Ice Lake (Eagle Cap Wilderness) 8/11-Aug-2013

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon
I had managed to live in Oregon for years without making the effort to backpack in the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon, home of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Some dayhikes, but no real backcountry stuff.  So finally I just made time amongst work, business travel, and everyday living for a quick trip east. Leaving Portland at 4:00AM on Thursday, I made it to the Wallowa Lake Trailhead at 10:00AM – to find the parking area only half full. Predictably – since it’s either the first or second most popular destination in the Eagle Cap Wilderness (the Lakes Basin may be first) – I’d chosen Ice Lake as my goal, with the idea of maybe hiking the Matterhorn and Sacajawea Peak as well.

The West Fork Wallowa River Trail (#1820) is pretty horse-chewed to start, but is more of a people trail by the time it’s gone the three miles to its junction with the Ice Lake Trail (#1808). Despite the (erroneous) warning signs at the trailhead about the bridge over the West Fork being out, there’s now a great footbridge here.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

The footbridge over the West Fork

From there, it was up a lot of switchbacks, through a meadow where the trail takes a break between sets of switchbacks,

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Crossing a meadow with wildflowers on the Ice Lake Trail

then more switchbacks, with a view down the canyon of the West Fork,

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

A view down the West Fork

to my first view of Ice Lake – very, very impressive. Yes, I’ve seen a lot of lakes in my 40+ years in the outdoors but I still find it impossible to be jaded in any way by the beauty to be found in the mountains.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Ice Lake

I got to the lake by 2:00PM (on a Thursday) which meant that I had the pick of the many campsites around its east side, across its outlet. So I setup on a peninsula that juts west into the lake,

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Camp at Ice Lake

with a commanding view of Craig Mountain, and bug-defying breezes (not that bugs were ever much of an issue).

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Craig Mountain across Ice Lake

Early Friday morning, it was calm and a little overcast but that didn’t stop a color-fest from breaking out on the mountains across the lake,

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Morning light on Ice Lake and the Matterhorn

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Morning light on Ice Lake and the Matterhorn

There’s a clear, but steep, use trail leading around the north side of the lake and up to the Matterhorn. Taking it, I had a good view back to the lake and my campsite on the peninsula.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Ice Lake from the Matterhorn use trail

Early on, the overcast was mixed with some smoke – apparently from fires to the east – which gave a peachy, rosy glow to the morning.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

A smoke-tinged sunrise over Ice Lake

As I climbed higher, odd poop began appearing in and around the trail – a mystery which was resolved when I came across a herd of mountain goats grazing on a high meadow across the way.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Mountain goats (arrow) grazing below the Matterhorn

Soon the tedium of the constant “up” was relieved by my first sighting of Eagle Cap to the south, across the tortured geology of the ridge I was ascending.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Eagle Cap with Matterhorn’s south ridge in the foreground

And then, from Matterhorn’s summit, another view of Eagle Cap,

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Eagle Cap from the summit of the Matterhorn

the ridge out to Sacajawea Peak,

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

The ridge leading out to Sacajawea Peak

and of Sacajawea Peak itself.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

The rounded summit of Sacajawea Peak

Leaving the Matterhorn, I hiked north along the ridge, below Point 9775, with the intent of climbing Sacajawea. About 0.2 miles from its summit, I ran into loose rock, sand over loose rock, and a confusing array of goat and people trails. Mindful that I was solo hiking, without back-up, 10 miles in, I decided to forego Sacajawea for another day {finally climbed it via Thorp Creek in 2016}. So I headed back south, over the summit of Point 9775, then turned east from there toward Point 9509. From the saddle between these two points, I’d seen a use trail descending an interminable sand and scree slope toward the lake.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

A scree slope plunges towards Ice Lake

It was easy descending this route,

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

My descent route (arrow) down the scree slope

but it would be punishment for ALL of your sins – real, imagined, and hoped for – to have to climb up it. After one last look back on the morning’s work,

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Matterhorn over Ice Lake

I spent the afternoon enjoying the lake, watching more than a few other backpackers arrive, and taking “art” shots.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

A log in Ice Lake

Friday night, as I was watching backpacker after backpacker arrive in search of a campsite, I smelled smoke and before I could start searching for the idiot who’d started a campfire, saw a large cloud of smoke come boiling over the ridge and discolor the sun.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Smoke pours over the ridge

A little disconcerting because it wasn’t at all clear whether it had blown in from far away or from a new fire just over the next ridge. Oddly, within about two hours, it had all dissipated, and I spent the night unimolated under clear skies. Next morning, it was down and out to the trailhead, which was now full of cars. There were at least a half-dozen backpackers coming up the trail so it was probably good have left the lake at the start of the weekend (unless you like A LOT of company in the out-of-doors). And, judging from the later weather reports, I may have also dodged a set of nasty thunderstorms that swept through northeast Oregon over the next few days.

Ice Lake Matterhorn Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

The trailhead parking lot was full by late Saturday morning

A short trip (21 miles roundtrip; 5,300 feet elevation) but one with good timing with respect to Ice Lake’s apparently wild popularity. On reflection, the Wallowas and California’s High Sierras are equal in stature – for different reasons – and I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to spend time in both, both as a solo hiker and with the LovedOne.

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