McCully Basin traverse


The Wallowa Mountains

After some Googling, I discovered that Wing Ridge and McCully Basin are the two most popular destinations for backcountry skiing out of Joseph. Since we love slogs, McCully Basin was the obvious choice. The plan was to skin up McCully Creek, find a low angle ramp onto the west ridge and traverse it back to Mount Howard where a 4WD road would take us back to the parking lot.


Heading up McCully Creek

It’s hard to get out of bed in winter especially when the skies are cloudy. We packed up as it got light out and even glimpsed a small patch of blue sky out the window. Although the forecast called for light snow, the sky looked promising. We tried to shave a mile and a half off our journey by parking at McCully trailhead, but the road wasn’t plowed and we had to start in the parking lot next to Ferguson Ridge ski resort instead. We finally got underway around 8 am.


Beginning the ascent

We skinned on the plowed road past some driveways. After half a mile the road was no longer plowed and we transitioned onto solid snow. We followed someone’s ski tracks for some time. At 1.5 miles the tracks continued up the 4WD road that would act as our exit while we turned south towards McCully basin. From here there was a fresh 8” of snow on the ground and we took turns breaking trail, switching every mile. The sun broke through the clouds a few times and snow mist fell from branches collapsing under the weight of fresh snow.


On Hidden Peak, looking at East Peak

We had some luck 3 miles up the creek when passed some skiers leaving the basin huts and no longer had to break trail. We reached the huts around noon, drank some soup and ate a sandwich + chocolate. We decided that if we didn’t hit East Peak on the ridge by 3pm, we would backtrack the entire way which was straightforward but would require skinning down McCully creek to get back to the car. We went a couple hundred yards past the huts and took the first tracks that branched uphill towards the west.


Traversing towards East Peak

After meandering through the woods for a while we caught sight of Hidden Peak and after looking at the topo confirmed that the ascent angle was mellow (less than 30 degrees). We left the skin track and started ascending through deep snow. Maybe we were out of shape or maybe the 9,000 foot elevation was getting to us but it was a grind. The upper slopes were surprisingly bare of snow with rocks and grass poking through everywhere. The final 100 feet was icy and our skins weren’t gripping well so we ditched the skis and booted up to the 9,400 foot summit. It was completely overcast but the clouds were high enough to see across McCully Basin and down towards Aneroid Lake to the west. The Wallowas are stunning.


Scrambling the East summit

We had a clear view of the snow covered ridge line towards East Peak and we decided to go for the traverse. Worst case scenario, we’d get cliffed out and retrace our route back to the huts. We skied down to the saddle between Hidden and East peaks and decided it would be fastest to boot up the steep snow. We tiptoed between the massive cornice on our right and loose rocks on the left, making use of the flat snow to save time when possible. There was still the possibility that there was a cliff line on the back side of East peak so I let out a big “Wooo!” as we crested the summit and saw a gentle ridge descending towards Mt Howard.


Crawling through waist deep snow

Even though we knew we’d make it, the next two hours proved the most exhausting. We kept our skis on our packs as we alternated between scrambling on loose rocks and wading through waist deep snow. We passed three unnamed summits and with dusk fast approaching we could make out some ski tracks off Mt Howard and the 4WD road down below. After 3 long hours, we finally put on our skis and traversed across the SE face of Mt Howard to some mellow slopes that we skied down to the road. The powder was still soft and mostly untracked.


Proof that we actually skied something

On the road, we put on our headlamps and aside from a few short uphill sections (which felt much longer) we cruised through the dark forest all the way back to the car. My favorite part was the final half mile on the snow plowed road. It felt like we were on an icy luge track racing in the dark through suburban neighborhoods. I’m a bit sore today but feeling accomplished. Winter has been tough. The days are short, the cold uncomfortable. It’s nice to know that big treks are still possible.


Heading home, tired but accomplished!

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