fortunately we decided to get our shoes wet as we end up crossing or walking down the middle of countless small streams over the next four miles. They go quickly, and the scenery is gorgeous. Granite ridges, wildflowers everywhere, the smell of sage, and the constant sound of water. At six mile meadow we're still feeling strong, the mosquitos are biting, and we're both thinking about showers & food so we keep walking. And soon we're wondering about (and then cursing) the downed trees.
We finally make it to the trailhead tired, hungry and happy, talking about showers and a bed, and end up heading back to the Wilderness Inn. They don't charge us for Denali, since he's a returning customer. As a fan of Terminal Gravity IPA I was excited to go to their brewery for dinner. The ordering process is non-standard confusing, we waited an hour for our sandwiches, they don't allow dogs at the outdoor seating, service was borderline rude, and I left no longer a fan of Terminal Gravity. Too bad for them I guess, there's plenty of other beer in this state. Back at the hotel we crash pretty early, and the drive home on Tuesday is long & hot, but uneventful.