Nobody goes there on purpose. The town is a backwater, bypassed completely by the east-west running Interstate 84 and the North-South running Interstate 395. Irrigon's close to the Columbia River, just below McNary Dam which employed most of the town's inhabitants during construction. It has a Shell station, a restaurant, and a meandering ribbon of two-lane that connects it to the Interstates. Irrigon has nothing that appeals to three women heading out on a backcountry ski trip.
Well, I take that back, it did have one thing, and that's how we ended up there at 5:30 on Friday night, drinking beer in the back of Kathy's car. We were riding ghetto -- our backpacks, daypacks, duffel bags, ski boots, and grocery sacks filled the back of her SUV and threatened to tumble over the back seat and onto my head whenever she slowed down. We parked outside a "restaurant" but opted for the comfortable accommodations of her RAV to imbibe and people-watch. We waited there for Jamie. Jamie called from Portland earlier in the afternoon, hoping to meet us in Irrigon, if her car could make it that far. She stopped in The Dalles, about a hundred miles away, and had a mechanic look at her car. According to his assessment, it had another 200 miles left before it would shit the bed. We didn't know if she'd even make it to Irrigon, but we chose that as a meeting place and so we waited. And watched people... and sipped Fat Tire beer. It was a typical spring desert evening... warm enough to make you want to take your fleece jacket off, but cool enough to give you gooseflesh when you do shed your outer layers. We looked quite out of place with our car full of ski gear and us still having all our original teeth. Jamie arrived around 5:30 in her rumbling little Subaru Loyale (91). Her long brown hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail and she was still wearing clay-covered carhartts that she'd had on to plant trees earlier in the day. She looked every bit the free-spirited hippy/forester that she is. We managed to cram even more bits and bobs of ski gear into Kathy's car AND clear a spot for Jamie to sit. Finally, the "Core Four" as we called ourselves, were on the road to Joseph.
Joseph, Oregon... An Evening of Attrition
We paired up in suites at Chandler's in Joseph. Chandlers is a lovely bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town. From the outside, the house looks like Dr. Seuss acted as the chief architect in a still-ongoing expansion project. Rooms and decks were added to rooms and decks. Ramps led to balconies which led to gates which led to a hot tub almost three storeys in the air, with amazing views of the surrounding mountains. The owners (presumably they are the Chandlers themselves) were unfailingly hospitable and wonderful. And the price -- $60 per suite -- included private baths and a huge breakfast spread. Emily, Kathy, Jamie, and I loved Chandlers, no question.
We used the late night hours to make the final preparations to our packs, and I will now share with you the boring details of those preparations in case you, too, want to take such a trip. What I packed:
- Two pairs of panties (note: 5 day trip)
- One bra
- 3 pairs of ski socks
- Two pairs of long underwear
- Two polypro shirts (both long-sleeved, one turtleneck, one zip-neck)
- One hat
- One bandana
- journal and pen and paper
- some beef jerky
- one snickers bar per day
- gummi bears (one package)
- spare batteries
- Cough drops
- 20-degree down sleeping bag
- soft-shell jacket
- rain jacket and pants
- "hardshell" jacket to go over softshell
- glove liners
- knee pads
- spare footbeds for boots
- ski boots
- ski pants
- skins cut to fit my skis
- warm wax
- wash cloth
- wet ones
- tiger balm (very small tin)
- lip balm
- 1 nalgene each Hot Damn 100 and Rumplemyntz
I don't remember what else I packed, but I'll tell you that the packing in that list had thinned down considerably from what I originally packed. I ended up leaving probably 10 pounds of extra stuff that I'd originally planned to bring. Thank god, because the next day we had to do a fair amount of bootpacking. UGH!!
Morning has broken... like the first morning
... and it was beautiful. The rest of our party met us at Chandlers for breakfast. Roger, the owner of Wing Ridge Tours, had us all introduce ourselves. We hailed from San Francisco, the Portland area, Sun River, Enterprise, and (ahem) the Tri-Cities. We had a physician, a psychologist, musicians, you name it. Our guides -- Jerry and Paul -- read the weather forecast and Roger explained the avalanche situation, giving us the full run-down of every single storm cycle that had passed through the area since October. I didn't understand what any of it meant, and only wanted to get on the trail and start hiking. To anyone with a modicum of avalanche training or savvy, that portion of the introductions would've been titillating. I will ashamedly admit, it meant nothing to me. Yeah, I was one of those dumb, big-eyed, dorky tourists.
We drove to the trailhead and strapped our skis to our backpacks for the ascent up the trail. We gathered at the trailhead and strapped avalanche beacons on, flipped our ski boots into the 'hike' position (incidentally the 'hike' position is no more comfortable than the 'ski' position, and could easily be nicknamed the 'blister' position), and began the trudge up the 7 mile trail to Aneroid Basin. Jerry led, as he did for much of the trip, and Paul hiked last -- always just a few steps behind me. I was trying to recover from a nasty chest cold, and I blame that for my dismal performance for the hike in.
Our group of 12 (including Jerry and Paul) made the 7 mile ascent in about 8 hours. We started at 4500 feet and arrived at Aneroid Lake at about 7500. My pack probably weighed 50 pounds (we had to carry food in as well). The first two miles we hiked a rocky trail in our ski boots. That was the hardest part of the entire trip. We reached the snow level at lunch time. After that we glued "skins" to the bottoms of our skis, which allowed us to walk on snow with our skis on, and still climb. When we rounded a bend in the trail and looked out over Aneroid Lake late that afternoon, we were dripping with sweat, tired, and sore from our packs digging into our shoulders and backs.
Jerry and Paul, being seasoned guides, immediately started dinner and got us settled into our cabins. We sat around on the deck and drank beer.
Welcome to the Silver Tip
Silver Tip Lodge. My home for the next 5 days. The two-storey cabin accommodated Kathy, Emily, Jamie, and I upstairs, and Bill and Aaron downstairs. They took care of keeping the wood stove going all night, and helping us light our lanterns. Bill and Aaron were the best roommates -- kind family men who quietly ignored our babbling and girl-talk, and silently tended to our various needs for wood heat and white-gas lighting. It could best be said that they 'endured' us. Bill, by the way, was an amazing skier. No one in the group sucked, that's for sure.
The Silver Tip appeared to've been built in the 30s. The entire structure had somewhat of a lean to it, but seemed mostly stable. Our beds were "leveled" on the sloping floor with bits of firewood and old scraps of metal. Every log and chink on the inside of the cabin was inscribed with visitors' names, the dates they visited, and the highlights of their trips.
... and it makes me want to make you near me, always. That would be my song to the Wallowas. My heart is in the toothy spires of Aneroid Peak, Dollar Ridge, Pete's Peak. Be gentle with me.
My first evening at Aneroid Basin I walked down to the lake and stood, looking out at the lake and the surrounding cliffs that formed the basin. I was filled with the same sensation that I got when i did the Rogue River for the first time -- that everything in my life HAS to feed my desire to be outdoors. It reminded me of the last dying gasps of my marriage, when I didn't want a divorce so i could be with someone else -- I wanted a divorce so I could have what I referred to as 'an affair with the planet'. hmmm... MUST find those diaries and remind myself. It is so easy for us to forget ourselves and serve the desires that the rest of society tells us we have, and that the rest of society tells us are important.
So it went. We all gathered each morning in the "main lodge" for breakfast. Jerry and Paul advised us of the weather and the plan for the day. Jerry provided exceptional nursing care for our feet as most of us had developed hotspots and blisters. We practiced locating each others' avalanche beacons, and then struck out on a tour of the surrounding area.
Day 1 we covered about 8 miles, climbing as high as 9000 feet. The sun baked our faces and any bit of skin left exposed and unprotected was burned. My lungs were still searing from the cold I was fighting. But the views.... my god the views.... Endless ranges of snow-cloaked peaks, blue skies, Hell's Canyon in the distance...
We dipped down into two different drainages -- first the Imnaha drainage, and then the Big Sheep Creek drainage. The skiing was pretty alright, but got mushy fast, so we traversed to some north-facing slopes in search of harder snow. By 5:30 we returned to our cabins, exhausted.
I rested on the next day while the rest of the gang went on a short tour nearby.
The following day we awoke to 6 inches of fresh powder and cold temperatures. My lungs were still quite bitter about the amount of work they were doing, but there was no way I could miss skiing in these conditions. We explored some local runs and ended up doing about a 5 mile loop. My favorite run of the day was on the north side of Dollar Ridge where I accidentally kicked off a slab of snow that freight-trained past me but quickly settled. The noise of it scared me, but it stopped as quick as it started and the slab was shallow and appeared mostly harmless... For the more experienced person, it was more a little slough than an avalanche, but my perception was tainted by inexperience and adrenaline. I opted for a straight-ish line that would be hopefully less likely to start any more slides and had the added benefit of making me feel like I went super fast. Weeeeeeeeee!!!!!!
Hot Damn and Farfuknugen!
We busted out the Hot Damn and an impromptu party started at our cabin. The rules were simple -- drink a swig of Hot Damn and then yell "Hot Damn" in your best James Brown impersonation. I thought everybody did that. We burned through the hot damn pretty fast, and then came the Rumplemyntz and hot chocolate, to which we began yelling "Farfuknugen", for lack of anything better to say.Speaking of funny things to say...
I have a list of the funniest quotes. Emily started writing down everything we said that was funny... admittedly, it was only funny to us... but who else is this blog for anyway?
- "I'm Sweep." Teresa (pretty much all I said the whole time).
- CHICK STARTER! (a sign outside of La Grande -- we wanted to try it)
- "We need to move in unison" -- me to Jamie during an impromptu yoga session.
- "Hot Balls!!" Emily, after a drink of Hot Damn. I think she forgot the words...
- "Emily is turning Japanese!" me to everyone when Emily drank Hot Damn and squinted so hard I thought she'd go blind...
- "How did that get out of the hole?" Jamie and Em
- "I was in my bed blowin' o's" Emily's description of smoke rings had everyone curious
- "Aaron, you know, he had the big magical rod." Aaron explaining the origin of his name
- "It's Biblical, goddammit!" Me, defending those who mocked Aaron's explanation of the origin of his name.
- ... yeah, I'm enjoying myself... Sam
- "I'm just going to let gravity work its magic." Me, setting up my backpack using the same gravity-rig method that i use for rafting...
- "i'm just bracing up against you" me. no clue when or why that made it on the list.
- "Sam's going to take fat out of my ass and put it on my heels." (Me, having hotspot issues on my heels) "But then when you're old your heels will droop." (Jerry) .... "We call that a pinch graph" Sam
- "We can each shake turns stirring" Emily
- "I'm no fucking balletist!" Emily.
I'm supposed to say good-bye... but all I can say is good...
The time came to say good-bye to Aneroid basin, the Silver Tip lodge, and acres of turns still unharvested. Our last day broke sunny and warm. The new snow we'd received made our ski back down to Wallowa Lake easy and fast, we made it down in just 3 hours. I can't really speak for anyone else, but personally I dreaded the return to civilization. Life in a cabin in the mountains, where the only work is to trudge to the top of (yet another) breathtakingly beautiful ridge, where the only marks you make on the world are giant S turns on a white canvas, and the major annoyance in your day is futzing with those ill-tempered and gas-barking coleman lanterns, is a life of absolute bliss. Of course there is more involved... like the need for food and such... and my carnal lust for gear (an addiction which requires a full-time job to support). Oh but if this girl could find a way to make it work...
And so we headed back, back to the bowels of reality, down to the mire of "getting by" and "getting on". I plodded along, as always, at the back of the line, letting the Wallowas etch themselves into my memory. You can't really say "good-bye" so I just said, "good".
And that, my friend, is life.
It's been over a week now since we left. Everything is pear-shaped. I can't stand to interact with people. I'm just clumsy and confused. Doesn't ANYONE want to talk about skiing or mountains or trees or anything? Conversations swirl around me, conversations about people's favorite coffee, movies, cookbooks, dishes, neighbors, work, pet peeves, annoying co-workers, you name it. I understand that these things are of some significance -- it is clear by the blood-pressure of those who speak of these things. But I have nothing to offer. It's like they speak a language that just can't be translated to elevation, trails, turns, under-foot measurements of a ski, telemark bindings, pack weight, or waterproof soft-shells. Soon, I'll get back into the swing of things and be able to speak to topics such as Starbucks vs. Stumptown, I'll know what the latest movie offerings are, and who our weirdest neighbor is (probably me!). For now I'm just clinging to the virginal subject of pure white powder, and pining for more. This was my first backcountry trip, and it has changed everything. Everything.