- Story and photos
by Rochelle Danielson
There's nothing like a trek to Ice Lake and a climb up the Matterhorn to rejuvenate your soul.
Outdoor adventure in Northeast Oregon's Wallowa Mountains has proved so invigorating for a group of us gals that it's become an annual event.
We've done day-hikes to Maxwell and Chimney lakes, campouts in Copper Creek, and several stays in the Lakes Basin. Two summers ago we challenged the more than 9,500-foot Eagle Cap Mountain. It was not a pretty sight, but we made it.
This year we were ready to do a mountain again, only this time we'd tackle the mighty white-domed Matterhorn at nearly 9,850 feet.
Day one of the three-day, 8-mile hike into the Ice Lake basin began at the East Fork of the Wallowa trailhead, at Wallowa Lake.
The East Fork is a gradual climb in elevation. It's flanked by lofty mountains on both sides, and follows closely the banks of the Wallowa River. Along this trail we moseyed, picking berries, chasing butterflies, listening to the rush of water and observing a Western Tanager.
At the junction, the 5-mile Ice Lake trail one of the most scenic in the Eagle Cap begins a gentle climb at the bridge that crosses the river. The path meanders a fairly open slope until it approaches Adam Creek where the rocky incline becomes seriously steep. Back and forth, and higher and higher, the trail ascends until it rises above the gorge, and levels off at the top of Adam Falls.
At this point the canyon and waterfalls are spectacular. For us, this panoramic view erased any pain we'd suffered burning thighs, shaky legs and achy shoulders.
The trail proceeds into a bowl. As we hiked along, wildflowers bloomed in yellows, reds, purples and white. A side stream flowed across the path. We rock-hopped to the other side. A section of a weathered, uprooted tree trunk that lay just off the trail became a resting spot. Water quenched our thirst as we listened to the forest.
A return to the trail took us another hour in strenuous exercise to ascend the forested mountainside. At the last of 14 switchbacks, and over a small rise, the basin came into view blue water, white granite and red rock in Technicolor and 3-D to those of us who graduated high school in the 1950s and '60s.
We set up camp on the hillside a quarter-mile from the lake. Tired, but relaxed, we stared into a fire, searched the stars, spotted the Big Dipper and watched the moon rise above the Bonneville Mountains and East Peak. A couple of mule deer wandered by, and pika darted around rocks, hoping for a handout.
At dawn's morning light Cathy awoke and unzipped the tent flap to peek outside. A heavy layer of frost covered everything. We all moaned, and snuggled deeper into our sleeping bags.
A cool wind blew throughout the day, but proved excellent weather to climb the centurion mountain that rose 2,000 feet from the lake.
We figured a four-hour hike. It took three. Jeanne said she wasn't sure she'd make it half way.
Around the north end of Ice Lake the skimpy trail all but disappears in thick brush, then reappears as a cairn-marked shallow, dry trench that calls for knee-to-chin step-ups.
Cathy said she'd climbed the Matterhorn once before, and was eager to go again. She took off up the narrow path, with Jeanne and I keeping our distance behind.
"Pace yourself," I called over my shoulder to Jeanne, who was experiencing this part of the hike for the first time. On that afternoon there were no other climbers, but a startled mountain goat and her kid loped gracefully across a slope of talus and melded into the white granite boulders.
At 200 feet from the top, having scrambled, clung and survived a steep slope of scree, we stopped to let the wind cool our faces. We caught our breath and took off even slower. A few minutes later, another stop. With hearts pounding away, lungs working overtime and minds wondering how much farther, we continued upward until we reached the view at the top.
Oh glory be!
The mountain peaks, dotted with snow fields, stood like stalagmites in a circle around the Matterhorn. Ice Lake looked like a drop of water, and fluffy clouds passing overhead seemed within reach.
"We're here at last," Cathy said as she moved toward the west rim, "but some say that Sacajawea Mountain is a few feet higher."
"This mountain has shrunk," I told her. "But don't get too close to the edge, it's still a long way down."
Although the east side of the Matterhorn is shaped more like a rotunda, the west face is like a straight-edge razor. The wall rises 3,100 feet above the Hurricane Creek valley in less than a mile with the final 1,800 feet nearly vertical to where we stood.
"It's beautiful," Jeanne said, still panting.
After placing comments in a tin box that we'd discovered atop a rock pile at the highest point of the summit, and taking a ton of fun photos, the three of us lingered in silence awed by its pristine beauty, and overwhelmed by its rugged vastness.
The descending trip took two hours. Back at camp, Jeanne nursed a skinned-up knee, and Cathy examined bruised toes. But scrapes, scratches and aching feet were soon soothed with a quick dip in the lakeside's icy water.
Talk of the day's events dominated the conversation as the evening light faded. Although we were feeling darn proud of our accomplishment, fatigue set in. Exposure to the raw elements sun, wind, rock and water had taken its toll, and all we wanted was to crawl into our bedrolls.
The following day we'd hike out. There would be a lightness in our step, and our spirits would be high.
Rejuvenated? You bet, but maybe too much so. The last words I heard before falling asleep were, "I think next year we should try the Dihedrals do some rock climbing. All we'll need is a rope."