Cusick Mountain was one of the peaks off the list that I was looking forward to climbing. Due to its location access to the peak requires a little planning and if you’ve read my other posts, I love the planning aspect. I actually thought I could climb Sentinel, Cusick, and Marble by hiking the ridges that connect all three peaks, but the ridge which connects Cusick and Marble looked a little sketchy to attempt solo so it’ll have to wait for a future trip.
Thursday August 25th
I left work late in the afternoon and made the 2.5 hour drive to the Wallowa Lake Trailhead. When I left the car I actually thought I would hike into the late evening after dark by head lamp as to reach Tenderfoot Pass and set up a camp for the evening. The hike went well and I gained a decent amount of elevation and distance in a relatively short period of time. As the evening wore on I began to think a good nights sleep would be more beneficial for the long day I had planned for Friday than to hike late into the evening. I found a nice campsite close to a small creek just to the east of Aneroid Lake which was a few miles short of where I had planned, but I was still happy to get the main part of the approach out of the way on Thursday. I ate a cliff bar and some almonds filled my water containers and slid into my sleeping bag for a restful night.
Friday August 26th
I woke up to my watch alarm at 5am and of course I turned it off and fell back asleep for another 30 minutes before I finally sat up and began to get things packed for what I knew would be a long day. A cliff bar was on the breakfast menu so after a quick snack I started packing up camp and after 35 minutes I was ready to hike. The walk up from Aneroid Lake to Tenderfoot is fairly easy with only a few sections that could be considered steep, but with the good trail it goes by quickly. Once at Tenderfoot pass the trail descents a few hundred feet to the junction with the Polaris Pass Trail. From the junction the Polaris Pass Trail ascends up to the pass in what felt like a couple miles. I found a small snow field where I stopped ate another cliff bar and relaxed for a few minutes enjoying the amazing view into the North Fork Imnaha River valley.
From the top of Polaris Pass the route leaves the maintained trail and follows the ridgeline from Polaris to Sentinel Peak. There’s a faint trail from mountain goats and other hikers that’s fairly easy to follow. I found a large snowfield .25 mile from the summit of Sentinel Peak so I decided to stop and fill up my water containers by melting snow and again had a cliff bar and a little trailmix. The view from the ridge is spectacular and one could spend all day just relaxing and snapping shots of all the high peaks located in the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, but I knew my main goal was still a couple miles away so I didn’t stay long. After I had my fill of water from the melted snow I pulled the pack on and continued up the the summit of my first peak for the day, Sentinel Peak.
Even though Sentinel Peak isn’t that spectacular it’s still over 9000 feet in elevation which puts it in the top 20 of the highest peaks in the state of Oregon. I searched for a summit register for a few minutes, but I couldn’t located one so I had a few handfuls of trailmix, drank a little water, and snapped a few shots before I continued on my way to Cusick Mountain. As I was descending along the ridgeline from the summit of Sentinel to Cusick I noticed someone walking toward me way in the distance along the ridge. After 10 minutes of hiking we met on the ridgeline. The hiker was on his way to Cusick earlier in the morning, but decided to turn back after making the decision not to descend down into Honeymoon Basin. We talked for about 5 minutes before we said our goodbyes and continued hiking in the opposite directions. It wasn’t long before I was looking down from the top of the ridge down into Honeymoon Basin and could understand the hesitation the hiker had in wanting to ascend down into the basin, especially since he was out from his camp for a day hike.
Honeymoon Basin is one of the true wonders in the wilderness area. The basin was carved by the glaciers that covered the wilderness during the last ice age and is devoid of any form of large vegetation. It appears as if the glaciers melted out the day before and had left behind a couple small alpine ponds/lakes. There’s a central ridge from the summit of Cusick Mountain that points to the north northeast down into Honeymoon Basin. I studied the ridge for 10 minutes trying to visualize each section to determine if there was any impassible sections along the ridge. Feeling satisfied that the route was safe I started up from the basin towards the summit. There were short pitches of smooth limestone that were surmounted without any issues and it wasn’t until I was on the upper section of the ridge that had to do any scrambling on class 4 rock. I was standing on the summit of Cusick Mountain in about an hour from the bottom of the ridge route.
The summit of Cusick is truly amazing, peaks in all directions and the definite feel of isolation. I found the summit register and spent a little time reading the other entries and too my surprise I noticed an entry of a close friend who climbed the peak back in 2007. I snapped some shots and video then directed my attention to the long ridge out to Marble Mountain. I examined every little point along its ridge line and after about 30 minutes I decided to end my ridge run at Cusick. The ridge from Cusick to Marble looked to sketchy to attempt on my own and if anyone out there has climbed along the ridge I would love to know the details. I felt at ease with my decision not to continue toward Marble so my attention was switched to focus on my route out. I looked at the topo map and it appeared that I could descend off the northwest side of Honeymoon Basin down to Frazier Lake which is right next to the West Fork Wallowa River Trail. If I could descend down to the lake I could hike out the West Fork Trail to complete a long loop back to the trailhead and my car. The descent back down to the basin went quickly and once back in the basin I hiked over the the small lake at the base of Cusick Mountain.
As I hiked closer and closer to the edge of the basin I began to realize that my plan to drop over the edge to Frazier Lake might not be possible. I started working down the side of the ridge and ran into my first cliff face. I dropped my pack and started looking for any passable line down the side of the ridge. The last thing I wanted to do was to get halfway down and run into a dead end cliff face and climb all the elevation back up to Honeymoon Basin. After about 10 minutes I found a line that looked passable, but there was one section that I couldn’t get a good view of that could potentially put an end to my decent down. Ugh, it wasn’t an easy decision, but I knew if I could get to the lake my hike out would be a breeze so down I went. I felt like I was putting a puzzle together, down one section shift to the right, down a moderate crack/gully in the limestone then shift back to the left, on and on. Before long I realized that the steepest part was behind me and the only thing left was to drop my pack and take off my shoes so I could wade through the outflow from the lake…I did it!
There were numerous camps along the edge of the lake, but I was able to find a small level spot close to the lake. It was 6:30pm when I finally had my pack off and tent up and I could finally relax. I pumped water out of the lake and cooked a dinner which consisted of Ramen and mashed potatoes, I know, yum! I took a short walk after dinner to take a few shots before dark. I slid into my sleeping bag and was asleep by 8pm.
Saturday August 27th
Even though I set my alarm I ignored it when it went off and slept in until 6am. You guessed it, my breakfast consisted of a cliff bar and trailmix which I ate while I was packing up camp. I was out and on the trail hiking by 6:30am. I had the trail to myself for the first 5 miles and it wasn’t until I passed the trail that heads up to the lakes basin that I saw another person. The West Fork Wallowa River Trail is one of the busiest trails within the wilderness so as got closer to the trailhead I started passing one group after another. I was back at the car before 11am.
This trip by far was one of my favorites since I started working on the Oregon’s 100 Highest Peaks List.