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Monday, May 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Outback Skiing A Wild High Cabins Provide A Base Camp For Adventure Skiing Deep In Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness

Winter wilderness is a deceptive place.

It likes to lure you in with breathless calm and powder snow, then slam you in the butt with a dark door of storm.

“You can’t really appreciate wood stoves until you’ve been out all day in this kind of weather,” said Jeanne Panek, a graduate student from Corvallis.

In five days, Panek and her three companions had tasted a little of everything the Eagle Cap Wilderness had to offer. On the fourth day, the menu had included fog, demonic winds and wet snow that soaked through their stormproof parkas.

But even after a 9-mile tour, they yo-yoed their hearts out until daylight waned knowing that a warm, dry and spacious tent camp would be waiting for them at the end of the trail.

“This sort of takes the edge off the survival factor,” said Roger Averbeck, operator and chief guide for Wing Ridge Tours.

The sinewy guide - a forest fire fighter during summer - was heating tea water on a propane burner while the group’s wet parkas were drying over the wood stove.

Peter Rabenold was toasting in the sauna tent. Panek and Eric Berlow were munching hors d’oeuvres. Nathan Poage was plotting lines for the next day’s telemarking.

The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest of northeastern Oregon has been the region’s leader in allowing entrepreneurs to provide wilderness accommodations for backcountry skiers.

Moscow resident David Peterson has been running Wallow Alpine Huts camps in the McCully Basin for a decade. Visitors ski into one of two base camps of comfortable yurt-style sleeping and eating tents plus a sauna. The high camps are 7 miles from the trailhead.

This year, Averbeck has been authorized to run a hut operation that involves two tent camps adjacent to the wilderness plus a group of cabins on a private inholding within the wilderness boundaries.

Six Oregonians, including the foursome from Corvallis and two skiers from Joseph, joined Averbeck recently for his grand tour of the Eagle Cap.

Wing Ridge Tours offers a full-service trip in which guides pack the food and do the cooking. But this group of strong skiers chose the $25-a-day co-op option in which pairs were assigned to pack in and prepare two specific meals for the entire group.

Such a trip demands a modest level of fitness and backcountry skiing skills.

The trip begins near Wallowa Lake at 3,500 feet. Skiers climb nearly 7 miles to Aneroid Lake at 7,500 feet. Averbeck affectionately calls it Anerobic Lake.

The rustic, unplumbed cabins, site of an old mining claim, are the base camp for three days of touring and telemarking.

On day four, the tour sets out on a 9-mile day over Dollar Pass, where skiers plunge into Bonny Lakes basin and out to the luxurious tent camp on Big Sheep Creek.

The final day involves an easy 4-mile tour with virtually no elevation gain to the Salt Creek Sno-Park trailhead.

The wilderness was up to its old tricks when the group set out. The slopes beamed under brilliant sunshine and an epically blue sky. The skiers arrived at the cabins early enough to unpack and slice the untracked powder on nearby slopes before dinner.

The next morning, the group skied past Averbeck one at a time for the avalanche transceiver check, a daily ritual before heading out of camp.

Again, the weather was clear, exposing ragged ridges that cut like saw blades into the sky.

The skiers broke trail above treeline toward Tenderfoot Pass, where they dug a pit to test for avalanche danger before plunging into a telemarking frenzy.

“I didn’t actually fall up there,” said Wendall Holmes, shaking the powder out of his goggles at the base of a gully. “I just had an abrupt stop up to my armpits.”

The Corvallis skiers were 30ish, all lungs and thighs. They donned their climbing skins and zig-zagged up the slopes, absorbing the consistency of the snow in each stride, building an appreciation for the vertical, a palate for gravity and a taste for the run to come as though they were connoisseurs sniffing the bouquet of a fine wine.

“I did all the crazy stuff when I was young,” said Holmes, 15 years their senior and content to sit out a run or two. “Now all I want to do is survive long enough to get old.”

Poage and Rabenold prepared the group meal that night, a pasta and wine-sauce feast with a name that requires four years of French to pronounce. The dessert: chocolate mousse made from scratch.

Because stoves kept the temperature in the cabins above freezing despite cold weather outside, the group was able to bring salad fixings, eggs, fresh fruit, whipping cream and other foods that typically are unsatisfied cravings for winter campers.

Yet the loads were bearable because the skiers didn’t have to pack in the weight of tents, stoves or sleeping pads.

But even with such comforts, the wilderness is at best a test waiting to happen.

Midway through the trip, winter raised its ugly face in the Wallowas. The group climbed in a whiteout to Dollar Pass. Without Averbeck’s intimacy with the terrain, sensible skiers would have had to stay in the cabins.

Barely able to stand at the pass, the group paused briefly to plot the descent into Bonny Lakes. Averbeck tried shouting directions, but the wind stuffed the words back in his mouth.

Cold snow blasted goggles and scratched against cinched up Gore-Tex hoods like a sandstorm. The noise was deafening and inflicted a sense of urgency as though the group was trying to outsmart Rommel in the desert.

The wind had polished the pass to bare ice, forcing the skiers to carefully traverse into the next drainage until they reached timberline. There they found sanctuary from the wind’s rage and a wealth of powder that made for effortless turns.

Averbeck kept the group together and off the steepest runs. The reason was scoured into the south-facing slope, where a huge slab avalanche recently had uprooted ancient trees.

Down the group plunged into Big Sheep Creek and into a subtle transition. As the forest of gnarled whitebark pines and Engelmann spruce gave way to lodgepoles and Douglas firs, the snow consistency changed from fluff to mush.

One moment they were enjoying. A few turns later, were enduring.

That’s the nature of wilderness.

Following are contacts for backcountry skiing and accommodations in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon:

Wing Ridge Ski Tours, P.O. Box 714, Joseph, Ore. 97846, telephone (503) 426-4322.

Wallowa Alpine Huts, P.O. Box 9252, Moscow, Idaho 83843, telephone (208) 882-1955.

Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center, headquarters for the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Wallowa Valley, telephone (503) 426-4978, ext. 5509.

MEMO: See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: Advanced backcountry gear

This sidebar also ran with story: OUTBACK SKIING Second in a three-part series about cross country skiers who are breaking away from groomed tracks. Next Sunday: The ultimate freedom of winter camping.

See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: Advanced backcountry gear

This sidebar also ran with story: OUTBACK SKIING Second in a three-part series about cross country skiers who are breaking away from groomed tracks. Next Sunday: The ultimate freedom of winter camping.

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