Wed, Jun 27, 2012
North Sister is one of the toughest of the major Oregon summits. Not only does it have a long approach, it has a technical summit rated class 4 or higher, depending on conditions. Rick Kent and I had tried to climb it six years earlier, but unconsolidated new snow turned us back after reaching the saddle with Middle Sister (which we climbed as consolation). Adam and I would do better on today's outing, venturing high up the mountain from the saddle, but once again turned back due to poor snow conditions.
Camped off SR126 somewhere east of Eugene, we awoke at dawn and drove to the Obsidian TH on the west side of North Sister where we started off just after 7a. It was a relatively late start and would prove our undoing, but as we did not get to bed until late the night before, it could hardly be helped. Though the trailhead was open, snow blocked vehicle access to most of it and we ended up parking behind another party that had camped there during the night. They started out shortly before us as we were still getting our gear sorted and our act together. The trail was a mix of snow and snow-free, an awful combination as it added a great deal of otherwise unnecessary up and down over the snow sections. There was insufficient snow for snowshoes which made for a lot of awkward hiking over the hard snow in many places. It took an hour and a half of hiking through heavy forest in these conditions before we found clearings and our first view to our peak. We were beginning to believe the climbing in Oregon was not all we had imagined. Luckily, things improved. At first we were following the footprints of the other party ahead of us, surprised how well they did to keep on the correct route. I had the route in my GPS to make sure we didn't wander off, correcting our direction every now and then when the other party appeared to veer off. But we kept coming back to their tracks, a few times meeting up with them. Later we learned they were using a GPS to navigate as well.
Now completely on snow, we spent another hour hiking through a mix of open fields and forest. I was surprised to hear voices ahead and soon came upon a family of four who were camping in the dry well of a tree surrounded by snow. Their dog was barking loudly and did not allow us to approach. They had been out four days on a backpacking trip starting south of South Sister and had been caught up in several days of fresh snow. They had appreciated the nice skiing conditions as they were all on skis, but were now ready to get back to civilization and tired of the snow. They asked about the Obsidian TH we had used and whether they could follow our prints back to it. All the while the dog was barking incessantly making it hard to communicate. They apologized for the ruckus, but made no effort to quiet the dog which I found both strange and annoying. They seemed to have settled on following our tracks back, but I noted on our way back that they decided otherwise, perhaps continuing north along their originally intended route.
By 9:15a we began to get into steeper territory and here we put on the snowshoes. I stopped first while Adam continued ahead, but after maybe 15 minutes I caught back up with him as he was putting his on. Here we continued above treeline. The other party, a couple from Colorado we found later, had switched to skis and were making good time up the slopes. We were not far behind, but never did catch up. In our discussion after we got back we found they were as surprised by our speed as we were by theirs. It was the first time I'd seen someone on skis keep up with us on snowshoes on such steep slopes. Like us, they were out for an extended climbing road trip. Climbing higher, we were treated to fine views of Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Adams, all lined up and extending to the northern horizon. To the east loomed the scary West Face of North Sister and I studied it carefully so that I would recognize the Bowling Alley and other features when we were close upon them.
It was 11a before we reached the saddle between North and Middle Sisters, the sun now softening the west-facing snow slopes. Avalanched sections of this side of the mountain were evident everywhere and disturbing. These were wet slides - sun-softened snow that grows too heavy and slides off at slower speeds, but still dangerous - getting caught in one can be akin to getting buried in wet cement. I became discouraged about our prospects at this point and let Adam know so that he could choose between continuing and possibly failing, or taking Middle Sister as consolation. Adam had no reservations and was all for continuing. So after a short break we started up to the South Ridge.
We used snowshoes as far as it seemed safe to do so, tackling some yet steeper slopes before making our way to the rocky ridgeline, partially windswept clear, but mostly still lined with snow. By noon we had climbed as far along the ridge proper as seemed doable, after which we needed to return to the west side to begin a steep traverse to get around a gendarme. Here we left our snowshoes and switched to crampons. Adam pulled a large roll of duct tape from his pack and began to use it to secure his crampons to his boots. Past experiences found his crampons coming off at critical times and this effort was meant to keep it from happening again. My suggestion that he might explore why they were coming off and correct it was scoffed at in the face of his perfectly functioning workaround.
The snow traverse turned into a bit of mixed climbing as we ascended higher, only to begin a steeper traverse shortly afterwards. We regained the ridgeline once again around 12:40p, the South Horn (the lower south summit) looming nearer all the time. We found some ducks along the ridge that are probably intended to help with route-finding after the snow has gone, leading out once again onto the west face. At 1p we were only a few hundred yards from our goal, but not yet at the class 4 traverse under the South Horn, leading to the Bowling Alley and the higher middle summit. The slope to reach the traverse was terribly steep and after a long, hard look I turned to Adam and said, "I'm done." At first he didn't grasp my meaning or thought I was joking, but I explained that we had gone as far as I was willing to go. We had started too late in the morning for the snow conditions. Already the snow was softening alarmingly. We could probably make it across the slope we were looking at, perhaps even the class 4 traverse beyond it, but I was afraid the snow would be worse yet on our return hours later. It looked like a trap in the making and I wanted no part of it. Adam seemed to have no fear of such dangers at all and wanted very much to continue. His assessment may have been correct and we might have executed the remaining climb without incident, but his experience on such terrain is lacking and there was no way I could consider his bold desire to continue in any way reassuring. Back we went, both agreeing that it might be easier to tackle it later in the summer without the added complexity of snow.
We retraced our steps back to the North/Middle saddle where we arrived just before 2:30p, picking up our snowshoes and changing to them along the way. We spent the next two and half hours making our way back to the Obsidian TH. The snow was a little too soft for glissading, but this didn't stop Adam from trying. He was partially successful on the steeper slopes, but mostly ended up with wet pants. The on again, off again nature of following the trail once we were in the trees was particularly annoying. We could no longer wear snowshoes with all the open terrain, but there was so much up and down and slipping along that went on for over hour that we found thoroughly tedious. Back at the cars we found the other pair that had gone on to Middle Sister, summited, and had a fine ski back down. They too had attempted North Sister a week earlier and found conditions similar to us. Skilled as they were and still having turned back, it made Adam feel better about our own decision today.
After packing our gear we headed east over McKenzie Pass to Bend where we took a room for the night. While driving around looking for a BBQ place for dinner that no longer exists, Adam noted nearby Pilot Butte as a late afternoon stop. I thought he was joking at first but found he was perfectly serious - he would feel much better having reached the summit of something today, even if it was a drive up (which this was). As for myself, I'm always up for a bonus peak, so off we went. We felt somewhat embarrassed taking the spiraling road to the summit, passing by many of the locals on foot who use this as their afternoon workout. The summit plaza is made of paved brick with concrete benches, several plaques embedded in volcanic rock at the center along with a 1932 benchmark. As the highest point within Bend, the summit offers a superb view in all directions. This small state park appears to be very popular judging by the numbers of people we encountered at the summit. After taking our required photographs, we headed back down to find some dinner around sunset.
It was our first big day of climbing on this trip and we were both disappointed not to reach North Sister's summit, but overall the day had been a good one with fine weather and a strong effort. And we still had seven or eight days remaining. Onward!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: North Sister
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