Fold mountains

Ski touring in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon

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they still exist, those places outside the fringes of the world. The Wallowa Mountains are one of them.

This compact chain is isolated in the sparsely populated northeastern corner of Oregon, sandwiched between the Rockies and the Cascades and bordered by farmland. While America’s most popular parks and wilderness areas drew their biggest crowds in 2021, the Wallowas remain wonderfully out of sync. This is especially true on the west side of the region, and doubly so in winter. While the Eastern Wallowas see a few skiers and boarders in the hinterland thanks to a small system of huts – and hikers, mostly local, frequent the entire range in summer – the western part is relatively unspoiled, especially when it comes to ski touring.

This loneliness is the reason we are here. In the four days we spend venturing into the Wallowas, we don’t see another soul. Instead, we have the mountains to ourselves: thick forests of firs and spruces, their branches draped in shaggy beards of lichen. Rolling, open snow slopes dotted with scorched tree bark and a pristine view from the top of the ridges to the rugged heart of the range. It’s perfect, it’s calm, and it’s all up to us.

Ideal slopes for corn turns in the spring Photo: Kennan Harvey

On a map, this 800,000-acre region may seem trivial. The highest elevation is just under 10,000 feet and it lacks huge glaciers or famous peaks. But the valleys are deep and wide, and when you walk the terrain in person it’s full of little spots that become etched in your memory. Exploring sub-peaks and microdrainages that barely fit on a topographic map rewards us with views of the valleys below and perfect spring snow that makes anyone an expert skier. The Wallowas feel taller than they actually are, with striking alpine faces that seem to belong to the Swiss Alps, not the wheat and fruit fields of Oregon’s Grande Ronde Valley. Every fold in the terrain contains something unexpected and worth it.

Our guide through the treasures of the Wallowas is Victor McNeil, co-owner of Eagle Cap Mountain Guides. He, along with his wife and co-owner Kelly and their two golden retrievers, Sadie and Luna, seemingly know every nook and cranny of this land. Victor and Kelly guide us on winding skintracks, hard snow still melting in the early spring sun, and up to the top of the ski lines that cut through the pristine slopes and then weave into the forest below. Sadie and Luna rush after us, their tails twirling like propellers.

Neon signs, Wallowa style Photo: Kennan Harvey

At night, we sit on benches dug in the snow and feast on too sumptuous meals for the backcountry, courtesy of Victor and Kelly’s chef friend Aaron. On the day we head to another camp, several drainages completed, the potentially disappointing change in freeze-dried food takes precedence over a watercolor Wallowas sunset. And yet, no other human. Snowmobile tracks a few days old from another group that came before us.

As backpackers, we are always looking for something new. New trails, new mountains, new adventures. The Wallowas deliver all of this and more. On leaving, sore and sunburnt but full of gratitude, we all agree that we will be back. There is too much here to explore in one trip, and we want to familiarize ourselves with it all. To know the Wallowas, a place resistant to the pressure of the world, is to know the paradise of the hinterland itself.

Do it: The Wallowa Mountains of Oregon

How to get there Boise Airport is 2.5 hours from La Grande, OR

Guides for hire Eagle Cap Mountain Guides

Permit Nothing

Season January to mid-April for the best snow conditions