There is an advantage to hiking in conditions that approximate the inside of a refrigerator, only with wind gusts and rain showers, neither of which is common inside a properly functioning kitchen appliance.
The advantage — and even in my admittedly generous interpretation I’ll concede it’s the only obvious one — is that you have a powerful incentive to move rapidly.
To dally for long when it’s 43 degrees and drizzling and a fog-sodden wind is lancing your cheeks is to invite at best discomfort, and at worse hypothermia.
Although depending on your feelings about hiking fast, the heat-generating effect might rate not as an advantage but rather as additional justification for staying in the car, where the only moving air is nicely heated before it reaches your face.
Another thing about fog, of course, is that you can’t see through it.
And most backpacks are not equipped with low beams (or high beams, come to that).
It is reasonable then to conclude that a foggy day is not the ideal day to hike to a peak renowned for its vista.
Trouble is, if you wait for ideal weather to go hiking in the mountains you’re apt to spend quite a lot more time waiting than hiking.
And so it was that my wife, Lisa, and our kids, Olivia, who’s 12, and Max, 8, drove into the Elkhorns recently, our intended destination The Lakes Lookout.
This once was the site of a Forest Service fire lookout. The building was dismantled many decades ago but the expansive view from its granitic tip — a view that clearly justifies the lookout’s construction here — retains its splendor.
For almost the whole of the drive it seemed to me all but certain we’d have to postpone the hike.
Rain started falling before we even reached Haines, and it continued, ranging in volume from a slight sprinkle to a torrent comparable to the inside of an automatic car wash, while we ascended Elkhorn Summit.
As we crept along the boulder-ridden road that climbs to the trailhead near the Anthony Lakes ski area, the rain settled into a steady, sullen pace — the sort of rain that seems destined to continue for hours if not days.
But this is the arid side of Oregon, after all, and persistent rainfall — most particularly on the 11th day of August — is quite rare.
Before we got to the trailhead I had switched off the windshield wipers.
Lisa glanced first at the outside temperature gauge, and then at me, with a certain dubious expression, one that suggested she had been in this situation before.
We opened the doors and the air that rushed in was surprisingly chilly even though we’d both been eyeing that thermometer for the past half an hour.
It’s a sensation peculiar to August storms, those strange autumn interludes that feel, on skin accustomed to several weeks of heat, almost like an assault.
We donned our sweatshirts and jackets and started up the trail.
On a clear day you can see the lookout site and its cluster of nearby pinnacles from the trailhead. But on this day we could scarcely see more than a few hundred yards as a steady wind from the southwest propelled fragments of fog between the whitebark pines, a parade of wraiths.
The Lakes Lookout trail is short but steep — a fact I suggested, to a skeptical audience, was a boon.
If we hustled, I cajoled, we’d be warm in just a few minutes, if a trifle winded.
This was generally true.
Max scampered up the rocky sections in squirrel-like fashion, and before we reached the final switchback he doffed the outer of his two sweatshirts.
Although just a few scattered drops of rain pelted us on the way up, the sogginess of the air was palpable. The plants crowding the trail threatened to douse our feet and I warned Max to stay on the tread. Lupine in particular, it seems to me, maintains a tenacious hold on rain, its fan of inch-long, narrow leaves beaded with moisture like the hood of a freshly waxed car following a storm.
Blundering into a single patch of lupine, soon after a rain, is akin to having a jug of water dumped on your boots.
(It is, I believe, not an oversight that boot makers boast that their footwear is waterproof but make no claims for it being lupineproof.)
We scrambled up the final pitch — nothing technical, but it’s a bouldery patch where using both hands adds a sense of security — and the chill settled in straightaway as we stopped generating quite so much body heat.
It was a curious experience.
I’ve hiked to this peak probably a dozen times, and so far as I can recall this was my first visit when the summit was socked in.
None of the lakes that earned this perch its name — Anthony, Grande Ronde, the two Hoffer lakes and Crawfish, among others — was visible.
Two neighboring mountains — Lees Peak and Angell Peak, both within a mile or so along the ridge to the east — were equally cloaked in the dank white carpet.
Yet even with those familiar reference points rendered invisible, the place retained its prominence — that distinct feeling that comes only when standing atop an eminence that dominates its surroundings.
If anything, the wisps of fog, which streamed past at a considerable velocity, heightened the sense of exposure by, in effect, making a mystery of the yawning space below rather than betraying the precipitous topography with the clarity unique to the alpine zone.
In deference to the weather, we didn’t linger long.
The rain continued to hold off, and as we descended the wind slackened a bit.
Just before we got to the car the clouds parted enough to allow a wedge of sunshine to pierce the white veil, the temperature seemed to suddenly jump 10 degrees and it was possible to believe again that this was the second week of August.
This interval lasted scarcely a minute, though, and as we drove down to Anthony Lake the rain returned.
Our hike to the Lakes Lookout seemed especially abnormal to me in part because it was so dramatically different from my visit to a similar peak just eight days earlier.
This is Burger Butte, on the west side of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. On a clear day you can easily see Burger Butte from the Lakes Lookout, as it’s one of a trio of conspicuous summits, of which Burger Butte is the middle, that includes China Cap to the north and the near neighbors Mule Peak and Granite Peak to the south.
I climbed to Burger Butte late one afternoon during a backpacking trip the first weekend of August. The peak loomed over our campsite in Burger Meadows to the east, and although I initially intended only to hike the trail to the pass on the mountain’s eastern shoulder, the nearness of the summit, as summits often do, beckoned me upward and off the maintained path.
Burger Butte isn’t the north face of the Eiger, to be sure.
But lacking a constructed trail, as at the Lakes Lookout, it requires a bit more scrambling to make it to the top.
And although it shares the Lakes Lookout’s aesthetic qualities, Burger Butte is quite a different stack of rocks, geologically speaking.
The Lakes Lookout is composed of the white-gray granitic rocks of the Bald Mountain Batholith, an intrusion of magma that cooled about 140 million years ago.
Burger Butte, by contrast, is made of the brown basalt that bubbled from volcanic vents, dozens of which sliced through the older rocks of the Wallowas — mainly granitic rocks similar to those in the Elkhorns, and limestone — between about 15.6 and 16.7 million years ago.
Geologists call these the Columbia River flood basalts, and they’re among the largest, and most extensively studied, such features in the world.
In the central Wallowas the main evidence of the flood basalts are dikes and sills — strips of brown basalt that are conspicuous in cleaving the lighter-colored granitic and limestone formations.
But at the western edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness the basalts dominate, forming major peaks including Burger Butte, China Cap, High Hat Butte and Meadow Mountain. These dark-hued summits, so different from the granitic promontory of Eagle Cap or the shining white marble of the Matterhorn, give the western Wallowas a distinct appearance.
The conditions on my two ascents were as different as the geology between the peaks.
The day I climbed Burger Butte was quintessentially summer — warm and dry, the sprawling blue sky interrupted by occasional puffs of cumulus that promised nothing but the brief shelter of shade as they crossed the sun.
The horizon was smudged slightly by the typical summer haze but the air was pleasantly free of the smoke pall so common the past couple summers.
I could easily pick out the major peaks in the Wallowas and the Elkhorns, and even distant points, such as Ironside Mountain to the southwest, Lookout Mountain to the southeast, and the rumpled timbered shoulders of the Northern Blues, were unobscured.
It was warm, verging on hot, even up at 8,500 feet, and I sat with my back resting against the summit cairn, sipping water and leafing through the register that’s kept in a watertight metal ammunition box.
This mild memory, though scarcely more than a week old, seemed almost nostalgic as we stood on the Lakes Lookout, the autumnal wind reddening our ears and setting our noses to leaking.
But I was as gratified to be there, amid the scudding fog and enduring the damp chill, as I had been basking in the sunshine on Burger Butte.
The capricious nature of mountain weather seems to me the smallest sort of annoyance when compared to the gift of the peaks, so near and so reliable in their solidity.
Even if they can broil you one week and freeze you the very next.