Conquer the Piles of Powder in the Wallowas

There's a reason they call it Oregon’s “Little Switzerland.”

By Christopher Van Tilburg February 23, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Amy Martin

Some of the lightest, deepest snow in the West graces the grand peaks, rugged canyons, steep treed slopes, gentle glades, wide-open bowls, and jagged crags of the Wallowa Mountains, towering in Oregon’s northeast corner. Though it clocks in at 400 inches annually, the snow is often featherweight compared to hefty Cascade Cement. Typically, blue sky abounds. And best of all: you’ll have the place to yourself. 

Wallowa Alpine Huts (WAH) outfits a weekend ski tour at Norway Basin Yurt, dubbed Yurtstar Galactica. (The double-decker is perched on a ridge overlooking the expansive southern end of the 350,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness.) To reach the yurt, you drive through picturesque cattle country studded with old barns and sprawling ranches, then bunk at WAH’s Carson House in Halfway. Wake the next morning to share a giant farm breakfast with your guides and discuss the plan. From there, it’s a raucous six-mile tug behind a guide’s snowmobile to the defunct mining site of Cornucopia. Then you skin three miles and 2,000 vertical feet to the 20-foot-diameter, two-story spaceship. Yurtstar sleeps 10, with a common room and a cozy attached wood-fired sauna. Hearty breakfasts are augmented with dinners of Pacific salmon, pork medallions, and free-range beef. Torpedo kegs from Enterprise’s Terminal Gravity Brewery are available on request.

The real bliss is skiing the pristine Wallowa Mountain backcountry—as majestic as the Alps, with deep powder like the Canadian Rockies. Expert guides lead you to the choice routes: test your ski mountaineering skills on an ascent of 9,555-foot Red Mountain and carve up Granite Cirque, make powder laps in the trees of Blue Creek Canyon, or stay closer to the yurt and yo-yo the gentler glades of Simmons Ridge.

When it’s time to go, just serenely schuss all the way to your car. How’s that for a weekend at the mountain?

Wallowa Alpine Huts

The Hut Necessities

In addition to backcountry ski gear, cram these cabin essentials in a 60-liter waterproof duffel for embarkation on Yurtstar Galactica:

Down booties are necessary for zipping outside to the sauna (or refilling your IPA).

A cotton T-shirt is comfy for indoor shenanigans and slumbering.

Don’t forget spare gloves, hat, socks, and underwear. 

Blister bandages are vital: if you don’t need them, someone will.

A headlamp, with extra batteries, is key for reading or midnight jaunts to the john.

Bring a suit for the sauna … or not.

Earplugs help drown out snores from bunkmates.

For good measure, a bottle of Temperance American Whiskey from Bull Run Distillery.

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