August 4-6, 2022.
My adventure began on the Hurricane Creek Trail, one of the gateways to the Wallowa Mountains in Northeastern Oregon. I’d been to the Wallowas three times before, but never to this particular access point. I had dreamed up a route connecting several range highpoints on a three-day long loop, starting and ending at the Hurricane Creek Trailhead. My vision put together pieces from other people’s hiking, climbing and trail running reports; none exactly matched what I wanted to do. So, despite having one big hole in my plan, I set out to see what I’d find.
I used Barbara Bond’s 75 Scrambles in Oregon book to piece together the first day’s route. About 1.8 miles up Hurricane Creek trail, I was to look for a place to cross the (cold, ragey) creek and pick up the long decomissioned Thorp Creek Trail to access a base camp just downslope of Sacajawea Peak. At about that mile marker, I found the start of a well-worn use trail through the dense cover at the edge of the creek. This quickly disappeared, so I crashed through the brush and made my way to the water. I found a good place to cross, but no trail on the other side. No matter, I mucked around in the boggy grass, stopping to ogle all the pretty flowers, until I stumbled into bits and pieces of trail. Eventually the trail became continuous and I was on my way uphill.
Since the trail officially doesn’t exist anymore, it is not maintained by the Forest Service. As a result, I had to step over a lot of downed, charred trees. It was nothing compared to what I’d eventually have to do, but in the moment it felt like some extra work. Where there weren’t downed trees, the trail was surprisingly nice, albeit very steep.
The trail climbed and climbed until it roughly leveled out on a grassy bench. All the surrounding trees were burned and either standing like a charcoal stick or littered across the ground. I could see the elegant north ridge of Sacajawea paralleling my route as I continued. The wind whipped across the bare rock and through the burnt forest, creating an eerie and foreboding sound. I walked alone, into the unknown and towards the Thorp Creek meadows I’d read about online. It was described in a mountaineering trip report as a beautiful place; mountaineers rarely wax poetic about the scenery so I had pretty high expectations.
Despite that, reality exceeded my expectations. I wandered along two small, braided creeks in a lush and open valley surrounded by high peaks. When I found a sufficient place to string up my hammock, I called it a day and dropped my heavy pack on the ground. From my camp, I carefully surveyed the surrounding landscape and memorized the features I could see. For the first time, I could see in person all the places I’d just read about online. It was happening.
I used my downtime in camp to paint, eat, recover and plan for the next day.
Sacajawea and Matterhorn
At 6 am, I started hiking. I knew I had a long and challenging day ahead. Sacajawea, the highest peak of the Wallowas, stood 2300′ above me and I’d cover all that elevation gain in approximately 1 mile of walking. With my overnight pack on. With all the water I’d need for the foreseeable future, since I would have no water access until I completed all the highpoints. I grumpily hauled myself up the relentless climbers trail under a clear und unsympathetic sky.
From my camp, Sacajawea looked daunting. But the climber’s trail continued to provide a relatively easy and safe way to get up there. Before I knew it, I stood on the top. It was a bit disappointing, as the summit was merely a slightly higher blip on a rocky ridge, but oh well. No summit register, no fanfare. I walked uphill until I couldn’t go up anymore, then I started going down.
The gendarme ridge. This is what I had fretted about for weeks before the trip. Everyone talks about how sketchy and scary it is. And those people were mostly wearing daypacks. I agonized over how smart it would be to tackle this ridge with an overnight pack, alone, having never done it before. Exposure. Rock scramble. Knife edge ridges. Oh my. After consulting with my friend Matt, who’d done it himself, I decided I was up for the challenge.
On the other side of the ridge, I thought, “that was it?” Sure, there were some sections that got a little confusing, but as long as I poked around enough I found a way. Some spots were even marked with cairns! I moved slowly, intentionally and always took time to look for a reasonable way to go. If I started going over or around something and got uncomfortable, it was not the way. And so, with that behind me, I celebrated on the more interesting summit of 9775′.
This highpoint was smack in the middle of Sacajawea and Matterhorn. I’d return here to continue along the Hurwal Divide, so I joyfully dropped my backpack. With just a fanny pack and a half liter of water, I scampered along the solid and enjoyable ridge to the Matterhorn.
Yet another letdown. Sheesh. It was cool up top, to be sure, but I didn’t feel like I had to do any work to get there. If only I’d known how much work was in front of me, maybe I’d appreciate it more. There were 4 people milling around the summit, all of whom had come up from Ice Lake.
I decided to enjoy myself a little more on the hike back to my pack, marveling at the interesting shapes and colors that some geologist could explain better than me. I stopped to gaze down the mysterious big hole and also made sure to take in the spectacular scenery in all directions.
Hurwal Divide Traverse
Underneath the full weight of my pack, I set off in an easterly direction along the long ridge making up the Hurwal Divide. It was not as scary and sheer as it had looked on the climb up Sacajawea, and for that I was grateful. I had a handful of photos from other people’s trips to go by, but no real sense of what to expect.
I mostly walked to the right of the ridge proper, avoiding the most exposure and traveling on what I dubbed “safe but annoying” terrain. The ground underfoot crumbled under each step. I skidded along the talus and scree for mile after mile, up and down, up and down. I’d scrambled on far more difficult terrain before, but the mental exhaustion of having to choose each step carefully really took its toll. Each time I slipped more than twice in short succession, I stopped to take a rest, sip some water and look around. It was so fun to actually see, up close, my view from camp.
Hurwal Divide Southwest (9508′), check. I tapped the top of this rubble pile among rubble piles, then kept going. Back down, again. This part was steep and loose with several gullies to negotiate. My brain was so tired from all the routefinding and my legs were tired from not being on solid ground for 90 percent of the day. I suppose it would have been easier to have better beta for the route so that I would have been able to mete out my energy and expectations over the course of the day.
But, I was in it now, so I pulled out every mountaineering self-talk trick in the book. Calling out moves helps me a lot: “right foot there,” “oh I don’t like that,” “that looks better,” “grab this rock,” etc. That, and singing songs, telling myself stories, faking some positive self-talk and occasionally just yelling “fuck this sucks.” My favorite strategy for keeping things moving is choosing intermediate goals. For example, to keep walking until that red boulder or that flat spot. Once I reached one goal, I’d look ahead on the ridge and select the next one. If I needed a break, I’d take a break at one of the spots I reached.
Despite all these tricks, I still moved slowly. The Hurwal Divide proved to be a formidable challenge!
The next major destination was the point at which the ridge abruptly turned north. I sat down here, took off my socks and shoes, watched the butterflies swirl around me. Buckwheat poked up from between the talus. And below me, Ice Lake glistened in the sun. I briefly considered bailing out to Ice Lake and hiking out to Wallowa Lake instead of finishing my route, but that thought didn’t last long. Let’s keep going, I thought.
Belly full of snacks, I slogged along to the summit of Hurwal Divide. It didn’t look too bad on the map, but at this point in the day I couldn’t be fooled by that sort of nonsense. My journal describes this section as “and annoyingly loose shit pile with several little ups and downs, that at this point in the day, didn’t feel so little.” Fortunately there were a few sections of goat trail that made my life a little easier as I finished up this leg of the journey. I put my head down and walked; in about an hour I saw the cairn marking the top.
Here, I smiled wide at the sight of that cairn as well as something else. Ahead, on the ridge, I noticed a small knoll that had trees and a snowfield. C A M P ! My original plan involved continuing to Chief Joseph Mountain and descending to one of the creeks below. However, this looked incredibly inviting and I decided to shift my plan to spend a night on the actual divide. It’s the happiest I’d felt all day.
I still had to get there. Descending 1000 vertical feet in less than a mile, then climbing back up another 200 feet took some effort. As soon as I found two whitebark pines sturdy enough to support my hammock, I called it a day. I settled in for a painting session, a delicious dinner (and snow-chilled cider) and watched one of the most spectacular sunsets in my life.
“Not one mountain goat,” I grumbled to myself as I got up to make coffee. I was sure there had to be goats in the area, but despite all the time I spent at elevation the day before I had not seen one.
As I watched the sun rise and packed up my camp, I noticed a white rock on the hillside that I didn’t see during all the time I spent painting a watercolor of that same slope. Could it be? I zoomed way in on my camera phone and confirmed, in fact, it was a mountain goat! I was excited and quickly finished getting ready so I could see what would be in store for the day.
In the crisp morning air, I dropped off my magical knoll and began climbing up the next bump, a steep slope that got steeper and looser as I went. I followed the goat until the goat moved no more. Two goats, actually. Confused, I paused there to watch their behavior and decide if it would be safe to proceed. Goats have big pointy horns.
They paid me no mind, and the larger of the two plopped right down on the ridge. They had no plans to move any time soon. So, I followed suit and sat down too. For the next forty minutes. I put my puffy on, ate another bar, took some photos. I couldn’t believe my day was being held back by mountain goats, and I had some un-scouted terrain to cover!
Suddenly, they began to move…towards me! I found out why; what I couldn’t see was the steep cliff on the other side of them that apparently none of us could descend. So I ended up having to do a hairy downclimb to skirt around the cliff before re-joining the ridge. Ugh, this was already a morning. The rest of the ascent to Point Joseph proceeded smoothly and soon I stood atop its interesting brown cap. The entire mountain, save for the summit, looks like a hill painted in delicate pastels. But dark brown boulders create a fortress shape on the top, strange rocks I hadn’t seen anywhere else on this traverse.
From the summit, I eyeballed my route down and checked the waypoints I’d put in my map. On the hike in, I tried to note good places to cross Hurricane Creek. I just had to work backwards to connect my current position with a reasonable creek crossing. What lay in between was my choice of rocky ridges plummeting into steep forest of unknown quality. From what I’d seen so far, I assumed it would be brushy and/or burned. I was right on both accounts.
I dropped off the summit, followed a rocky ridge peppered with delightful wildflowers and descended through a steep forest. I ended up in a dry drainage, which I had hoped would be easy to follow. It was not. Back up on the steep, steep hillside.
At each point of the day, I thought I was at the hardest obstacle. I was literally never right. I sat down, took out my map and tried to gain perspective on the situation. I had one mile to go and I’d be at the creek. “I can do anything for one mile,” I asserted. Two elk, hearing my desperate affirmation, spooked and crashed through the forest. I got to watch them for a bit, since even they had trouble navigating the blowdown and tangle of weeds. Great, I thought.
The steep, forested hillside turned into a slightly less steep, burned hillside. It was at the state of the burn where some regrowth had begun. So I alternately was stepping over charcoal-crusted trees, crashing through ankle-grabbing brush, stepping into soft holes, weaving between incredibly sharp, twisted dead branches and looking for some path of least resistance.
There was none.
And then, it got worse. The regrowth became denser, taller and seemingly more angry with me. At points I could take a step and not know if I was on the ground or not. I’d step on a solid-looking log and crunch right through it. At one point I stepped down into thin air, dangling over a rushing creek, my hands grabbing for anything solid but the earth disintegrated in my hands. I CANNOT GET HURT HERE, I yelled into the abyss.
My frustration levels maxed out several times on this heinous descent through hell. Each step was carefully calculated, and even then, was often a failure. I had to downclimb, re-climb, backtrack, crawl under, scramble over and pull myself around an endless string of obstacles. Once I somewhat got the hang of the obstacles in front of me, the character of the forest changed and I had new things to figure out. There are no words to accurately express the degree of Type 3 Fun I experienced in that long, long mile. Skipping ahead two and a half hours, I made it to the creek.
It may be called creek, but it felt more like river. I couldn’t just walk across at any point. It was flowing cold and deep in some narrow channels. The point at which I arrived was not a good spot to cross. Upon checking my map, I learned I was further downriver than I wanted to be. What did that mean? More backtracking. Regardless, I was dying to get my shoes off so I swapped into my trusty Bedrock sandals and hoofed it through the (of course) thick, brushy riverside up river.
I ended up finding a place where the creek split into several broad channels, spreading out the water so it wasn’t so deep. But cliffs lined the other side of the creek, with no way to get up to the trail. Regardless, I went for it. On the other side, with nowhere else to go, I walked in the actual creek bed until the slope above me mellowed out. There was a little bit of bushwhacking and then…
THE T R A I L ! ! ! !
I was so elated, I also do not have the words! I felt all the opposite feelings I had just minutes before. My eyes moist with tears, I practically ran along the well-graded trail all the way back to my car. It was the easiest mile of my life.
After changing my clothes and throwing all my gear in the car, I drove to Terminal Gravity brewery in Enterprise for a burger and a beer. I picked up a pint of ice cream at Safeway for dinner. And I drove to Two Pan Trailhead, where I’d camp for the night in preparation for the second half of my Wallowas adventure the next day.