While visiting the Wallowas back in January, I had the opportunity to hook up for a ski tour with Keith Stebbings, the director and lead forecaster of the newly minted Wallowa Avalanche Center. Keith posts condition summaries online each Friday at www.wallowaavalanchecenter.org. Keith’s reports give a detailed synopsis of the current snowpack along with snow profiles and photographs illustrating layers of concern. If you’re looking for a no-brainer, color-coded hazard rating, this might not be your type of report. But if you like snow science, then Keith’s are as good a read as any.
With January’s unstable snowpack under our feet, getting in turns was not necessarily the objective, but hanging out with the local avy pro sounded like a good idea considering the conditions. Keith was heading out to check on the Mount Howard Snotel site, and to scout out some areas for an upcoming search and rescue training in addition to gathering snowpack data for the weekly report. The skin up Mount Howard is about 4 ½ miles on an access road that climbs to the top at 8250’. The narrow road winds through dense forest as it gradually ascends an east facing drainage. The rounded top of Howard is relatively open granting views up McCully Basin and East Peak to the south, Wallowa Lake and Chief Joseph Mountain to the northwest, and the Blue Mountains in the distance to the north. The open slopes around the summit are low angled enough that we were not concerned with the almost constant settling going on under foot.
While Keith took care of WAC business, we explored around. From our vantage we spent quite a bit of time pointing out tasty looking ski lines all around. Given the poor stability at the time, our best line of the day was a mere 400’ vert on a 20-degree slope. But with a good layer of pow on the surface, I was quickly reminded how easily I’m amused with skis on my feet. Smooth turns through sparsely spaced saplings are always fun. We then met back up with Keith, did a little digging around in the snow with him (always good to take advantage of someone who knows more than you do), and took one final run off the top. The day finished with a quick decent back down the access road.
If you spend any time in the Wallowas, consider donating to the Avalanche Center. The Wallowa Mountains are a unique range with a snowpack that is not well represented by other forecasting centers. Especially if you only visit once or twice a year and cannot regularly follow conditions, the Wallowa Avalanche Center provides an invaluable resource. – Jason Leslie