August 8, 2022.
When I re-planned my trip to the Wallowas, knowing I would now be going solo, I wanted to choose a route that would involve a base camp and day hikes. The first half of my trip was very strenuous, which is not sustainable forever. Ideally, on the second half, I’d be able to have some chill days and at least one summit day. That led me to the Copper River basin and Elkhorn Peak.
Elkhorn Peak, standing at 9238′, is the twelfth highest peak in Oregon. I decided to make this the central feature of the trip and scouted a basecamp from there. That line of reasoning took me to likely the busiest trailhead in the Wallowas, Two Pan. But my solitude-finding-superpower kicked in and I only saw about a dozen people in four days on this leg of the trip.
Solitude in the Wallowas?
I arrived at the trailhead around dinnertime on August 6, drove by tons of cars parked along the road and parked in a spot in the lot. I unpacked my car camping gear, set up camp at one of the free campsites and ate a pint of ice cream for dinner. I had no neighbors that night.
The next morning, I woke up and got my backpack loaded with ALL the creature comforts for a luxury three-night trip. A tenth of a mile off the trail, I turned off the main route to the lakes basin, then a couple more miles up I turned off the trail again to a lesser-traveled area, meaning I saw no one that morning. As Elkhorn Peak came into view, I began looking for places to camp. Despite the trail following the river closely on the map, there were not many great spots with water access. The river often flowed down in a rocky canyon for much of the way.
The trail kept climbing, but eventually leveled out right before a gentle creek crossing and voila! I spotted a beautiful, large campsite just off the trail with multiple “rooms,” plenty of hammock trees, a flat tent spot and easy river access.
When you know, you know. That was the spot. I dropped my heavy pack and began unloading. Hammock in the den, tent in the bedroom, kitchen on the rocky ledge, bathroom tucked in the trees. I did a few camp chores, painted a creekside watercolor and read my books.
Elkhorn Peak and west ridge scramble
The next day, I left camp in search of the climber’s route that led to the impressive-looking south gully on Elkhorn Peak. I’d read the summitpost description a thousand times and I spent the entire previous afternoon and evening staring at the gully. I felt ready to go.
I discovered the climber’s path pretty quickly. It zig-zagged through the forest, crossed another creek, climbed to a rocky bench with a beautiful miner’s cabin, then descended to the base of the gully. Based on the topo map, I knew I had to climb 2000 vertical feet in about a mile. Here we go, I thought…
Perhaps based on my recent experience or just my experience in the mountains in general, the gully felt remarkable stable and straightforward. It was steep and hard yes, but not scary, not that difficult, and before long I found myself standing at the summit in a tornado of butterflies. I called Aaron to check in and during that phone call I started rubbing my left eye. “Stupid sunscreen must have run into my eye,” I said. And kept rubbing.
In an effort to make a loop, I’d eyeballed the west ridge, which at “only” a mile long seemed like a reasonable connection to a nice trail leading through stair-stepped meadows to my camp. At any rate, it would be more interesting than slip-sliding back down that gully. Or, so I thought.
Dear reader, I am a slow learner. I should have realized that based on the ridge connection I just did, that this was going to be more difficult than at first glance. It started pretty benign, luring me into such an obstacle-ridden cluster of ups and downs that I fell into the sunk cost trap. “Well I can’t just turn around now, I’ve made it this far.”
The ridgeline consists of a junky, blocky series of rocks that are sometimes passable, sometimes not. Either side of the ridge drops steeply into the adjacent basin. I mostly stayed on the south side due to exposure. While it was annoying and steep I was in no danger of just falling off the mountain. But that meant I had to go up and down and up and down on a combination of scree and solid rock in order to stay in the “scrambling not climbing” zone. Several solid rock ribs intersect the ridge at roughly ninety degree angles, and they were almost never traversable. I fought the urge to want to stay high on the ridge for views and joy with the urge to just drop low and get this shit over with.
Meanwhile, my eye was still really irritated and weeping uncontrollably. Even with sunglasses and a hat on, sunlight made it feel worse. I couldn’t watch my surroundings very closely through one eye, but seeing with both eyes didn’t help either. Then my nose started running.
Did I mention it was hot? The sun felt extra vicious and I had only packed enough water to do a straightforward scramble, not an exhausting one. There were a few trees along the way that offered small patches of shade; they quickly became my intermediate targets. My body fully resented me from taking on this extra challenge.
Approaching what appeared to be the last major obstacle, I faced a big, loose down climb to get around the last monster rib. I was so frustrated that I stopped to get my bearings and wondered aloud “Is the north side any better?” I looked up, and it seemed so far away, but I knew it wasn’t. I noticed that a solid slab of rock led almost to the top from where I stood. I went for it.
That was actually the most fun part of the day’s scrambling! Once I took a look at the other side of the ridge, I concocted a new plan. It wasn’t going to be easy in any sense of the word, but I felt like I had more and better options on that side. Here we go.
Two hours after leaving Elkhorn’s summit, I arrived at a broad, rolling meadow that I knew would drop me back on a trail. I collapsed in a patch of snow, rubbing it all over my skin to cool me down. My water supply was low, but certainly I could ration it in a way that would last til camp. As soon as I found a creek, I dunked my sun shirt and hat in the cool water and put them back on. I felt human again.
My legs moved forward but my brain was toast. Some part of me knew I was moving through an exceptionally beautiful place, but I couldn’t enjoy it. All I wanted to do was get back to camp, change out of sweaty clothes and lay in the hammock.
Once I returned, that’s what I did. I dunked a bandana in the creek and made a compress for my still irritated eye. Now it was puffy, red, weepy and painful. I had no mirror to see if I had something stuck in it or what was going on. I hoped some rest would help.
A note on ultralight backpacking
Let’s start with something you likely know already: I am not a person who follows trends. The ultralight thing is no exception. I come pretty close to despising backpacking altogether. My body does not carry weight well. “Then Jess, shouldn’t you love the ultralight approach?” No, and here’s why:
I can tolerate being miserable while I’m walking if that means I can be comfy at camp. Packing light means carrying a finicky shelter that takes 20 minutes to set up, not having luxury items like books, painting supplies, stoves, nice food, hammocks etc that are excellent ways to spend time at camp. It means stopping to filter water every time you see a source instead of loading up for the day. It’s expensive gear that doesn’t hold up to repeated use. It’s more chores than I want to deal with. Those are simply trade-offs I am not willing to make.
So my rules for backpacking are:
- There has to be a peak involved, or…
- There has to be something really amazing on the route that cannot be experienced in a day hike.
- I need to have something fun to do at camp like paint, read, etc.
- I must have hot food and hot beverages.
- Since I’ve learned this is an option, I must have my hammock!
- I have to be able to keep myself warm.
I am willing to tolerate a LOT of suffering on my outdoor adventures. But a terrible time in a backcountry camp is where I draw the line.
Also, stay tuned for when I roll out my plans for the SKT website: Slowest Known Time. If I could name one trend I find even more annoying and elitist than ultralight backpacking, it’s the Fastest Known Time nonsense :vomit:.
After that debacle, I took a full on rest day. I slept in. The clouds looked marginally threatening, so I took that as my cue to lay in my tent all morning doing crossword puzzles and listening to podcasts. Eventually, I rolled out into the world and packed up my painting supplies. I had to return to those picturesque meadows to stop for every wildflower and to paint.
A short hike brought me back to the place I scouted on my miserable return to camp the previous day. I found a nice perch with some shade on a rock outcrop. From there, I looked down on the winding alpine streams and delicate meadows. In the distance, jagged peaks rose up at a seemingly vertical angle. Wispy clouds, eventually turning into blanketing clouds, twisted and swirled over their tops.
It was my thirtieth plein air painting session of the year. My goal: fifty. At the start of 2022, I declared it the year of the watercolor and I knew I’d need some sort of direction to keep me on track. I sat and observed the colors, textures and shapes in my view. I struggled with the usual challenges of outdoor painting: changing light, bugs flying into my paint, wind blowing my pages around, the general lack of flat surfaces. It’s all part of the fun and learning.
All that was left on my Wallowas adventure was reading and napping, so I headed back to camp to do just that.
Later that evening, water began to fall from the building clouds. A gentle rain fell all night. I tucked into my sleeping bag, pleased with how kind the weather gods were on this trip. And, no mosquitoes either! A short walk and a long drive stood between my current reality and my future reality. I wish the amount of time I spent in each was reversed. And I’m working on that.