June 26, 2023.
14.4 mi. | 3850′ ele. gain | 7 hrs.
We made it all the way out to the Wallowas and I just wanted to get into the high country. My research took us to the McCully Basin trailhead, just outside of Joseph, that did have a trail running deep into a lakes basin. From there, I thought, I could scramble up to a saddle and do some ridge walking to a summit.
While perusing my map, I noticed a north-south ridge adjacent to the McCully Basin trail with a high point at its northern end. On some maps, it’s called East McCully Basin peak, on others it’s just noted with its elevation (9,128′). But the locals apparently call it Mt. Melissa, and once I found a write up on Summitpost describing some variants on accessing this peak, I knew I found my objective. I read “easy access” and “6 miles one way” and thought yeah, I can do that.
In order to make a quick and early get out the following morning, I packed up all my gear the night before Food, layers, poles, ice ax, microspikes, water, first aid, Garmin, etc. I had a plan.
McCully Basin Trail
I charged up the McCully Basin trail as fast as I could, hoping to give myself plenty of time to navigate the potentially more difficult terrain in the upper basin and get back down before the possible afternoon thunderstorms arrived. The miles evaporated quickly; I stopped to catch my breath. As I hiked, I ran through my plan and my gear list. “Microspikes…” I knew there would be snow and potentially lots of it, based on a report I got from a couple of trail runners the night before. “Where did I pack my microspikes?” A flash of heat radiated from my chest.
I threw off my pack and emptied it out. Damn. They’re not there. Although I had taken them out the night before, I reasoned they must be camouflaged in their black bag on the black seat in the van. I missed taking them from my gear pile and putting them in my pack. My heart sank. I was so excited to get up there today, but I failed in my prep tasks. I didn’t have time to turn back, so I pressed on.
As I walked, my mind spiraled through all the possibilities of today. Where might I encounter obstacles? What decisions will I have to make? How can I salvage this trip? What’s the best and worst case scenarios? This scenario: I’m outside, I’m walking, I’m in the mountains, life is good.
The snow begins
“You can follow our tracks,” said the ladies I met in the parking lot last night. Except they didn’t do exactly the route I was planning, and I’ve learned from experience not to try and follow other people’s tracks. Instead, I’d use them when they were convenient and rely on my maps and intuition otherwise. I focused on getting to the basin, as long as the snow wasn’t rock hard.
Luckily for me, the snow was just soft enough to get sufficient traction with my hiking boots but not so soft that I was slipping and post-holing on every snow patch. The isolated patches turned to continuous, rolling snow fields. I made my way across the creek and up into the basin proper. From that point, the trail became more difficult to follow and it often wasn’t the best route due to snow conditions. I picked a line that took me up the good snow and avoided the worst of it. I was shocked to find an abundance of alpine wildflowers in bloom, including lupine, wallflower and phlox. What a treat!
Near the saddle, I approached one final snowfield that looked pretty intimidating. It had one steep face but then appeared to mellow out on top. I took my time and carefully poked my way across it. With that behind me, I was confident that I could make it to the saddle.
The wind whipped across my face, carrying with it a light, soaking drizzle. The temperatures were mild, so the weather felt more like ambiance than an assault. At the Wing Ridge saddle, I paused to enjoy the dramatic view on the other side. Snow-capped mountaintops peeked through ethereal clouds. The raspy, rattling calls of Clark’s nutcrackers filled the air. They were hustling to store pine nuts for the coming winter. Meanwhile, summer had just begun.
Wing Ridge to Mt. Melissa
Here I had a decision to make: call it a day here or continue towards Mt. Melissa? By now, the clouds had nearly completely enveloped me. I looked up towards the summit of Wing Ridge, a possible intermediate stop or turnaround point. I thought at least if I could get one summit I’d be happy, and it was right there.
I began searching for a route up the loose, wet rock up to the top. My visibility was poor, so I moved slowly and took the path of least resistance. I stayed mostly to the north side of the ridge, avoiding any tantalizing but unnecessary rock outcrops. Soon, I made it to the summit, where I found a rockpile encircling what looked like a very eroded statue of Mary. Odd.
By this time, the clouds had gotten so thick that I could no longer see the ridge leading to Mt. Melissa. I had to pull out my compass to figure out which way to go. I knew that steep, rocky cliffs ran down from the edges of the ridge, so again I moved slowly to keep myself on the tamest terrain. My backup plan was to bail down into the basin at one of the less steep sections of hillside. With that in mind, I kept moving forward.
The first part of the ridge walk was the steepest and trickiest, made even more challenging in low visibility. I played the familiar Wallowas scrambles game show: “Which Side of the Ridge is LESS Bad? Neither option was great, but one side generated less fear than the other, so I opted for that. I frequently swapped sides based on rock quality, snow, exposure, etc. Despite the weather and obstacles, I was still having fun and I was well-within my time window. Once I got through the steepest part of the ridge, the rest of it was a joyful romp. Wildflowers in profusion. Rolling terrain. Dramatic clouds. Mountain goat tracks. What a place.
At the summit, I looked everywhere for the elusive summit canister. Nothing. I sat down to eat my ramen and made a game plan for the return hike. Last night, I planned on a 12-mile day: 5 miles to the saddle, 1 mile to Melissa, return the way I came. But it was 6.5 miles to the saddle and just over a mile to the last summit. Sure, I could reverse my route and do a 15 mile day, but I could do better.
Back to the parking lot
On the way up, I scouted possible return routes that involved dropping down into the basin without going back up (or around) Wing Ridge summit. I’m sure glad I did, because the thick clouds obliterated any views I had once I reached the saddle. About half a mile back down the ridge, I saw my opportunity to descend. It was a “familiar kind of terrible”: loose volcanic scree. With almost 2 decades of scrambling in the Oregon Cascades under my best, this was not a deterrent. I lost elevation quickly, returning to the snowy forest and then the marshy basin.
Back on the trail, I breezed back down, making time for rest and wildflower breaks. I noticed so many more on the hike down than I did on the way up! When I get fixated on completing a task, I effectively block out most extraneous data. I very much enjoyed seeing the extras on the return trip.
Unsurprisingly, I saw no other people out on this day. And despite a number of reasons why this trip could have gone sideways, I was able to carry it out to plan! That’s never a guarantee in the mountains, and I was prepared to turn back several times. I had to talk myself into continuing at each decision point, and I’m so glad I did.
When I returned to the van, I collapsed on the bed. Can tomorrow be a rest day?