On Wednesday, August 31, I joined Larry Luehring at the McBride Campground in the Wallowa Whitman National Forest near Halfway, Oregon. Our plan was to pack in to Crater Lake on the south side of the Wallowa Mountains and to subsequently climb both Red Mountain and Krag Peak from our camp.
Larry and I were high school friends. I had first started hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and mountain climbing in Oregon with Larry during our college years. Larry now lives near Portland, Texas, and I had not seen him for 13 years. We reconnected in the context of a July high school reunion which, in the end, neither of us could attend.
Larry had other reasons to travel out to Oregon and he talked me into joining him for another backpack into the Wallowas. We had first backpacked there 50 years earlier. Several times since I have visited the Wallowas. Larry had never returned there and was eager to do so. I had not backpacked for 8 years and it had been 5 years for him, so we both had some work to do to assemble our gear, food, and fuel.
Packing in to Crater Lake
On my drive to the campground on Wednesday I had spotted a large smoke plume that seemed to rise from near Crater Lake. I stopped by the Forest Ranger station in Halfway and learned that there were three fires in the Wallowa Mountains, but beyond some smoke we should not be turned back from Crater Lake by the fires.
So on Thursday, September 1, Larry and I left McBride Campground and drove to the Summit Point Trailhead. Here we left our cars and started packing in to Crater Lake on the Summit Point and Cliff Creek Trails. It was a smoky and hot day with much heavier packs than we were accustomed to, so we made slow progress.
We were pleased to find a flowing spring beside the trail at one spot and refilled our water containers. If I could have found a good campsite nearby we might have made camp there with plans for longer summit days. In hindsight, we were glad we continued on to Crater Lake.
After the spring we crossed two passes and descended across talus slopes towards Crater Lake and arrived at the lake quite tired. Eventually we found a pleasant campsite above the lake out of sight of anyone else who should pass by. Red Mountain rose to the east of us and we clearly saw the steep talus and scree slopes we would have to climb the next day.
It was late afternoon so after setting up camp and filtering water from the lake we had dinner. My cooking gear worked well after so many years. I rehydrated myself, enjoyed dinner, and made a quick repair of my neglected old tent. We then settled in early for a hopefully refreshing night for the challenge of Red Mountain the next day.
Climbing Red Mountain
On Friday morning, September 2, Larry and I left our campsite at Crater Lake in the Wallowa Mountains to climb nearby Red Mountain.
The consensus of several climbers’ reports of the ascent was to avoid treacherous rock bands and take on the steep talus and scree slopes directly to gain the south ridge. From there, the route follows the ridge up to the summit with one spot of exposure. We expected another hot day after our pack in the previous day.
We found our way through forest to reach the base of a long talus slope. From there, we starte climbing directly up the talus. We crossed a column of trees into a shallow gully to the left, then climbed to a second column of trees further left. The footing was reportedly firmer here, but we found the loose rocks covering firm soil to be frustrating and slow to ascend.
Fortunately, the talus slopes were in morning shade and we did not have the heat we had experienced the day before. Eventually Larry and I found our own ways up slopes to the south ridge above us. We regrouped and rested in the shade of weather-stunted trees before continuing higher.
The south ridge was much more fun to climb. There was some loose talus, but some firmer rock as well, and the slope was less steep. The reported “knife edge” was easy to cross on firm rock and soon we were on the summit.
From the summit the wildfire smoke was most pronounced to the northeast. Otherwise, we had good views of most of the Wallowa Mountains. We noted Krag Peak rising above Crater Lake below us and we discussed possible routes for the next day’s climb.
I recognized several peaks I had climbed in the past and many candidates for future climbs. There are so many peaks in the Wallowa Mountains. I will pick out a few most important and feasible for me to visit over the next few years.
We visited a subsidiary summit for better views of the fire to the northeast, then returned to the summit and descended towards camp. The talus and scree slopes required more care on the descent. We both took our falls with only minor scrapes. Once into the forest we attempted a more direct route back to camp. But we spent more time traversing forested slopes and thrashing through brush than we had in the morning.
It had been another long day and we were glad to return to camp. We filtered more water, cleaned up a bit in the lake, enjoyed dinner, and relaxed the evening in camp. Krag Peak was the next day’s goal and we expected an easier climb than today’s.