First Sister
Second Sister
Third Sister
Fourth Sister
Fifth Sister

Dec 22, 2020

With: Jackie Burd

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX

Jackie was home for the Christmas holiday, which often means a trip to Pinnacles National Park for some climbing. Too much studying and not enough time at the climbing gym meant she was perhaps more eager than usual. With rain forecast for the end of the week, it seemed prudent to get out early before the weather could dampen things. We planned to do a collection of East Side climbs in the area south and west of Bear Gulch Reservoir, but ended up spending the whole day on The Sisters, a set of five pinnacles lined up like a family portrait just south of the reservoir. From our last wintertime visit, we knew not to get to the park too early when temps can be below freezing, while on the other hand, the Park Service recommends arriving by 9:30a if one wants to find a parking spot. We timed it just so, arriving at the entrance by 9:30a and starting out from the Bear Gulch lot by 9:45a. Due to Covid, the Visitor Center and most of the facilities were closed and the Park Service was waiving fee collection. This was an added bonus since my Federal Lands Pass had expired.

We took the High Peaks Trail up around the right side of Discovery Wall, then forked left on a trail going over the top of Discovery Wall. The Sisters come into view and it is easy to pick out all five, though the morning sun washed out the scene some. The trail then drops to the Bear Gulch Reservoir, one of the more popular destinations in the park. We would see or hear others milling about it for much of the day. We crossed the rock dam just above the upper Bear Gulch caves, then walked around the south side of the reservoir a short distance on the Chalone Peak Trail until we found a park sign indicating a climbers' trail heading up to The Sisters. We followed this up for maybe 50yds to the base of 1st Sister.

1st & 2nd Sisters

David Rubine's Climber's Guide to Pinnacles National Monument describes the 3-star (highest rating) 5.4 Center Route on 1st Sister, and it was only this route we had planned to climb initially. The route starts from the top of a bulge (easy class 3 to reach) on the slanted North Face. Like our last few visits, Jackie was eager to do the leads and I was happy to let her. We changed into our climbing shoes, flaked out the rope and gave Jackie a small section of gear - mostly slings and quick draws since these Pinnacle routes are mostly bolted ones and don't take other means of protection readily. The climbing is done on various types of volcanic conglomerates. This route goes up a broad face with no cracks but amply supplied with decent holds. As we came to find throughout the day, the routes generally had more bolts than described by the 18yr-old guidebook. The pitch is nearly the full length of our 50m rope, with the hardest part coming right at the start. Jackie spent all of ten minutes to climb the pitch, clipping in 4 quickdraws before reaching the two-bolt anchor at the summit. She loves sport climbing. I might have spent two minutes following. Not really sure why this one got 3 stars and others less, or even none. The climbing all seemed similar, so I'm not sure what criteria are being used here.

Once at the top, or near it, I walked about five feet to tag the summit then looked down at the slightly lower 2nd Sister on the backside. It's a drop of about 8ft to the shoulder of 2nd Sister and from there it looked like a class 3 scramble to its highpoint. It seemed a shame to ignore it, so we went about adding it to our agenda. The others would then follow in turn. We rapped off the anchor atop 1st Sister, soloed up to 2nd Sister's highpoint, then came back to the shoulder for the 5.7 boulder problem on 1st Sister's backside. There's a bolt to the right to protect the mantle move, but since we still had our rope attached to the anchor atop 1st Sister, we simply top-roped the climb, choosing what seemed an easier line on the left side (where we rapped down). Once we did that, we rapped back down again to the shoulder, then descended the class 4 chimney on the northeast side between 1st and 2nd sister. This was mostly a class 3 descent, with perhaps a few class 4 moves.

5th Sister

We next followed the climbers' trail up to the top of the formation, finding 5th Sister to be the runt of the litter. It's a short 5.6 pitch to the top, the crux an easy-ish step about half way up. The guidebook warned of only a single bolt atop the feature, but we found at least three other bolts now making this a much safer climb. From start to finish, we spent about 30min getting up and back down. This is the least interesting of the Sisters.

4th Sister

This is the highest of the five Sisters, most easily reached via the 5.1X North Shoulder. Getting to the start is a little tricky, not spelled out in the guidebook. We found it easiest to go back to the climbers' trail on the northeast side, then ascend a class 3 chimney towards the North Shoulder. A class 4 step gets one from the chimney to easier scrambling, leading to the base of the North Shoulder route. There is one bolt at the cruxy start, really just a knobby climb on a rounded, thin edge. We debated whether to use the rope or just solo it. I hung a cheater sling off the bolt and went up to the top, then reversed the moves back down to Jackie. I figured she'd be ok going up, but perhaps less so coming down, so I carried the rope up with us as Jackie soloed the short route, with me following. We took a few photos and then rapped down to the notch between 4th and 3rd Sisters. While Jackie was rapping second, I scrambled back up to the base of the North Shoulder to retrieve the gear we'd left there.

3rd Sister

Though slightly lower than 4th Sister, 3rd Sister is the toughest climb of the bunch, a short 5.10a climb from the notch we'd rappeled into. Neither one of us are capable of freeing the route, but Jackie wanted to give it a try. There are two well-placed bolts on the vertical face (actually, a little overhanging), that can be used for aid as necessary. The first bolt can be clipped from the start of the route and the second is about two feet higher. The combination protects the route nicely, making it safe to fall when attempting to free it. Jackie spent about 20min in the effort, but she could not figure out how to get past the first bolt safely. She did manage to clip the second bolt after a couple falls, but in the end she had to use the quick-draws for aid to pull herself past the second bolt. Once at the saddle above, there's a third bolt and an easy scramble to the highpoint on the left. I had no better luck, aiding off both bolts before pulling myself up to the saddle. I was quite happy for the top rope Jackie provided from her two-bolt anchor at the summit. Once at the top of 3rd Sister, we rapped back down to the notch with 4th Sister, packed up our gear and reversed the route back down from 4th Sister's North Shoulder.

We descended the climbers' trail and returned to the start of the Center Route on 1st Sister to retrieve Jackie's pack and other gear that we'd left that at the start of our climbing. It was now after 2p and time for us to be heading back. We would leave the other climbs we had planned for another time. We returned to the reservoir and took the interesting trail down the upper caves of Bear Gulch. The lower caves were closed, but it was still a fun trail to follow, winding it's way through large boulders with many steps cut into the volcanic rock. We finished up back at the parking lot after 2:30p, loaded our gear in the jeep and headed for home...

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