Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Wallowa Mountains (OR) - McCully Basin

The Wallowa Mountains came onto my radar after living in Eugene for a few years, and once I heard of them being referred to as the Oregon Alps, I knew I wanted to visit them. Oddly enough, it has taken me over a decade to finally commit to doing a trip out to the mountains, with the main deterrent being its proximity -- Located in the northeast corner of the state, it’s an 8+ hour drive just to get to the town of Joseph, the main entry point on the north end of the range. I assumed that my first trip there would be for backpacking (which looks absolutely amazing), but it wasn’t until I got invited on a ski tour/hut trip that I decided to pull the trigger. I would be one person in a group of 10, which included Ethan, Dennis, Zane, Meridy, Andrew, Iryna, Abe, Brian and Adam. With the huts reserved in the McCully Basin from February 9-11th (2017), It would be almost 7 months between getting the invite and the trip itself, which gave plenty of time for planning.

In the last few weeks leading up to our departure date we made final preparations, everything from meal planning to carpooling. My self-assigned role was putting together maps and potential routes, which would help with figuring out our daily agenda, especially in light of the high avalanche danger that was projected for the days we’d be there. By the time I felt like I’d gotten everything prepared for the trip it was time to depart, which we did on a Wednesday morning. The drive from Eugene to Joseph turned into a bit of an epic – starting just outside of Portland the road conditions greatly deteriorated and we soon found ourselves driving at 40 mph through snow and ice, which lasted nearly the entire 400 miles between Portland and Joseph. When all was said and done, we pulled into town around 8pm, 12 hours from when we had started the drive.

As part of our McCully yurt reservation, we were also given accommodations in Joseph at a small house on the main drag. Once we’d had a chance to settle in a bit, we walked through town and into The Hydrant bar, the most happening place at this time of night. Inside we found a total of 4 or 5 other people, including the bartender and a gal doing some solo karaoke, who is apparently a staple of this institution. After a couple of beers we headed back to our abode and waited for the others from our crew to show up. I actually ended up crashing out early while the others made another visit to The Hydrant, eventually closing the place down, around midnight.

The next morning we awoke and got some breakfast before meeting Sage, our snowmobile chauffeur, who would be transporting us ~2 miles from the Ferguson Sno-Park to the McCully Trailhead. Unfortunately, Adam was having some mechanical problems with his Subaru, so he and Zane stayed in town until the mechanic’s shop opened up. They planned to drop off the car before starting the skin in, hoping to meet back up with us before dark. Since the sled could only tow four at a time, it took a couple of loads to drop all of us off. Once we were all at the trailhead, we made some final gear preparations and then started the 4.5 mile skin into base camp.

Getting a tow into the trailhead
(screenshot from Zane's GoPro)

The temperature during the skin in was around 35 degrees, and the storm overhead dropped a mix of rain, sleet and wet snow. Furthermore, the winds were really rippin’, and I was pretty glad that most of the trail was sheltered by trees on both sides. This certainly did not bode well for ski conditions the following days. By the time we reached the yurts everyone was pretty soaked and tired out. It took a little while to get the woodstove going in the one and even longer to find the second sleeping yurt. Eventually we started to get warmed up and hung up our gear, hoping that it would be dry by the following morning. One by one we all gathered in the kitchen hut, where Abe and I started making dinner for everyone, as we had designated ourselves as the cooks for the first night. Just as we were putting the final touches on our meal, Adam and Zane showed up – perfect timing! That night we relaxed and hung out before finally turning in for the night, hoping for better weather the following day.

Our sleeping yurt

The sauna (left) and kitchen yurt (right)

Relaxin' and drying out

The next morning I woke up around 8am and staggered out of the yurt, finding partly sunny conditions with much milder winds, which brought on a renewed sense of hope. Breakfast was served by Ethan and Dennis, and consisted of egg and sausage breakfast burritos, the perfect fuel for our day’s tour. The plan was to head up to Hidden Peak and check out conditions, hoping we wouldn’t be dealing with the dreaded breakable crust. We had picked this location based on its close proximity to our base camp as well as the long continuous runs that were above the treeline. We also chose it based on it having a max slope angle of around 30 degrees, since we wanted to stay on some safer terrain until we had a chance to evaluate the avalanche conditions.

The first part of the skin led us through some steep forested terrain but it eventually flattened and we entered a wide open snowfield. At around 8,500’ the rain crust gave way to softer snow, renewing my hope that we’d actually be able to get in some good skiing. Unfortunately this hope quickly faded as the slope became more and more wind-scoured the higher we climbed. At around 9,000’ I needed to throw on my ski crampons just to maintain traction up the final few switchbacks. We all regrouped at a bench about 200’ from the summit of Hidden Peak, where we reevaluated our options -- The one thing we all agreed on was the snow conditions were pretty bad. Looking south toward Aneroid Mountain there appeared to be a small slope that was wind protected and looked like it might hold some decent snow. We estimated that it would provide a 300’ to 400’ vertical drop, not a lot but with a few yo-yo laps we might be enough to salvage the day. With that we made plans for getting over there. Most of the group actually wanted to summit Hidden Peak before heading over. With the windy conditions I just wanted to keep moving, especially since our target slope looked like it would provide a bit of a windbreak. Ethan opted to head out early with me, so I figured we could dig a snow pit and get some stability data before the others showed up.

Taking in our surroundings, early on during our first tour.

Adam breaks out of the trees

Starting the climb up to Hidden Peak

Plenty of opportunity in the McCully Basin

Not looking good high up on Hidden Peak

Closing in on the high point

We quickly determined that the easiest way for us to make our way over to the other slope was to hike our gear across the wind scoured terrain, traversing to the south just below the summit of Hidden Peak. We soon found a slope that held enough snow to ski/ride down to the new zone – it certainly wasn’t optimal conditions but it did help reduce some of the travel time. At the bottom of the intermediary slope I didn’t even bother switching over to skins; instead I simply hiked across the firm snowpack to the new riding area. As soon as we began to climb up our target slope, it started to block the wind and the snow softened dramatically – this might just provide some good lines after all! Just below the small summit we unloaded our packs, pulled out our shovels and started digging, hoping to find some stable results. By the time the pit started to take shape the others showed up, and over the next ~20 minutes we would perform a Shovel Shear Test and three separate Compression Tests. With results between CTH 22 and CTH 26 and a shear quality of Q2 (i.e. Resistant Planer), we felt good about the stability, especially since the slope was just under 30 degrees at its steepest point.

After quickly filling in the pit and hiking up the short distance to the summit, we made some final gear adjustments and dropped in one-by-one. Although the slope was only covered in about shin-deep powder it still provided some nice soft turns, which everyone took full advantage of. At the bottom of the short descent we threw on our skins and started up the hill for another lap. Now back at the top a thick cloud layer had moved in and it began to snow, which was both a blessing and a curse – the visibility went to shit but we hoped it would improve the conditions for the following day. By the time I had switched over to descent mode I was only one of two people left at the top. I quickly determined my line and dropped in. With the poor visibility I had a hard time reading the terrain and ended up taking a nice header. Luckily, I did almost a complete somersault and landed back on my feet, riding it out without it being noticed.

First lines of the day!

Now at the bottom of the run once again, the others had already started climbing up for another lap. With both the low visibility and my low energy level, I opted to hang out below and spectate. After everyone had taken their third and final lap, we started making our way back down to basecamp. The skiers had no trouble getting back through the mixed terrain, but the splitboarders were a little more challenged. Adam was actually able to ride the whole way in snowboard mode, while I immediately switched over to skins and Abe did a combination of both. Per usual, I ended up getting back to the huts last, a bit tired and ready for a good homecooked meal – I was pretty glad it wasn’t my night to cook! That evening we ate some delicious Yumm Bowls prepared by Iryna & Andrew. We also tapped into our slim quarter keg of Oakshire Amber, which was a great way to top off the second day of the trip! Back at the sleeping yurt I drifted in and out of sleep all night long, with the second half of the night getting pretty cold since none of us could muster the motivation to get up and stoke the fire.

The first few days/nights of the trip were plenty windy

Day three started off much like day two, complete with another round of breakfast burritos. Before departing on our day’s tour, we looked over the map and tried to find the best zone to attack. With the fairly stable results we had gotten the day before and wanting to get in some lines that were a little tastier, we opted for the southeast corner of the basin. With extreme winds hammering the basin over the last few days we knew that we’d potentially be dealing with some wind slabs, especially as we traveled into the alpine. Furthermore, since this zone consists of an intermountain snowpack and the potential for persistent weak layers, (faceted snow) we wanted to be extra careful, especially since most of us were not used to dealing with that particular problem. With an established plan we then geared up and headed out for the day.

Traveling at a moderate pace we made our way to the southeast corner of the basin, doing our best to avoid thick trees and steep slopes. After a few ups and down our target zone soon came into view and looked amazing. Everyone in the group was smiling and pointing out potential lines, but we still had some work to do before dropping in for some runs. Our skin track for the floor of the basin to the upper peak that we’d planned to ski/ride led us up slope that was no more than 30 degrees, although it was a bit of a gully and certainly could have become a terrain trap, especially since it formed the runout to the steep slope coming off of Wing Ridge – more on this later… I was glad to see that the group had spread out a bit in this section, in case we ended up remote triggering the steep slope. I was also happy that we had made it up and out of avalanche terrain rather quickly and we were soon looking up at the upper bowl we’d planned to ski, which was nice and wide and would provide lots of fun and relatively safe terrain at right around 30 degrees.

Target zone acquired

Starting the climb on our second tour

Spacing out a bit in avalanche terrain

One of the steeper pitches on the way up

Entering the upper bowl

The ascent up the ridge to the top of the bowl was pretty easy going until we got within a 100’ or so from the summit, where wind crust and rocky conditions forced most of us to switch over to bootpacking. The view from the summit included the McCully and Sheep Basins as well as many other peaks in the Wallowa range. Since I wanted to get some photos of the others skiing/riding down the bowl I decided to jump out ahead and set-up. Once I was transitioned over and ready to go, I gave them the signal and dropped in. Although fairly low angle and only dropping about 400 vertical feet, the snow ended up being pretty damn good and produced some nice boot shots and wide arcing turns all the way down to the bottom. Next, I settled in and got comfortable while waiting for the others to take their turns. One-by-one they dropped in, stacking up lines and having a great time doing so!

The final push to the summit

Regrouping at the summit

Looking north into the McCully Basin

Andrew, rips some turns

Coming in hot!

Iryna, getting some boot shots.

Ethan gets in a few final turns

Spectator sport

Once we had all regrouped at the bottom we had a decision to make on which way to continue down, or even hike back up for another lap on the upper bowl. I had been eyeing a line during the approach, which started just a short distance from our location. Iryna and Andrew skied over to make sure it was the drop-in and after confirming it was, called the rest of us over to scout it out. As soon as I laid eyes on it I knew it was the one I’d been looking at. I quickly suggested that we dig a pit to test the stability and give it a go if we found favorable results. Since it certainly wasn’t practical for nine of us to dig a single pit, half the group decided to head back to the top of the upper bowl while the rest of us got to digging. Once the pit was dug we did a quick shovel shear test before isolating a few columns and performing a couple of compression tests. Both CTs produced CTN results, so we were feeling pretty good about the stability. Furthermore, after pounding on each of the columns beyond the 30 official taps, we could only get them to produce resistant planer fracture lines. After a quick discussion and filling in the pit, we decided as a group to give it a go, dropping in one at a time to reduce our exposure if it did happen to slide.

Iryna, mid CT.
(screenshot from Zane's GoPro)

I offered to go first, mainly since I wanted to get some photos from a little ways down the run. I quickly scanned the run and found a safe zone about 200’ down on skier’s left. After transitioning over to snowboard mode I gave the signal and dropped in. I started off with a quick ski cut across the slope before heading down into a series of steep/tight turns. After six or so turns I pulled over to the side, grabbed my camera, and gave the others the thumbs up to let them know I was ready. Andrew dropped in next, slashing up the slope with some beautiful turns all the way down to the bottom. I quickly packed up my camera and followed suit, enjoying the best run of the trip so far! Iryna came down next, also with some really nice lines. While waiting for the other three in our subgroup, we got a call from the crew that had gone back up for another lap on the upper bowl. We gave them the good news about stability results and then sat back and waited for everyone to catch up. Before long, they came into view, stacking lines to save some fresh real estate for the following riders. Everybody in the group had a fantastic time on this slope and we were all excited to skin back up for another run.

Andrew drops in on the second descent of the day.

Slashin' the first line down the face

Iryna, with lots of fresh canvas to work with. 

One of the boarders gettin' some

 From our current location we had a couple of options, break trail up an adjacent slope or ski down another 100’ or so to our previous skin track. As we were discussing, a few in the group had already switched over and were headed up and making a fresh track – with a decision already made, the rest of us fell into line. As the slope began to steepen the lead skier laid down some nice steep switchbacks and we were making good progress. At this point I was near the back of the pack, and as I was rounding one of the switchies, someone yelled “cracks!”. I looked up to see what was going on and watched a crack shoot across the slope in front of me, connecting the three skiers that were spread out across the main face. At the same time a large ‘boom’ echoed in the distance as a massive slab released from the steep face just to the southeast from us. We all looked on in horror as the slide built up momentum on the way down the slope, bringing with it large boulders and snapping trees like toothpicks before coming to a stop in the valley just below our position, partially covering our skin tracks from earlier in the day.

This bad boy took out some trees on the way to the bottom!

Some of the cracks on our slope
(screenshot from Zane's GoPro)

The main slide -- a D3 with a 6 to 8 foot crown!

Still in a bit of shock we called out to each other and made sure everyone was alright. Once everyone was accounted for, we all agreed to stay put until we could come up with a plan to get out of avalanche terrain as safely and quickly as possible. For those of us who were still low on the slope, we decided that the best route was to B-line it down and across the valley to an island of safety just on the other side. We also decided to go one at a time, keeping a close eye on each other as we made our way across to the other side. Ethan dropped in first, and as planned, straight-lined it with as few turns as possible. Once he was safely on the other side and had given the signal I followed in similar fashion. According to my GPS I hit a speed of over 55mph, which created an impressive amount of downward force on my body as I hit the valley and headed up the other side. I was very happy to be out of avi terrain but I was still anxious about my fellow companions and looked forward to having them by our side.

The next five skiers/riders were also able to make it across, leaving only Andrew and Iryna, who had been at the top of the slope during the avalanche activity. Fortunately we had good radio communication with the both of them and were able to discuss a plan on how to get them down safely. With no real way down without dropping >30 degree slope they had to be strategic about the route. Eventually both came into view, and like the rest of us went one at a time, moving as quickly and with as few turns as possible. When we finally were all back together and out of the danger zone we looked back up at the slope that had just collapsed and briefly discussed how it was triggered. Was it us? Was it a natural trigger? Unfortunately it just wasn’t safe enough for us to head up and analyze the snowpack at the crown of the slide.

Andrew and Iryna's view from up top
(Photo by Andrew Wagner)

A stitched together image, showing all the avalanche activity in relation to each other.
The main (D3) slide is to the left of the image.

After we had a chance to take it all in, we started making our way back to the huts. We felt a bit of urgency since Meridy had stayed behind (due to some pretty nasty blisters) and we wanted to let her know that we were okay, just in case she heard or saw the avalanche. Of course the skiers were a bit faster than the boarders and by the time I had made it back to the kitchen yurt she had already been told and everyone was in deep discussion about the event. After a great dinner prepared by Adam and Brian, and many rounds of Cards Against Humanity, we were able to get our minds off of it and relax a bit – of course, throughout the evening we would come back to discussing the day’s event.

That night I once again found myself in and out of sleep until the sun shining through the windowed ceiling called me out of bed and into the kitchen yurt one last time for coffee and breakfast. Since we weren’t planning to do a group breakfast I broke out a packet of Mountain House Breakfast Scramble and choked it down while still trying to fully wake up. After breakfast we went to work packing up all of our gear and doing some cleaning before bidding our encampment a farewell and starting the ~6 mile skin out to the sno-park. With the skin track well tamped down we made really good progress and before long we’d reached the section of road we’d used the snowmobile to get up. From here those of us that were on splitboards were able to transition over to board mode, which greatly increased our speed getting out. I was pretty happy when the car came into view, especially knowing that both dry cottons and cold beer were awaiting me. We quickly got changed and rolled out, starting what would be a long drive back to Eugene.

The Wallowas are a spectacular mountain range and I’m glad I finally got to experience them! From an alpine touring standpoint the terrain is pretty amazing and there is a ton of it – Steep faces, wide open bowls, couloirs, glades, you name it! Staying in the yurts, as we did, ensures that you have relatively short approaches for day tours, while preserving some of the quality of life found at home, like heat (wood stoves), bedding (cots and sleeping bags) and a full kitchen. Probably the biggest challenge is reserving a spot, since they tend to sell out quickly. Furthermore, having to book far in advance means that there is no way to ensure you’ll have good conditions (snow and weather) – you really have to go into the trip knowing that you might be confined to skiing protected terrain less than 30 degrees, building kickers, doing beacon practice, drinking lots of beer, or a combination thereof. For our trip we were dealing with less than optimal conditions, which included rain the first day and extreme winds for the first two days. Luckily, the weather got much better on the second half of the trip and we were treated to bright blue skies and cooler temps. Furthermore, the avalanche advisory going into the trip was calling for a high likelihood of both wind slabs and loose wet slides. All that said, we were able to get in a day or two of good skiing. Of course we did have that episode that just reinforced the need to stay disciplined when traveling in avalanche terrain.

Regarding the avalanche event, we’re still not certain what the cause was, even after discussing it with my AIARE level 2 course instructors the following week. What I think we can say for certain is that the cracks on our slope occurring at the same time as the release on the adjacent slope was not a coincidence. The two most likely scenarios are that we remote triggered the whole thing on a deep persistent (faceted) layer, or it was a naturally triggered wind slab (via solar) on the adjacent slope which in turn triggered our slope. Unfortunately the terrain just wasn’t safe enough to evaluate the slide at the crown. Whatever caused the slide / cracks, there were both things we did right and things we did wrong. Here are a couple of my takeaways:

Examples of what I feel we did well:
1. Group discussions the night before and the day of to establish a plan that everyone felt comfortable with.
2. Ensuring that everyone had avalanche gear and knew how to use it. Also, performing beacon checks prior to entering avi terrain.
3. Starting off on slopes under 30 degrees and working our way up to steeper terrain based on field observations.
4. Descending one at a time while skiing/riding avalanche terrain.

Examples of things we could have done better:
1. Spending more time planning out our up route to limit our exposure in avalanche terrain.
2. Spreading out more while skinning up through avalanche terrain. We were pretty stacked up during some of the ascent.
3. Not regrouping at the bottom of the run-out zone after our run. Instead, pull off to the side and/or well out of the way of any visible/ historical slide path(s). I can be especially bad at this when I’m trying to take photos.
4. Limiting the number of people digging a pit to three or less. This reduces load on the snowpack, limits the number of people exposed, etc. Others can always swap out to ensure results are repeatable and agreed upon.
5. Catering our field observations and snow pit tests based on the avalanche problems we were dealing with and not relying solely on Compression Tests for our results. Assuming we were dealing with a persistent slab, an Extended Column Test would have given us a much better indicator of the propagation characteristics; if it was a deep persistent slab, a Deep Tap Test and/or Propagation Saw Test would have been more appropriate. It should be noted that neither of these problems were indicated in the local advisory, however recent online observations had indicated both shooting cracks and whumpfing.

As for the trip as a whole, it was an amazing experience with a great group of people! I look forward to both returning to the Wallowa Mountains for more alpine tours as well as getting more riding in with the crew!

The tracks from our tour:

A sweet little compilation video put together by Zane Wheeler:

Wallowa Range McCully Basin Yurt Ski trip February 2017 from blucycl on Vimeo.