Thursday, August 8, 2013

West Forkin' in the Wallowas

Wallowa Lake
Many people have seen the grandeur of Wallowa Lake; it's proud moraines and towering peaks.  People come from all over to swim in the clear alpine waters coming out of the heart of the Wallowa Mountain range, to take the tram up to Anaroid Peak and peer across Hells Canyon into the vast Idaho Wilderness, and to enjoy the bucolic countryside of Wallowa County.

So far as I'm concerned, that's stuff's cool and all, but it ain't the main event. There lies a hidden gem at the head of the lake that has been overlooked by tourists and locals alike.  The West Fork of the Wallowa has a trail that begins along a boxed in granite gorge that you can't avoid if you're on the trail.  As it nears the lake, it takes a turn to the West and drops over a hidden waterfall, with no good view points unless you're standing right over it.  It's hidden enough that the vast majority of  folks that I've talked to that have been up the trail have no idea there's a 40 foot series of drops right before the creek flattens out and hits the lake.  Amazing what people miss right under their nose!

When you do find it and you stand over it, what you see is a beautiful piece of whitewater, technical, big, and consequential.  The drop consists of a 5 foot ledge into a 8 foot ledge, kinda like double drop on the truss, but smoother and smaller, and the second drop slams into a giant boil, turns 70 degrees to the left, splits into two flows, the careens off a 25 footer that's sloping on the left with a reconnect and spouting on the right out of a bath-tub slot.  Add a deep cave on the left and a nasty pocket on the right and you've got yourself a nice little stout, one we lovingly call "Boy Scout Falls"  for the boy scout camp just downstream. 

I've stood above the falls and stared into the canyon dozens of times, at all manner of flows, and only a few times have I decided to go back to the car, gear up and go for it.  When it's too high,  the boil off the wall consumes the whole flow and the pocket and cave combo at the bottom looks marginally survivable at best.  When it's too low, the top ledges get chunky, the reconnect looks painful on the left, and the bath tub line would do an aweful number on your elbows and/or face.  That leaves a limited flow window that's fortunately pretty reliable before and after Lostine season, so we always get the chance to run it in early spring and mid-summer.

Connor Ross and I mustered up the gusto to go for it this summer, after all our other local runs had last their water to the long hot days of summer. With a great support crew, sunny weather, and high spirits, we went up there and had a good time of it, with some extra excitement thrown in for good measure.  More on that later.

But now, Con and Matt's guide on how to run boy scout-   you start the trip with a 5 minute walk then lowering your boat down a steep cliff into the canyon (if you don't run the gorge, which is unfortunately full of wood at the moment (on my winter to-do list)).

Once you get down to water level, you boat about 50 yards of mank then catch the scouting eddy at the lip.

Once you get to the eddy, hop out, take one last scout from river level, and feel your heart beat faster.  You didn't realize how big it is until now.  And that turn of the second ledge looks like anything could happen.  And although you can hike out from here, it's difficult, and you've already got your buddies set up for safety and media, so you might as well give it a go.

You hop in your boat and splash some water on your face.  The fear melts away and all that's left is commitment and pure presence  (Jacob once told me "you know you're running something really hard when you aren't scared anymore," so true).  You peel out of the eddy, ride the ramp in the first ledge, whiteout, boof the second, whiteout, line it up, stroke at the lip, land, and WAHOO!  You've made it to the bottom! 

Matt King First Ledge

Lining it up.  Note the thin line between the fuck you rock on the left and the bathtub.

Loving the late stroke!

Connor Ross First Ledge

Connor Boil Bashin'

Lining it up, bathtub just off his right blade

Coming off the lip, looking good.

Now, as you might notice in the photos, this line is pretty thin.  You don't want to go into the bathtub (at least nobody has tried that line yet), and being out of control/upside-down would likely result in a hospital visit if you bounced off the reconnect on the left.  Not to mention getting through the top two ledges.  This particular day illustrated the thin-ness of the line; Connor came off the lip looking good, but ended up a little bow-right on landing.  He subbed out (which pretty much always happens on this drop), and came up in the water from the spout on the right (underwater).  He felt his skirt implode and was able to come up upright.  Much to our dismay, he was in the nasty pocket on the right, and had to swim.  He was able to get stable on a shelf, and we started to work out the extraction.  

Connor stable on the ledge.

First we got a bag to him from river right, and we got his kayak and paddle roped out of there.

Safety spot/rope throwing ledge.
Boat Recovery.
Once we got his gear out, he decided to free climb a portion of the wall to a vantage point, from there he would either continue up, or jump into the main flow and thus avoid a scenic undercut swimming tour from trying to rope him out of the pocket.

Once he got to this ledge, he paused to take in a new view of the falls (the second new view since nobody has seen it from river level on the right) while we set up a belay for the second, and much steeper and exposed pitch.  We used a hodgepodge of gear to get him on belay, and he climbed out without issue.  All in all, it was a pretty textbook rescue, and actually kinda fun.  Even Connor enjoyed it (although he was bummed that we didn't have time to do another lap)!

The La Grande Branch of the Into the Outside Crew

All in all, another great day on the river, big thanks to Aaron and Damiana Maxwell and Silje Christoffersen for their support and safety and media.  We wouldn't have done it without you! And thanks to Kathie Baird for remembering a couple hours later at Terminal Gravity that Connor needed to do a booty beer, which he dutifully drank, the first ever in the TG grotto!

The dogs decided to not R2 it this particular day.  Maybe next time!

A trailer style video showing some of the classic whitewater in the Wallowa's

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