My First AT Ski Trip // The Wallowa Mountains, Oregon

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Colin and I have been carefully planning our last months before his upcoming venture to Alaska, which has included a couple of backcountry ski and snowboard trips together. We had some dates and destinations locked in, but spontaneity took the reins last Thursday and we hit the road to the Wallowa Mountains the moment I was off the clock on Friday evening.

It’s a hefty six-hour drive from Portland, but that didn’t phase us. I’d rather spend six hours driving to a stunning location than six hours chilling at home, not doing anything particularly exciting. It was a plus that it was MLK weekend and Mt. Hood Meadows would be unappealingly packed to the gills – the Wallowas, on the other hand, is off the grid just enough to achieve solitude and countless powder runs.

I rented an AT set-up from Portland’s Mountain Shop for a manageable fee of $55 (for tres días), which included boots, skis, and skins – poles too, but I already had ‘em – in case any of you Portlanders are looking to dip your toes in the world of backcountry.

We arrived at Salt Creek Summit Sno-Park outside of Joseph, Oregon late Friday night. We slept in the car, which was less than desirable with temps dropping into the teens. The cold woke me up countless times throughout the night, so when it came to our 7 AM wake-up call, I was not a happy camper. As we… Or I guess I should say I slowly made efforts to get prepared for the adventure ahead of us, a fellow AT skier shared a fun tidbit of info with Colin; the building adjacent to the parking lot is open to the public, so people like us could sleep there and get an early start the following day… And it has a fire stove. Well, I guess that’s good to know for next time. 🙂

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After layering up, warming our boots and linings, and slapping on the skins, we were off! It took a few skates to adjust to AT skiing. I had expected it to be similar to cross-country skiing, but AT is more stepping and less gliding than XC, but it was nice to not worry about sliding backwards. For those of you who don’t know, skins are these strips of nylon or mohair with glue on one side and the fur-like material on the other. The “fur” allows you to slide forward but provides resistance when rubbed the opposite way, so you can’t slip back. It seems like such an advanced idea, but they have been around since the dawn of skiing.

Thanks to a friend, I was also stocked up on the necessary avalanche gear – beacon, probe, and shovel. After we warmed up on the trail, Colin gave me a 1-on-1 avalanche rescue lesson. Again, I didn’t realize how cutting-edge all the avy equipment is; it’s built to be compact, packable, yet easy to assemble and use effectively. Using the beacon baffled me at first, but Colin is an awesome teacher and put everything into layman’s terms for me… I’m such a backcountry newb. I think I made him slightly nervous, because I did fidget with the probe for a hot minute and my beacon skills were not 100% on the first try.

Colin just got back from an avalanche course, hence his expertise on the subject – an avy course is highly recommended for anyone looking to venture out into the backcountry. I have done a lot of reading up on avalanches, on top of Colin’s tutorials, but nothing compares to the knowledge gained from an official class. These courses require a couple of days spent off the grid in avalanche-prone terrains, with AT ski gear and guides.

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As you can probably imagine, AT skiing is a workout. It’s like performing a million lunges up a hill. Fortunately, taking numerous breaks is the norm, because no one wants to be drained of energy before the sought-after drop from the top. Despite my multiple rests, that all-too-familiar headache paired with nausea started to wash over me; I felt lightheaded and the thought of inching to the summit seemed unbearable. We decided to stop short (thank goodness) and while I took a pre-ski breather, Colin did a shovel test on our surroundings’ snow.

The shovel test fascinated me so much that I almost forgot I felt like crap. You use a snow saw to cut out a block of snow then hold your shovel on top or on the bottom of the block (depending on the type of test you’re doing), then you hit the opposite side to test the reaction of your impact and take note of the formed slabs. This can gauge the likelihood of an avalanche and the safety of the snow to determine your approach to skiing down (and if you should ski down at all).

I tried to put the fact I was feeling like shit out of my mind as I threw my skis into downhill mode to begin our descent. In avalanche terrain, it’s important to go one at a time so you and your partner can have each other’s backs in a bad situation. It’s riskier to be the first to disturb the untouched snow, but that means the second person should be well-versed in avalanche rescue.

The powder was unbelievable. We found this amazing bowl where I took my best run of the weekend. I was having trouble getting used to the skis; they were wider, longer (by ten centimeters!), and the bindings were set much farther back than I was used to, so I was more comfortable turning in wide open areas while meandering through the trees got a little hairy.

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We attempted to ski to the car, but my last bouts of energy dissolved quickly so I strapped on the skins again so I could better maneuver uphill. When we got to our home base, I was beyond ready to call it a day as my headache had worsened drastically… And then I got sick in the parking lot. P.S. Garlic Chili Pepper beef jerky is not fun the second time.

Colin sweetly dealt with my buzzkill of a situation and we headed back into Joseph to one of the three, possibly four, restaurants to refuel. I grabbed a Gatorade to replenish my electrolytes and felt infinitely better. As my illness subsided, we ventured to the picturesque Wallowa Lake and checked out the Wallowa Lake Tramway, while dodging a parade of quails on the way.

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We booked a room at Mountain View Hotel – check it out if you’re ever in the area! Colin and I tend to prefer free options like the tent or car, but $55 for a night of drying out our ski clothes, a comfy bed, and warmth was worth it. We had our own personal apres ski session… Cooking up sausages out on the porch and washing ’em down with beers and cheap whiskey.

I went into the second day feeling infinitely wiser and prepared. I felt more confident in using my avalanche equipment and my AT skis. I also felt like I had perfected layering and found a working solution to my whole issue of feeling sick – which we are now attributing to a combo of low electrolytes + anxiety (because that’s the only explanation as to why it happens only on day one). My cure? I brought along Gatorade to drink throughout the trip (with water) and I tested out some calming techniques to ease my subconscious nervousness.

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It helped that we had a positive start to the day – the sun was shining, our clothes were dry, and we got to get ready in a cozy hotel. But as we all know, weather in the mountains is the most unpredictable. We made it a few dozen feet shy of the tippy top of the mountain when the weather became less than favorable. Strong gusts of winds made my heart skip a beat. I stared at the cornice above, just waiting for a wave of snow to come rushing towards me.

We were fine, of course, and had another terrific run through tons of fresh powder! We anticipated day two to be our long day of numerous runs, but the bad weather followed us to the bottom and we called it quits. It’s important to know when to throw in the towel and not push the limits. We knew today wasn’t our long day after all, and that was ok because we were pretty satisfied with our one run anyways.

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My debut on AT skis was thrilling and I learned so much from our weekend in the backcountry, from avalanche fundamentals to the in’s and out’s of AT ski gear. My New Year’s Resolution was to do something that scared me, and I can consider that checked off. It was great to get away from the city, as well as the resort, for a couple of days and cozy back up with the wilderness – something I’ve been missing with the winter weather and the consequential lack of hiking. Plus the adrenaline high is something you can’t find on the groomers… I now understand what the beauty of “earning your turns.”

The second I got home, I began scouring Craig’s List for a used AT set-up. Uh oh, I think I’m already addicted…

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Hike Trip Takeaways:

– Backcountry skiing requires a lot of adjusting and is not for the lazy; if you’re unwilling to keep up, you must be willing to deal with the consequences. If you’re feeling hot, stop and strip off a layer; if you’re feeling cold, stop and put one on… Not doing so can result in hypothermia. If the hill is steep, stop and flip down a riser (not called a “heel-thingy,” by the way) to make conquering a mountain slightly easier. If it’s flat, stop and flip it back down. Get used to adjusting your skis from touring to downhill mode and putting on/taking off your skins. Unlike resort skiing, backcountry is not as simple as strap in and go. On the plus side, it really put me in tune with my body – sometimes I feel like I deal with certain situations because it’s easier to, like putting up with an uncomfortable backpack instead of re-packing it or tweaking the straps, and it’s a bad habit to get into. AT skiing motivated me to just do it.

– When AT skiing, or doing any strenuous outside activity during the winter, dress for how you predict to feel after a solid 15-30 minutes of movement. For example, don’t wear your Merino Wool layers, a fleece jacket, your rain shell, and an insulated ski jacket when you know you’ll be sweating in no time. Sweat = moisture = cooling = hypothermia! But keep that ski jacket in your backpack for downtime, like lunch; it gets chilly quick when you’re not moving around!

– Perhaps I’m finally nailing down the culprit of my first-day-nausea… I’m going to experiment with electrolyte drinks and anti-anxiety exercises, and hopefully I can prevent it all together. It has come in between me and having a great day way too many times!

– … And lastly, I learned a lot about avalanches. But let’s save that for another post.

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6 responses to “My First AT Ski Trip // The Wallowa Mountains, Oregon

  1. Very cool. Congrats on your first BC ski experience! I’ve only skied in Oregon once (for one day) and our outing looked very similar to this one. G’luck on your upcoming trip and future AT adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

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