Skiing Steens Mountain

Steens Mountain is considered one 50 mile long mountain in Eastern Oregon.

One of the things I love about working on the Oregon Desert Trail is the opportunity to head out into the desert at different times of the year to explore what other seasons and methods of travel can happen along the route. In winter this year, one probably could have skied the entire route. January dumped 3-5 feet of snow many places in the high desert, an unusual event for the past 9 years I’ve lived in the area.

I knew the Steens Mountain would have some epic skiing, and last weekend Kirk and I headed out there with our touring set up and camping gear to see what we could get up to.

In the winter the Steens Loop Road, which takes folks to the 9,500 top of the mountain from the little town of Frenchglen, is closed, but the Burns BLM has a winter permit system whereby you can check out a key to the gate. I’ve been working with the BLM over the past year on issues relating to the ODT, and will in fact be leading 2 trail work trips on two different sections of trail there this summer. I also plan to head out there again in a month or so to packraft one of Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Rivers (and a water alternate to the ODT!) the Donner und Blitzen River. There are just countless things to do in the desert.

We took Friday off of work and drove to Burns to stop by the BLM office, then made a stop at Safeway to buy lots of goodies for the weekend. By 11am we were in Frenchglen, and I noticed that the Frenchglen Hotel had reopened for the season. I stopped in to say hi to the caretaker John (it’s a Oregon State Heritage Site) and decided if we made it out on Sunday in time that we would stop by the hotel for a Steens burger (yum).

We unlocked the gate and were able to drive in about 9 miles until we reached snow. It looked as if a few people had tried to drive into the snow patch, and as we could see dirt about 100 yards away, considered trying it ourselves, but the churned up snow also gave the impression that one or two of those cars had gotten suck, so we decided to play it safe and park.

It was quite blizzardly out, and we put on all our gear and goretex before leaving the car. We both brought shoes as we thought we might have to hike a bit before finding enough snow to ski. All in all it ended up being about 2 miles of walking before enough solid snow appeared. We may have regretted stopping the car so short, but on Sunday on our hike out, we saw fresh evidence of another car getting stuck. Oh, maybe we made the right choice.

Kind of a junk show

Come on snow!

The weather was nasty, and the stinging snow stuck to our packs and battered what little bits of our faces weren’t covered up. By the time we arrived at a big grove of aspen near Fish Lake we decided to set up camp even though it was early. Neither of us had been on the road this time of year, and it had been long enough since Kirk had been up here we weren’t sure there would be much tree cover further up. Fish Lake is about 7,500′, and the wind was howling. We found a spot that seemed a bit more protected and set up our Hyperlite Mid (a great snow shelter, and light as it’s cuben fiber).

Time to find shelter!

Saturday the morning was clear and sun streamed into our mid, warming us up pretty quick. After some coffee we packed up our packs for the day, and set off to ski the road up about 2,000′ to the Kiger Gorge lookout.

Oh that blissful sun!

Lunch is going to be awesome

It was fantastic! After a few miles we started traversing near the Blitzen Gorge, and it looked like it would be some epic backcountry skiing. We decided to stick to the road, and while sections were wind blown and some sagebrush and rocks would appear from time to time, the snow coverage was pretty even.

Kirk looking into Blitzen Gorge

The good stuff

Finally about 2pm we made it up to Kiger Gorge, a glaciated canyon that looks like it belongs in Glacier National Park. Epic.

The ski out was even better as we were able to coast for long periods just enjoying the view around us. In retrospect we could have taken a short cut that would have given us more elevation loss in a shorter distance, but it was still pretty fun.

By the time we made it back to camp we were both ready for food, and snacked our way through the next few hours.

Sunday morning was overcast again, and by the time we packed up the sky was threatening to start dumping on us. We made it back to the dirt, luckily the cold night had iced up the new snow from Friday, so we were able to ice-ski farther than we could have on Saturday. On the last few miles of dirt it started to snow hard and sideways, and we didn’t even pause to switch to our shoes, instead hiking back in our tele boots. We were both ready to be warm inside the car, and it was a relief to take off those boots and get out of the wind.

Time to ski out…but first, coffee.

That’s some dark sky

And as luck would have it, we made it to the Frenchglen Hotel for those burgers. Oh yeah.