Ruby Peak, Wallowa Mountains

Well, the weather has definitely changed.  Last week I decided it was time to get a taste of winter and Ruby Peak would be the destination.  I’ve saved four peaks located on the north side of the Wallowa Mountains to work on this winter.  All four peaks are fairly close to access roads that should stay open for most of the winter.  Ruby Peak is ranked 40th on the top 100 and is locate just south of the town of Enterprise, Oregon.    The road accessing the peak is mostly on private land so it doesn’t receive much in the way of maintenance and signs are few and far between.

Ruby Peak

On my way to the peak I stopped at the visitor’s center in Enterprise to ask a few questions about access to the trailhead.  After a few minutes discussing the roads leading to an old lime quarry which is close to the trailhead I was off in the general direction.  I only saw a few road signs so I was very unsure if I was heading in the right direction, but I kept heading up the rough gravel road into the mountains.  Finally I arrived at what appeared to be an old quarry so I stopped, pulled out the map, and started looking for a trail.  A few minutes passed before I heard a truck approaching so I did what most men don’t do I asked for directions ;).  There were two guys in the truck and when the driver rolled down his window a cloud of smoke billowed out into my face and it definitely wasn’t cigarette smoke.  The first thing I noticed was the driver’s bloodshot eyes and of course I became a little concerned, but hey, I still asked for directions.  The driver was a little clueless to where the trail was, but the passenger (who could barely talk probably due to herbal means) said he’d been up the trail before and said it was about a hundred yards back down at a switchback in the road.  We talked for about five minutes before I realized that one of the guys worked for a good friend of mine this last summer, small world.  I kept backing away wanting to get back down the road and up the trail, but the driver was definitely in the mood to talk so he got out of his truck and then I realized he also had a beer in his hand.   They weren’t feeling any pain and I was feeling fortunate that I wouldn’t be meeting them on the road as they headed down.  Thirty minutes went by before I finally was able to get away and back down the road to the unmarked trail/old road.  I have to admit, I thought about my car the whole time I was out in the wilderness, knowing the two guys I met knew I was alone and that I was planning on being out overnight.

Traverse Ridge

By the time I left the car it was after 3:30pm and I knew I only had a couple hours of daylight remaining, I would have to set a fast pace in order to make it up and over the pass to a place to camp close to Ruby Peak.  The trail leading up to Murray Gap is very steep and since it’s been raining and some sections even had snow it was very muddy and slick.  Even with the conditions I was up to the Gap in under an hour.  From the gap I hiked along the Silver Creek Ditch which is currently in disrepair, but it was fairly level so I hiked at a fast pace making it to the ditch head gate at Silver Creek before long.  From the creek I started hiking cross country in ankle to knee deep snow toward the ridge dividing Ruby Peak and Traverse Ridge.  It’s an eerie feeling this time of year hiking solo into the wilderness especially with snow covering the ground.  Finding a place to camp became my only priority as the sky was getting dark.  I found an open area that was fairly flat and in a matter of ten minutes I had leveled out an area in the snow to pitch my tent.  By the time the tent was up and my gear inside it was totally dark and the stars filled the sky.

Note to self:  Don’t ever think you can get away without taking the stove and fuel in the winter.

I climbed into my down sleeping bag and began drying my damp clothes with my body heat.  Dinner consisted of pepperoni and almonds with gatorade, yum…ok not really.  What I really wanted was something warm to eat and a nice big mug of coffee or tea.  After my meager dinner I laid down and turned on my radio and listen to various AM stations.  When I’m alone in the wilderness I typically take a radio and leave it on just so that I don’t surprise any passing animals, they know I’m there from the sound of people talking.  The night was long and at about midnight the wind started picking up with gust blowing up to 20+ miles an hour.  I staked one end of the tent down and I was sure thankful I did as the opposite unstaked end shuttered back and forth throughout the night.  I woke up around 5:00am and forced myself to stay in the sleeping bag until close to six.  I was up and packed in less than 20 minutes, it goes quick when you can’t warm breakfast or make something hot to drink…sigh.

Sunrise

I knew from my GPS that I was less than half a mile (horizontal distance) to the summit of Ruby Peak, but with the snowy conditions and the steepness of the slope I also knew it would take a couple hours to reach the top.  I climbed directly up the slope then to the east toward the Ruby/Traverse dividing ridge.  Within about thirty minutes I was able to turn off the headlamp and hike in the very early morning light.  Once on top of the ridge the sky exploded in vivid sunrise colors.  I grabbed my camera and carried it outside the pack snapping shots as I climbed the remaining ridge-line to the summit of Ruby Peak.  The wind on the ridge blew at a constant 40+ miles an hour with gusts even higher.   There were a few times I had to brace with my poles to stay upright in the wind.  I had forgotten my balaclava at home, big mistake as cold wind hit my exposed face.

The summit of Ruby is spectacular as many of the “front range” peaks in the Wallowa Mountains are.  To the north the Wallowa Valley and to the south the extensive Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, home to many of the peaks on the 100 list.  My summit experience was brief, I snapped a few pictures, signed the summit register, and then I was on my way down the northwest ridge back toward the gap.  The wind was blowing so hard I could think of nothing more than to get off the top of the peak.

Big Horn Sheep

Approximately 300’ off the summit I rounded a corner and right in front of me was a small herd of Big Horn Sheep.  I ducked down, dropped my pack, changed lenses on my camera then started moving closer to the sheep hiding behind a few large boulders.  I slowly stood up and started snapping shots.  I only snapped a few before my battery died, which at the time I didn’t think it was an issue until I realized my backup was also drained (even though I had just charged it).  Second note to self:  Buy a new battery and throw away the “back up”.  Thoroughly frustrated I put my camera back in the pack, stood up and hiked right passed the beautiful Big Horn Sheep, two of which were majestic rams laying side by side.  They just laid there while I walked by, yes rubbing it in for sure.

The hike out was uneventful and I was able to navigate down the ridge-line back to the gap by following animal tracks through and around the small cliff structures.  From the gap I hiked down the steep muddy trail back to the car which to my relief was sitting as I had left it.

Wallowa Mountains

All in all I had an amazing trip to Ruby Peak.  I learned a few things and I also realized I need to adjust what I’ll be able to accomplish this winter in regards to the 100 list.  I have a feeling I’ll be limiting my focus to single peaks instead of multiples this winter.  Hitting 50 peaks before 2011 is still a goal, but I now know it could be difficult especially with the ever changing weather.   47 down, 53 to go!

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