The Relentless Ascent


By the time we reached Eastern Oregon, we were two weeks into a three-week vacation. There had been beer and food. And plenty of it — we weren't in the shape we were when we left our home in the desert. But we knew that, should we leave Oregon without backpacking to a glacial lake in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, we'd be heading home emptier somehow. 

We'd read about the trail in bits and pieces, and writers ascribed differing lengths to its challenge. One said 7 miles to the lake. Another called it 9 over a relentless ascent of 3,000 feet . Either way, we figured that our respective muscle memories — their vague recollections of healthier days — would get us there. Plus, we'd packed Terminal Gravity's Eagle Cap IPA for camp. 

We began hiking on a Thursday at 7:23 a.m., rushing to beat a pack of five fit men in their 20s. We didn't want them to take the best campsites near the lake, so we pushed hard and heavy through the first 1.5 miles of the hike. The men passed us. We traded niceties. Our faces were red and blotchy and drenched in sweat. The men weren't even breathing hard. 

But the trail. The trail switchbacked into the Wallowa Mountains, through old-growth forest and meadows ripe with summer wildflowers — lupine, mountain bluebells, penstemon, daisies, coneflowers, wild irises and a half dozen I couldn't name from memory. Waterfalls cut the earth so violently, we could feel their spray from 50 yards away. Fields of granite boulders had fallen from the mountainside like a million giant stars. 

We hiked for 4 hours, 9 miles and up 3,000 feet before we reached our destination, that glacial lake at roughly 7,800 feet. And although other campers had reached the water before us, we found our spot along the lake's edge.

The sky broke open. A storm that drove the mosquitos to ground, if only briefly. I read and slept in the tent while Christian fished, and when the clouds cleared, we hiked to the other side of the peninsula. The Matterhorn, a popular second segment of the hike called, but we ignored the voice — our legs and our lungs were done for the day. That monster we'd have to revisit. 

Come nightfall, cold. But we slept early and fast. Until two men traipsed through our camp to set theirs. Headlamps. Talk. The violation of so many spoken and unspoken rules of the wild. 

Morning. Eggs on the ultralight frying pan we'd treated ourselves to. Whispers as we broke down camp and moved on, stopping here and there to photograph the changing sky. Muscle memory back down the mountain. 

— KV