Steens Mountain Exploration 2012

posted in
Send by email
"You can't stop looking at the scenery"

Steens Mountain:  Oregon's great landscape

Over a very warm week in July ten students made a long circuit of Steens Mountain and its spectacular features – including a very demanding ascent of Little Indian Gorge on Steens Mountain in one long day. 

The trip began simply enough with a nine hour ride in Catlin’s favorite little bus, #21, down through Bend, over to Burns and south to tiny town of Frenchglen.  Passing along the endless wetlands we saw many unusual and exotic birds.  We drove up the north loop road, stopping at the Kiger Gorge overlook to talk about geology and how the breathtaking landscape was formed.  Overt the crest of the mountain we continued and down the tortuous south loop road to the South Steens campground. 

Half of the students in the group had not been on an Outdoor Program trip before, and four of them had never been backpacking.  It’s hard to tell whether this inexperience led them to underestimate or to overestimate the challenge of the week to come.

We hiked for an hour and a half to the point where Little Indian Creek flows out of its gorge.  Here we put together a serviceable camp and spent the evening, enjoying a dinner of rice and sausage in a sour cream sauce.  We all were aware of the challenge awaiting us on the next day.

 We made an early start, leaving camp by 6:30.  The huge gorge of Little Indian Creek, which was created by glacial scouring over thousands of years, runs in an east-west direction for eight miles before opening on to the plains below. The gorge contains no trails at all, and is home to lush vegetation along the many streams.  It is over 1500 feet deep and several miles wide in the classic U-shaped formation of glacially created gorges.  It lies on the southwestern flank of this great mountain massif.  Its great headwall at its eastern end rises to 9200 feet. 

The very first steps set the tone for the day as walked straight into the thicket of brush that encases the river during much of its length.  We passed some old fence railings scattered along the ground as we worked our way up the hillside so as to avoid the heaviest of the brush.  For several hours we traversed the hillside through painful old sagebrush, willow thickets and dense aspen groves.  The occasional slopes of scree were a relief to our legs and arms that had been scratched so badly in the brush. 

Several of the students had trouble with the heat, and with the exhaustion of the effort.  Our backpacks were quite large- with four days supply of food in them.  Temperatures reached into the mid 90s and we spent a lot of time staying hydrated and resting in the shade provided by the aspen thickets.  It was about 2:00 pm when we stopped for lunch near a cool issue of water we found in one of these thickets.  A restful place it was, but after 45 minutes it was apparent that we needed to press on.  We dove into the brush and beat our way through onto a rocky slope above.  Here we were greeted with our first good view of the headwall-  the steep and rocky slope at the head of the gorge that rises about 1200 feet.  This is where the ancient glacier had done most of its scouring and created a dramatic wall sealing off the gorge at its upper end.  We were able to see a straightforward way to get to the top, much to the relief of some of the students who had recently seen “The North Face” and were imagining the Eiger.

Ascending the headwall took many hours, with progress being slowed by the intense heat and steep terrain.  We reached the top at maybe 4:00 pm, only to see we were not where we hoped to be.  A long traverse north brought us above a band of cliffs, below which we were able, finally, to spot our destination:  Little Wildhorse Lake.  We scrambled down the cliffs, across some snow and staggered into our camp.  I think everyone was genuinely exhausted by the day’s efforts.  The beauty of the spot had a rejuvenating effect, though.  We were next to a small lake, where the water was about 75 degrees.  We waded and ‘swam’ for about an hour.  The views in most directions were essentially unlimited -- for we were at 9000 feet in southeast Oregon.  We could see a haze in the air from fires, apparently, though.  Despite our elevation it remained warm all evening and into the night.

The third day of the trip began with a leisurely breakfast of Spam and oatmeal.  Although we knew that almost the entire remainder of the trip would be downhill, we had one huge challenge ahead of us.  We would need to descend the even-taller headwall of Big Indian Gorge.  And we would have to do so by “feel”, because by approaching the steep face from above we would have no way to look further than perhaps a hundred feet down in our attempt to find the safest way down the 1600 headwall. 

 The initial descent takes you into an extraordinarily pleasant basin streams, patches of snow and wildflowers.  This nice landscape ends abruptly at the edge of the headwall.  With the stunning walls of the gorge surrounding us on three sides (one of ths students called it “the view you never got tired of looking at”) we began the search for a safe way down.  On the far left side a few of the students spotted a grassy slope that appeared to lead most of the way down into the basin.  Getting to the slope would be the challenge.  A few members of the party scrambled down the rocks to see if a safe way could be discerned.  They came back to report that, with some care, it could be done.  Our “care” came in the form of a rope.  We tied secured each member of the party and over a period of two hours successfully and safely deposited each member of the group onto the (steep) grassy slopes below.  We made the remainder of the descent into the huge basin as a group. 

Our first priority was to find a trail – we had heard that one existed in Big Indian Gorge.  We were more than tired of bushwhacking and our scratched and bloodied legs could take little more.  Nevertheless it took an hour of searching to eventually stumble upon the trail.  We hiked another half hour and found a nice campsite next to the river, where we soaked in its cool waters and played cards nearby.

Our fourth day was a gentle hike, in the heat, along Big Indian Creek.  We stopped for a protracted lunch at a good swimming hole before eventually finding our campsite from the first night where Little Indian Creek comes in from its own gorge on the left. The circle was complete!  Smiles all around, a good dinner of beef stroganoff and Middle Eastern Ramen made a perfect evening.  Around the campfire that night we shared our view of the experience, and inducted the three freshmen into the sophomore class. 

The hike back to the patiently waiting bus the next morning took only an hour.  The drive out to Frenchglen was pretty but we were shocked to see the thousands of acres scorched by a range fire north and south of the town during our four day absence.  Th students recovered well from the shock, though, and slept for the next three hours.  We were back in Portland before 5:00 but the amusing antics of ODOT and its closure of I-5 prevented us from reuniting with our families until almost 6:00pm.