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Narrowly Escaping Disaster on East Peak

KK7DS's picture
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While in town for the Hells Canyon Relay race, Taylor and I planned to hit two 10-point summits in the Joseph, OR area, our highest elevation and point value yet. What started off as a well-planned day trip unraveled into a messy situation. This is a long report, but worth the read!

The Southern end of the town of Joseph is marked by the wonderful Wallowa lake, nestled among the high peaks of the Wallowa mountains. From here, the Wallowa Lake Tramway departs the 4450-foot valley floor, taking visitors to the top of Mt. Howard at 8150 feet. This provides easier access to the top of that ridge, with summits such as East Peak, Hidden Peak, and Aneroid Mountain.

We planned to ride the tram up in the morning, hike to East Peak and then Hidden Peak, before returning for the last ride down in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the earliest the tram runs is 10:00, which provides a relatively late start to the day. However, we made sure we were first in line at the ticket booth that morning, and were on the first gondola up to the top. Before we left the bottom, the attendant asked us about our plans (since we had large packs) and we told him we'd be heading off to East Peak, but coming back that afternoon.

We enjoyed the incredible ride to the top of Mt Howard. When we disembarked our gondola, we were again asked about our plans. We told the attendant that we were headed to East Peak, but coming back the same afternoon. He told us that he had a couple of other folks staying on the ridge for the weekend, and asked if we had a wilderness pass. Since we weren't staying overnight, we said "No, do we need one?" He confirmed that we didn't, but took our return tickets from us. He explained that, at the end of the day, if he still had tickets, then he knew someone was still waiting for a ride down. Through this foolproof system, he said, they had never left anyone on the mountain.

We departed the maintained Mt Howard area, descending into the saddle, and then up the minor features towards East Peak. At 9500', this was definitely the highest we had ever attempted. I was feeling the effects of the thin air and was moving more slowly than usual. Although it was only two miles and 1800' of gain from the Mt. Howard area, it felt ten times that. Finally, we arrived on top of East Peak at just before 13:00.

The summit was so small that it was hard to guy the mast effectively. I ended up tying lines to medium-sized rocks and tossing them over the side. Taylor started calling CQ on 20m and ignited a gigantic pileup, highlighted by a contact with a station in G4-land. She passed the mic to me and I easily made eleven contacts in just a few minutes. Since we were on a tight schedule, we quickly packed up and took advantage of the morale boost while heading to our next target: Hidden Peak.

When we reached the saddle between the two, the weather started to turn. Rain began to fall and the wind started to pick up. I quickly radioed back to town and got a weather report. Although the clouds and rain were here, nothing looked serious, so we pressed on. With tired legs, we finally made it up to the top of Hidden Peak at about 14:15.

There was more room at the top of hidden peak, allowing for a more conventional guying setup and room for our trail seats. Once again, Taylor lit up the band and we made our contacts pretty easily. Right after her first two, the weather took another turn for the worse. The temperature quickly dropped to 38F, the wind picked up to an estimated 45MPH, and I began to see snowflakes amidst the flying rain. I huddled over the KX3 as she finished up, and then she logged for me as I made my contacts in the fetal position over the device.

As soon as our mission was complete, we threw everything unceremoniously into my pack and quickly descended towards the saddle. Even though we had donned our rain gear, the wind and rain had us both completely soaked to the bone by the time we reached it. At this point, we scanned the landscape for the return trail that skirted the eastern face of East Peak, offering a quicker route back to Mt. Howard and avoiding the climb back over the first summit. We couldn't find it. With time running out, we decided we were better served by going back over East Peak. With fatiguing (and in my case, cramping) legs, we re-summited East Peak and started our two-mile descent to the Mt. Howard area.

We kept in contact with the folks in town, which were watching our progress. I was about 50% sure that we weren't going to make it back to the tram by the magical final departure time of 1645. However, I figured that with good communications back to town, we'd be able to alert them to our progress, even if it meant the tram had to wait for us.

At the base of the final hill between us and the tram, it was about 16:15. I let the folks in town know that we were going to make it after all, and we struggled for the last bit before arriving at the maintained trail, where we could see the tram building. We walked easily down the gravel path, congratulating each other on our 20-point and 9500' accomplishments for the day. The celebration was, however, short-lived.

As we approached the tram building, an eerie silence set in as we slowly realized that the building was vacant, silent, and clearly locked up for the evening. It was 16:30, fifteen minutes before the last ride of the day. We were on time. We had struggled to make it, yet we found not a soul there, and a motionless steel cable on the giant pulleys.

We radioed to the folks in town, asking advice, thinking they might know of some odd operating schedules for the final ride of the day. After confirming that something was amiss, they passed us the phone number for the tram, so that we could try to call. To our dismay, both of our cell phones had gotten significantly wet during the day, and neither were working (which has never happened before). We informed the folks in town, who made the call for us, only to report that there was no answer. We were shocked and started contemplating what it would take to further descend the almost 4000 feet to the town below.

Taylor unashamedly entered the tram building through the wall where the gondolas pass and started searching for information. After rustling through some papers and notebooks in the operator's booth, she uncovered a card with contact phone numbers for the owners of the operation. We radioed those down to the folks in town, who made the calls on our behalf.

While we waited for news, Taylor snapped this picture of an amusing sign hanging where folks normally line up to get on the tram:

After a few minutes of waiting, Tom WB7EUX, let us know that the owners had presented two options for resolution. The first was to wait for the manager to drive around to the other side of the mountain, and up the forest road (past a locked gate) to pick us up. This would take a few hours. The other was for us to start hiking down the evacuation ATV road on the front side of the mountain. He would leave from the bottom on an ATV and meet us somewhere in between. This would be a much quicker rendezvous, but would require multiple trips up and down, as the ATV was only capable of one passenger at a time.

We decided on the quicker option and began hiking down the steep and rugged ATV trail. It was getting dark, and the rain had started up again, but at least the walking kept us from freezing. After almost a mile, we reached a split in the trail with no obvious choice. We let the folks in town know that we'd park it there and wait for the ATV so as not to further complicate the issue. About ten minutes later, we heard the ATV approaching in the distance.

Taylor took the first ride down. After a bit, I started hiking down behind them. I was happy to hear her check in on the repeater from the bottom after a safe trip to the parking lot below. A little later, I heard the ATV approaching again, and soon I was on my way to the bottom as well. Tom had called our host at the Bronze Antler, letting her know the situation. As a result, we were thankful to find our room (and floor, and fancy toilet seat) pre-heated for our arrival. It was a nice end to what could have been a very unpleasant trip!

We owe a big thanks (and a few beers) to the folks that helped us out. Tom, WB7EUX in Joseph, as well as Julian, KK7JX in La Grande. These guys were very attentive and obviously instrumental in helping us avoid a very cold and uncomfortable night on Mt. Howard!

HG1DUL's picture

Great story

Shame about the bad WX and the early close. Air is just so underrated at low elevation LOL! Cool

KF7EHT's picture

Great write up. Question; why

Great write up. Question; why does SOTAwatch say this is no longer a valid summit? Was it replaced by another name? 

KK7DS's picture

IIRC, it was removed from the

IIRC, it was removed from the list of valid summits shortly after we did it. You'd have to ask Guy for the details, but I'm assuming there was some sort of prominence concern. It sure felt prominent enough when we were up there!