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Oregon's Secret Stash

For those living in the world of powder-hound dropouts, there are two kinds of secrets. There are secrets about life and there are secret snowy places. One of America's great backcountry secrets is hidden in the vastness of northeastern Oregon, where the high desert plains and rolling pastures slam into the untamed Wallowa Mountains. These remote sentinels lie within Oregon's largest wilderness area, the Eagle Cap Wilderness, a land with an epic frontier history and a full menu of winter activities.

Enshrined by steep basins, the Wallowas contain a myriad of open bowls, glades, couloirs and generous helpings of near-10,000-foot peaks with a winter snow pack in excess of 350 inches a year.

In the spring, north-facing slopes provide a bounty of late-season powdery escapades, and to top it off, the snow lords have provided this amphitheater with a plethora of nontechnical summits attainable by weekend warriors and mountain maniacs alike.

Sound too good to be true?

Well, hold on to your long johns because there's more. Operating in this powdery dream world are several outfitters who make this wilderness experience the backcountry junkie's version of all-inclusive: Cozy, heated yurts and cabins, gourmet meals, personal guides to show you the secret stashes, hero lines and the EZ-way down — it's all provided.

Still not sold? How about a cold, locally handcrafted beer and a hot sauna after a hard day of skiing?

Having heard of the Wallowas' backcountry potential for years, a crew of ex-mountain guides and all-around mountain-town refugees from Southern Oregon decided to explore this secret stash for themselves.

After an all-day drive (and then some) from the Rogue Valley, the group pulled into Joseph in the dark. We unfolded from our vehicle, stiff and tired, checked into a cozy B&B, hit the town for a quick bite and a cold one, then fell into bed.

We awoke to the smell of breakfast prepared by the innkeepers of Chandler's Inn. Between pancakes and poached eggs, Connelly Brown, owner of Wallowa Alpine Huts and a master of hilarious monologue, cruised us through an outline of our days and nights ahead, including safety and preparedness.

A short drive from Joseph put us on the trailhead to McCully Basin. Three hours of moderately sloping — but potentially blister-building — terrain led to a yurt compound where we downed a sack lunch and set out for an afternoon ski.

The McCully Camp, which lies uniquely within the wilderness boundary, is one of several ski camps in the region. The camp contains four comfortable yurts, each with a wood-burning stove. Two of the yurts are for sleeping, one is for cooking and the fourth is a sauna yurt.

Cots, sleeping bags and pillows are provided, allowing johnny-off-the-couch to pack lightly, avoiding the dreaded 60-pound pack.

The meals (three a day) are brought in by Connelly and his staff and prepared with love and skill. A luscious spring provides the camp's water. The experience is the winter equivalent of a high-end guided rafting trip.

The camp sits 20 to 30 minutes by skin or hike from "Skip It De Doo Da" meadow that accesses 270 degrees of skiable and very approachable terrain.

After a twilight ski, we headed back to camp, where appetizers awaited and microbrew flowed from a small keg. Dinner consisted of grilled pork loin, rice pilaf, a green salad and dessert. After a hot sauna and more beer, we drifted off in our zero-degree bags like children on Christmas Eve.

The next morning after a full breakfast and safety meeting, we suited up, checked our radio transceivers and headed up into the basin. For the next three days and two nights, life was good.

Runs like "Pope's Nose," "Lazy Boy," and "Her Majesty" served up nirvana for our group of backcountry junkies. The McCully Basin dished up sweet, creamy glades, puckering chutes, aerobic summit climbs and scintillating views, all in a wrapper of varying terrain with plenty of snow.

The Wallowas proved to be a treasure of backcountry gems suitable for intermediate to expert skiers and boarders. Great terrain, a consistent snow pack and the luxury of winter "all-inclusives" make it a place to include on your must-do backcountry list.

Jared Cruce is a freelance photographer and writer from Ashland.

After a day in the backcountry, wilderness yurts are warm and toasty.