View Oregon Butte – 5/26-27/2012 in a larger map

Things don’t always go according to plan. Along the journey, you discover new interests or find obstacles that end up providing you with a totally different experience than originally expected. This lesson was hard hit this weekend as we attempted a backpacking trip in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington. The trip was a success, but certainly not what I had expected.

It’s really a lesson in not getting enough information ahead of time. On paper, it looked like the perfect trip. It’s a 16-mile loop up Panjab Creek to the Mt. Misery Trail on top of the  canyon ridge. The campsite is a place called Table Camp, located on maps with a spring just a mile before Oregon Butte. The return is via Turkey Creek which merges with Panjab Creek to complete the loop. Seems simple.

View on Oregon Butte

The weather was already looking sketchy. The forecast called for cloudy skies and 40% chance of snow on Saturday and 30% chance of snow and rain on Sunday. But the highs were in the 50’s and lows right around, but still above freezing. But that had been the weather for the past week, and that generally meant an hour or two of precipitation followed by sunshine. We decided to go for it.

On Saturday morning, 7 of us left Moscow and headed toward the Blue Mountains. Two more would come later and meet us at the campsite. The drive in was relatively straightforward. The campgrounds along the Tucannon River were packed, but there was plenty of parking at the trailhead. The Panjab Creek trail follows the creek for about 3.5 mile through some beautiful forest. Highlights include a stand of Pacific Yew, tons of wildflowers, and the sound of the rushing creek. The next two miles become a little steeper as the trail switchbacks up the side of the canyon, topping out in a large meadow full of Grass Widow. At this point, we have risen about 2000 feet with only a couple hundred more to go. The last three miles are fairly gentle along the ridge, with fallen trees as the only major obstacle. There is some snow up there, but not so much to make the trip miserable.

Eight miles and 5 hours later, we reached table camp only to find that there was considerably more snow on the mountain slopes than I had anticipated. The spring that was supoosed to be near the camp was nowhere to be found, either no longer active, or burried deep beneath 3+ feet of snow. We made camp anyway because we were all too tired to move on. There was another spring on the map a half-mile ahead attached to a creek. I had hopes that maybe this one would be more reliable. So I set out with a small search party, but after a painful expedition, we came back without water. We hadn’t planned on dry camping. Luckily there was an abundance of snow surrounding us, and the firewood supply was neverending, so we were able to melt snow without using up our stove fuel.  Melting snow for 9 people is a slow process, but its better than going without water.

It didn’t rain on us at all on Saturday, though the sky remained overcast. That was alright. We could still see out to the Wallowas and it wasn’t too hot or too cold. In fact, it never really got too cold at night. I suspect there had been an inversion where we had the warmer air on the ridge while all the people car camping along the river had the chill. The wind wasn’t even blowing, so in all, it was a very pleasant evening.

I’m not sure what time I actually awoke, but I’m told it was before 6:00 am. There was actually blue sky and it looked like the sun might peak through the clouds. Tyler and Genevieve were up shortly after and we started a fire and made ourselves breakfast. There was no sign of movement from any of the other tents. So after waiting, Tyler and I decided we’d make a go for the summit without packs. The worst of the climb was at the beginning. The snow was slick and a few of the slopes were steep. But when we reached the top of the ridge, there was actually a strip of bare rock. From there, we could see up the last ridge to the summit of Oregon Butte where the lookout cabin stood. There was a cornice at least 10 feet high, but again, the ridge back was baren of snow.

At almost 6400 feet, the view on Oregon Butte is amazing, and the photographs provided don’t even do it justice. The drop down to the rivers below is about 3000 feet. The landscape is bigger and more rugged than it looks on the map (or Google Earth). It’s probably even more impressive on a clear day, though even with the clouds and the haze, we could still make out the high peaks of the Wallowas and the Seven Devils. I imagine that the snow will melt in the next few weeks and the butte will be available as a dayhike from Teepee. I should like to return.

When we returned to camp, everyone else was up and finishing breakfast. After discussing the prospects of finishing the loop though the high elevation snows, we concluded that it would be best to just turn around and hike back the way we came. As we left camp, the sun came out and remained with us for the rest of the day. When we reached the trailhead, the temperatures had risen to a balmy 65 degrees. I was bushed by the end of the hike. I’ve never come out of a trip that sore before, and I’ve hiked longer trips with longer days. I attribute it to being out of shape from the winter. Nevertheless, I feel that the first backpacking trip of the 2012 season was a success, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.