Sat, Jun 10, 2006
We had thought Mt. Jefferson would be the hardest peak to climb in Oregon, but we hadn't sized up North Sister until the day before we intended to go there. Several things conspired to make us think long and hard about attempting it. The road to the Obsidian Trailhead, the normal approach, was still closed. We would have to start five miles down the road, adding 10mi to the hike and additional elevation as well. Secondly, there is a steep snow traverse required on the west side of the peak just below the summit, and all the guidebooks and trip reports made it appear more difficult than the one we found on Mt. Jefferson. What to do? As serious mountaineers we evaluated all the available information, steeled ourselves for the demands of the climbing, then made the important backup plan: If we didn't like the look of North Sister, we'd do the easy route on Middle Sister next door instead. By now you've probably figured out that's exactly what we did.
We didn't make the easiest day out of it, primarily because we didn't choose the shortest approach, and what was probably the longest possible drive. From Bend we drove north around The Sisters, backtracking from the west to the Alder Springs campground. We had read on the net that the road was closed at this point, but hope springing eternal, we kept our fingers crossed that the information was outdated. It wasn't. A locked gate blocked the road. I got out of the van to inspect the gate, again retaining some slim hope that the gate wasn't really locked. It was. Rats. We drove a hundred feet back to the campground and parked. A camper who was up early struck up a short conversation with me, informing me that everyone who drives up the road goes right to the gate, gets out to examine it, then drives back. I guess we all keep hope dear to our hearts.
Matthew was back in Bend, still asleep, trying to rest his knee for a better objective (he was far more interested in Mt. Thielsen). So it was just Rick and I heading out just after 6a. It took us almost two hours to hike the five miles to the Obsidian TH. We were perplexed in finding zero snow along the road the whole way, but at least one large boulder that had fallen in the road showed that there was still more work to do before the road could be opened.
By the time we had gotten to the trailhead, I was thoroughly discouraged. The route starting from the road was all snow, and carrying a load of climbing gear had withered my will to continue. I would have been ok to turn back at that point, or at least to dump our climbing gear at the trailhead. We sat on a picnic bench out of the snow to take a short break and have a snack. I tried to figure out how to tell him we should turn back. Rick, though not forceful in objecting to my wimpiness, calmly suggested we should continue and see how it goes further on. I knew that trick, but seeing he was still committed helped me to get over my laziness. We gathered up our gear and headed on.
Once we were moving again, it wasn't so bad as I had imagined. There were a few tracks from the TH that we followed, all but a pair of ski tracks giving out in a short distance. We followed the ski tracks thinking the owner must have known what he was doing, but the route seemed a bit circuitous. They ended after about a mile, and we were left to find or not find the trail as we were able. Of course it didn't really matter much since everything was covered in snow, but we were always happy when we'd stumble upon a bit of the trail now and then, as assurance we were heading in the right direction. This was more of a game since we couldn't really have gotten lost so easily - Rick was right behind me with a GPS loaded with the trail coordinates to verify our route periodically.
After an hour and a half of wandering through the forest we finally got views of both North and Middle Sisters as the trees began to thin. They were still far away and high above us, but we could make out the snow-covered traverse below the summit. The Bowling Alley, a notoriously loose chute above the traverse, looked to be filled with snow and/or ice. The clouds forming on the lee side of North Sister told of high winds and did not add to its charms. On we went.
It was noon before we finally reached the saddle between North and Middle Sisters, and we had been at it for almost six hours with little break. This was turning out to be as hard as Mt. Jefferson. Clouds had come along in the last few hours, thin at first, but gradually blocking out most of the sky and the views towards our summits. As I dropped my pack at the saddle and waited for Rick, I surveyed the South Ridge to North Sister, more than a bit intimidated by the prospects of the summit traverse and the final pinnacle. When Rick joined me a few minutes later, I was relieved that by now his interest in North Sister had faded with mine. We would take our solice on Middle Sister.
Leaving all but our cameras and water bottles, we headed up to Middle Sister from the north side. It was further than it had appeared, as the saddle is far closer to North Sister than to Middle. When we reached the second saddle, just below the last climb up to Middle, we noticed footprints in the snow and espied a pair of climbers heading down from the summit. Huh? They certainly hadn't come by our route - did they know a better one? When we met up with the older of the two we found the answer - they did. The Pole Creek trail on the east side would have been a far better choice. Probably 1/3 of the driving time and less than half the climbing distance - it was only 6 miles from the summit. Live and learn. Lower down we scrambled over rock and talus, but the last several hundred feet were steep snow that we should have had our crampons on for. But we used steps made by others and took the bit of additional risk as payment for our laziness.
We climbed to the rounded, snow-covered summit by 1p and had only momentary glimpses of the surrounding views. The route south towards South Sister looked like easy slopes, and I thought of the Sisters Traverse that covers all three peaks in a day - that would be a fun venture for another time. We snapped a few pictures and took a short break before heading back.
As we neared the saddle to retrieve our gear, I was surprised to find my milk bottles on the snow outside my pack. Inspecting further, the zipper of the upper pocket had been unzipped and the granola bars and GU packets I had in there had were gone. Not people nor bears, my pack had been ransacked by ravens. They left their footprints about in the snow, and it looked like more than one. They had unzipped only the pocket with food, had removed the milk bottles, and then made off with the edible portions - very smart birds indeed! Interestingly, we had just been reading a trip report the night before of ravens doing nearly the same thing to another climber on the same mountain. Same birds possibly?
Thanks to a number of fine glissades, the return took only 4 1/2 hours to the 7 hours for the ascent. Still, it was a long way back, those 13 miles. While hiking down the road we passed by several cyclists heading up towards the pass. They certainly seemed more in their element than the two of us plodding down the pavement with packs full of gear, none of it particularly useful for the asphalt. I bypassed a number of the hairpin turns in the road by descending directly down through the forest. This worked well except for one place where I mistook a patch of snow below for the road and ended up crashing down several hundred feet with no road below me before realizing my mistake. This forced me to climb back up to the road and henceforth I was a little more careful before barrelling my way off the downhill side of the road.
By the time I got back at 5:30p I was fairly exhausted and had a fine blister developing on my foot. I should have tended to it earlier, but I had given up on caring much once we got down to the road. I rationalized that we only had one more day of hiking left, and anybody could do one day with a blister. Big deal. Rick returned about 20 minutes later, and after celebrating with a cold beer, we bid The Sisters good-bye. We'd come back sometime in the future and do North Sister under better conditions - and hopefully with less trepidation.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Middle Sister
This page last updated: Wed May 2 21:28:55 2007
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