As we stood on the top of Oregon’s largest wilderness area, looking down upon mountains that spread across the horizon like rows of jagged teeth, we made a plan to celebrate by swimming in a lake partly covered by snow and ice.
From the moment we’d entered the backcountry of the Wallowa Mountains it had been hot, and during the 3,400-foot gain in elevation to our campsite at Ice Lake – and the even steeper trek to the 9,826-foot summit of the Matterhorn that morning – we’d been marinating in a cocktail of sweat, sunscreen and bug dope.
And so, when we saw the tiny blue pool sitting in an alpine meadow just below the summit, still frozen around the edges, surrounded by wildflowers with mountain views in every direction, we decided hypothermia was a perfectly acceptable risk for such deep refreshment.
“Aghhhh! Crap! Holy (expletive)!” shouted my friend Andy Gonerka as he dived into the water and quickly began sprinting out. “That doesn’t even feel like water – that’s like swimming in ice cubes.”
The discovery of Ice Cube Lake (our name for it) was one of those happy accidents of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, a 359,991-acre landscape of alpine peaks, meadows and lakes in the heart of what’s known as the Oregon Alps.
Home to 17 mountains that eclipse 9,000 feet and derived from the Nez Perce word for “land of running waters,” the Wallowas of northeastern Oregon offer what many consider the state’s best backpacking experience.
The sheer size of the backcountry means exploring the entire thing – or even a fraction of the entire thing – is impossible during a single trip.
Instead we decided on one of the area’s best adventures, the difficult but rewarding trek to Ice Lake and up the Matterhorn, a dramatic summit of white limestone and marble. At 9,826 feet, it is the Wallowa’s second-highest peak.
It required 20.4 miles and 5,517 feet of climb over three days and two nights, but brought us through an area of wild rivers, waterfalls, wildflowers, multicolored mountains and yes, tiny lakes as cold as ice cubes.
Small Towns near the Wallowas, especially Enterprise and Joseph, are worth a stop. They feature a cultivated art scene, craft food and brew pubs, music and history.
But the mountains are the destination for backpackers.
Ice Lake, surrounded by the two tallest peaks in Eastern Oregon and filled with rich blue water, sits in a multicolored basin 7,800 feet in the sky.
The beauty, high elevation and close access to the Matterhorn and Sacajawea Peak make Ice Lake a perfect base camp for climbing the Wallowa’s two highest summits.
But getting there is nowhere near easy. Beginning at Wallowa Lake Trailhead, the 8-mile hike up to the lake feels a bit like a frog being slowly boiled. The difficulty comes not all at once, but in a slow uphill grind that gradually sucks all your energy.
The first 3 miles follow the roaring West Fork Wallowa River before a cutoff for Ice Lake Trail takes you across a log bridge and uphill.
The view through sweat-soaked eyes was outstanding, though, full of meadows speckled with wildflowers like Indian paintbrush and bachelor button. The best spot was Mile 5.4, where Lower Adam Creek Falls thunders into the canyon and Upper Adam Creek Falls can be seen in the distance above.
The air felt thinner, and our legs heavier, as we climbed through the high county meadows and finally arrived at Ice Lake. We set up camp on the lake’s east side and spent the evening stuffing ourselves with beef jerky, dried fruit and freeze-dried spaghetti and meatballs, all the while enjoying the view of the mountain we planned to climb the next morning.
The Matterhorn for many years was considered the tallest peak in the Wallowa Mountains and Eastern Oregon.
It lost the title only recently, when a re-measurement found nearby Sacajawea Peak is 12 feet higher at 9,838 feet.
The Matterhorn is a bit easier to reach since a climbers’ trail takes you within striking distance of the summit in a 4.4-round-trip scramble that gains 2,117 feet in elevation from Ice Lake.
But we’d also planned to bag Sacajawea, which can be reached by following the ridgeline at the top.
We awoke to a perfect morning, bright blue and with just a few scattered clouds in the sky. The last weather report indicated nothing but hot sunshine.
The Matterhorn climbers’ trail begins from Ice Lake’s northwest shoreline, crossing a tumbling creek and heading uphill to a grassy meadow filled with blue wildflowers. Above, the route moves into the brightly colored alpine region above the tree line.
At 9,051 feet, we hiked below a massive U-shaped basin of swirling white marble with a teardrop pool among patchy snowfields. We stopped for snacks and spied a mountain goat in the distance, making its way along the cliff face.
The next push climbed a section of loose, crumbling, reddish-brown limestone – probably the toughest part of the climb – and over a ridgeline we got our first view of Ice Cube Lake, blue and sparkling among the snow in a meadow below.
The trail disappeared as we worked our way up the marble of the Matterhorn’s summit block, reaching the ridgeline with panoramic views across the wilderness.
From the summit, the Wallowa Mountains spread out in a wilderness of uniform spikes, of valleys and blue pools too numerous to place. We headed down the mountain – declaring victory on the Wallowas’ second-highest point – for a quick swim and relaxing afternoon.
Almost the moment we got down to the shores of Ice Lake, dark clouds rumbled in, high winds picked up and it began to rain, and then rain a little harder, and even harder. It would have been a miserable and dangerous thing to be high on the ridgeline in that weather.
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