Dispatches: Ski Touring in Oregon’s Wallowa Range

For four days, I didn’t know the time. Without a phone or watch to tell me what to do, I was free.

Hidden nine miles into the Oregon backcountry, Norway Yurt is a small slice of heaven. Outfitted with bunk beds, a wood stove, a wide assortment of pots and pans for cooking and a sprawling map of the surrounding mountains, the circular yurt has everything you need – and not much more (Wifi and cell service are not included).

This is Andy Cochrane’s Dispatch from the mountains of Eastern Oregon, during which he and a group of ten friends embarked on a backcountry trip to ski powder, soak in the January sun, and for a brief moment, forget all the trouble of the real world. Here’s a look at what his time ski touring in the Wallowa Range looked like, told through photos.

Without a connection to the outside world, I stuffed my phone deep in my pack. I wanted to live – at least temporarily – without the constraints of minutes and hours.

Our daily ritual was to rise with the sun, start a fire in the stove, melt snow for drinking water, share a communal breakfast, and then ski. We would ski until the sun set or our legs fell off, whichever came first. We carried headlamps in case we were having too good of a time and kept skiing past sunset.

The yurt – an insulated canvas structure less than 20 feet in diameter – was our home base. A place to cook, dry skins and boot liners, and plan ambitious routes for the following day.

From inside, the views were tantalizing – Red, Granite and Norway Peaks would tease us each night with rich reds and purples, and stunning lines. The group worked together to complete the basic chores, and shared meals each morning and night. During the day we’d split into small groups to move faster, and see more.

We explored nearby ridges, glades and steep tree-laden slopes, constantly searching for untouched powder. As the days progressed we ventured further and further from the hut, arduously climbing up to the top of ridges and peaks, searching out new tracks.

The lifestyle was simple, cyclical: Skin to the top of a ridge, adjust your bindings, ski down, re-adjust bindings, repeat.

At night we shared stories of big falls and perfect turns, drank beer, refueled with carb-heavy feasts, made toasts, and drank more beer (shameless plug for Mammoth Brewing Company, the best craft beer I’ve ever had) – and when so inclined, would walk outside to howl as a group at the moon.

During the days, for farther-out objectives, we would pack lunch to go. Other breaks included digging pits (like the one shown above) to check snow stability, and ripping skins as part of the transition from uphill mode to downhill. Some of the steep peaks required crampons and ice axes, and in turn, offered us some of the best skiing of our lives.

The snowpack was stable, the area was essentially untouched before us, and the snow was over a foot deep. That is to say, conditions were perfect. And even better than the conditions was the company.

As with most ski touring, 90% of your time is the slow and steady march uphill, dreaming of the fleeting moments you get to slide down the other way. The skin track gives you time to think and reflect, connect with those suffering with you and scheme lines to ski down.

Darkness came early – just after 5 p.m. – and we would huddle together for warmth inside the yurt’s kitchen. Some would cook, others would play cards and most of us would muse about the day that was. Photos of these hours just don’t do it justice, but that’s alright.

On our last couple days we went after our biggest objectives, and with the help of the snow gods, were able to accomplish everything we went for.

The skin and ascent up to Norway Peak was long – a total climb of 3,000 feet – but well worth it for the turns on the way down. Here you can see a few of the lines we skied our last day, taking in this magical range on our way back to the yurt and later, back to the real world.

All photos by Andy Cochrane.

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