What a winter of waiting it has been. I was told that “patience pays in dividends”. While the Pacific Northwest was waiting for snow this fall, a few early season e-mails that were passed between a group of scattered friends, quickly escalated into a four day yurt trip to a remote, central location. Reservations were made, my credit card was loaded, the looming Wallowa’s trip simultaneously became a beacon of light and practice of patience. Our patience paid out a handsome sum but in life’s true fashion, it was an interesting result once the money weather came in.
10 people, deep in a remote wilderness location, isolated in the northeast corner of Oregon.
Planning, organizing (that means a spreadsheet) and preparation was acted upon by all over MLK weekend in mid January as our crew gathered. Reid, Mikey, Marge, Bina and Sam from Utah, Joel from Bozeman, Ben and Nate from Bend and Kelso and I from Portland, met in Halfway, Oregon for our backcountry adventure. Our reward for our patience was a light blanket of fresh snow on our cars the morning we left for the yurt. Our guides broke trail on snowmobiles for 9 miles as we hustled our group of 10 and piles of gear, out to yurt with four sleds and two sled trailers. We were told that we were one of the fastest group to get up there on day one, which meant we got to get out and ride the twelve inches of new snow deposited at 7,000 feet.
We saluted our guides goodbye at the end of the first day while the sun was transitioning to a rich alpine glow. Three bottomless, smooth, mellow runs had been ridden. There was a positive feeling by all that we had put ourselves in a really special place. The sleds were fired back up for some sunset pow surfer runs and classic western throttle pulling. It was the kind of scene that makes you feel at home in the backcountry. We knew we had hit it good, the trip was already paying out. We made it to the Wallowa’s for their best snow of the early season, which covered up a two week old sunbaked crust.
The Norway yurt, operated by the Wallowa Alpine Huts, is a two story, 20ft yurt, dubbed “Yurt Star Galactica”. It’s a little oasis perched at 7000 feet, on the edge of the wilderness boundary. The burned forrest that the yurt sit within, stares northeast into the heart of the Norway basin mountains. Steep chutes, big bowls and rugged alpine cliffs awaits whoever scores the proper weather window. Unfortunately for our trip, that was not us. Good weather or bad, the yurt is alway there for you though and it served our group of 10 well, with comfortable lodging. I’m sure many groups spend the majority of the their trip hunkered down by the wood stove drinking hot toddy’s and trying to eat through the massive amount of food they brought. That was not how our trip started but by day three, we where becoming real tight with our little home.
We rode out a major snow storm at the yurt. The cold weather that had us clambering for wood early in the morning on day two, transitioned into a warm wet air flow. The warm-up hit hard, ending our ridding early this trip. By day three, we were dealing with a compacted wet mass of new snow that had a quickly forming ice crust on top. Despite the boarding coming to an end, the yurt kept on giving.
Our sleeping quarters where up stairs. The bunks were spacious and comfortable for our group of 10. With the boarding not looking so good and the kegs still too heavy, we stayed out of the sleeping den on night two and three as long as we could. The group rallied with Kelso leading the charge. There was keg beer to drink and a party to attend down stairs near the wood stove and food. A yurt band was formed using Nate’s many simple instruments he brought along. A guitar and bongo drum that live in the yurt, helped us to create a yurt moving sound. The Pine Martin Express was born, cards were dealt and goofy hats were handed out.
There is no bad time to be trapped in a yurt. When the ridding went to shit, this crew had no problem keeping each other fired up to be alone in the wilderness.
Our turns were compressed into two days. The snow was so deep and fresh that we stayed close to camp on mellow slopes. The aspects we found outside our doorstep were steep enough to allow for good turns in bottomless snow. The runs in the distance however, looked game changing. Sitting an hour or two walk away on the other side of the basin, lay the crown jewels of the area. For this trip, we needed to be content with our two feet of fresh snow and pretty views after the storm moved out. The bigger mountains got loaded up and then crusted over before we could lay tracks on them.
We split into multiple touring groups for faster travel and safer turns. Moving efficiently through new terrain, the teams played it safe and rode well, coming home for dinner at the end of the day. I had the pleasure of ridding with Nate, Ben and Joel on day two. The four of us made laps on Simmon’s ridge with shit eating grins. I was so stoked to be reunited and riding with Joel after a few seasons apart. Our radio communication was almost as high as our enjoyment. The snow was hammering so hard that the camera made only one appearance. There were turns made that I will remember for some time to come.
The Wallows are remote. It takes a special type of person to get excited about walking for turns deep in the backcountry after having driven for many hours to get there. The complications of getting gear to the yurt, 9 miles into the mountains and 2000 feet of vertical gain, added flair to the trip. Packing food, stuffing snowmobiles and snowmobile trailers with gear, we worked together to move as a large unit in and out of the Wallowa’s. I must admit that I couldn’t be happier with the camaraderie and skill level of everyone on the trip. “Team Utah” rolled up five deep in one truck towing two sleds. Talk about “ready for business”. They are a strong group of riders who feel very comfortable assessing terrain and snowpack. Thank you all for your effect, patience and financial willingness to make the trip possible.
Our yurt fee started at $200 a head. By the time we added in additional lodging, a mandatory first day guide, pony kegs and food, we hit $300 each. Gas to get there, random supplies and lots of extra food probably increased the trip spend quite a bit per person. Nevertheless, I heard no complaints and receive quick re-payments, leaving me feeling very successful in our adventure.
There are big lines in Norway Basin. When I lay eyes on terrain that can present a puckering challenge, it’s inspiring and motivating. I will head back Norway next season in search of bigger turns on higher peaks.
Photos: Sam Woolf and Tyler Davis, shot on two different 35mm film cameras.