North Sister P2K WSC

Sep 8, 2014

With: Bob Sumner

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile
previously attempted Jun 27, 2012


North Sister is one of the hardest of Oregon's major climbing objectives, having earned a reputation as the "Mean Sister" or "The Beast", while her milder sisters are far friendlier. The trio are located in the Three Sisters Wilderness in Central Oregon west of Bend. I had been to the area on several occasions in the past, but had not succeeded in reaching North Sister. I had gotten an email from Bob Sumner back in August asking if I might be interested in a late summer climbing trip to North Sister. Having failed at it on two previous attempts, it had never been too far from my mind these past few years. Adam and I had agreed on the last attempt that the snow conditions were too uncertain in June considering the long drive, and that September would probably be a better time. So it seemed a fortuitous opportunity. Sumner, meanwhile, had had four failed attempts and was perhaps even more eager than myself to make things right. My September plans tend to fall around my daughter's volleyball and son's cross-country schedules, so it was only a small three day window that I offered to Bob at the last minute. Luckily he has a schedule more flexible than my own and we quickly made plans to meet up in the small town of Sisters, Oregon.

I was at our meeting place early and went about tidying up the van from the previous day's warm-up hikes when Bob's headlights announced his arrival in the parking lot well before our 6a time. Carpooling together in his more backroads-friendly SUV, we used up most of that extra time exploring an incorrect branch of the Pole Creek Rd we were driving to the trailhead. It was not expected to be an overly long day, so the loss of 15-20min was fairly inconsequential. We arrived at the Pole Creek TH and were on our way around 6:30a after filling out the self-issue day use permit found there. This was Bob's third visit and my first to this trailhead. I had used the Obsidian TH on the west side on the two previous attempts, not realizing that this one was both shorter and open earlier in the season. I left it to Bob to pick our route as it seemed he had looked into it extensively. He had sent me a number of emails detailing the route with pictures and such, though I admit to having only given them a hasty perusal. I was happy to just trust him on this one which wasn't really taking much of a chance. After all, if the guy could get a book published on climbing the NV County highpoints, he could probably get us to North Sister.

The trailhead and surrounding terrain had burned a few years earlier, leaving a stark landscape for the first several miles where we passed through a forest of charred snags as sunrise came upon us. We got our first view of North Sister after an hour and a half, rising above the greener trees found closer to the base of our objective. Our route was up the SE Ridge which had the advantage of being completely snow-free and relatively easy. As it turns out, even the more popular approach on the edge of the Hayden Glacier was snow-free, or mostly so, and it would not be necessary to use either axe or crampons for either route. The SE Ridge (also called the SE Spur as it eventually joins the South Ridge) is surprisingly easy in the lower portion where one is treated to a glorious view of the colorful East Face and East Ridge during the climb. Lingering smoke obscurred distant views which was a real shame as the views on a clear day can be stunning.

We kept up a steady pace, taking infrequent and short breaks to give Bob a chance to catch his breath. He would apologize for being slow, blaming smoke, age and other convenient factors, but in reality his pace was nearly as fast as my own and I had no complaints at all. The upper portion of the SE Ridge was more challenging, a series of pinnacles to be navigated around on rock that was terribly fragmented and loose. A use trail appears along much of the ridge taking some of the guesswork with it, but we still found ourselves on chossy class 3 terrain that took some patience and care to work through (seems we missed the use trail that had moved to the south side of the ridge at this point). Near the top of the ridge Bob called for me to halt and had some seemingly bad news to share. A late-season snowfield just below us was larger than Bob had remembered on his previous effort. He was convinced we were going to find the West Slopes snowed over and of course we had left our snow gear at home. He began to berate himself for not driving over McKenzie Pass the day before to check on the snow conditions. He was "100% certain" that we were screwed, shaking his head in dejected regret. I listened to him for a minute or so but was unconvinced. Yeah, we might be screwed, but it seemed far from certain in my view. I suggested the larger snowfield could just be the result of a bigger snow year (Oregon is not experiencing the drought of its southern neighbor), but the steep West Slopes would likely still melt out by this time. In any event, we weren't going to turn around now without at least checking on conditions.

Four hours from the trailhead we finally reached the junction with the South Ridge, only about a third of a mile to the summit and the beginning of the most challenging sections. A ducked use trail is found leading up the South Ridge and where our routes joined it was obvious the South Ridge was more popular than the one we'd taken. Back on familiar ground from my last venture to North Sister, I followed the ducked route as it weaved among the gendarmes on the upper portion of the ridge, mostly on the west side. Looking around, I noted not a single patch of snow. I paused to wait for Sumner who was out of sight somewhere, only to hear his voice and then see him pop his head up higher than I expected. He had followed the ridge more directly, following a thinner trail that led over sketchier ground on the east side of the ridge. Convincing him that my route was well-traveled, we soon joined forces and continued on the more obvious trail on the west side, climbing back up and around one gendarme on the east side before making our way to the start of the "Terrible Traverse." Just before reaching it we spied another climber making his way in our direction along the use trail. He was limping slowly, having just twisted his ankle returning across the traverse. His older partner was behind him. They had encountered snow and with only one set of crampons had individually gone the remaining distance to the summit. His partner was somewhere in the Bowling Alley while he got a head start on the return. Not knowing the extent of his injury, we let him know we had a Spot device which could be used to call for SAR, but he reckoned he could probably hobble out on his own, and should at least go through some pain to try. Leaving him, we rounded the next turn to see what the fuss was about, but our introduction had not been encouraging.

This is the where the mountain earns its nasty reputation. Most of the time this traverse is covered in steep snow up to 45 degrees. Conditions are often ripe for avalanche, either the fresh powder type or more likely, soft springtime sloughing avalanches. It can also be ice hard. When it melts off it is said to be a 30 degree slope of very disagreeable talus. The first thing we noticed was - snow. Yes, there was still snow. Right at the start was a tongue of snow extending up and down for some 200ft. It was an obstacle, but not the impasse that Sumner had feared. It was too hard to cross the 30ft of width directly. Waiting for it to soften had no appeal - that could take hours. Our new friend had said that his partner had scouted the bottom of the snowfield and thought it could be gotten around by dropping about 150ft. While we were standing there considering our options, a thunderous roar could be heard across the way and out of sight - the other climber was in the Bowling Alley and had just let a huge rockfall go - this was not making us feel any better about the situation.

After more consideration, I decided to go up and see if I couldn't sneak around the top of the snowfield where it abuts the cliff face some 50-60ft above us. This proved workable, but sketchy, which I reported to Bob. After I skirted the top and started back down through steep, loose talus to the regular route, Bob came up to have a look himself. He didn't like the short bit of sketchiness I had reported and I had to tell him honestly that the crappy downclimb I was then engaged in was actually worse. He then decided to check out the longer route around the bottom of the snowfield. Meanwhile, I was very gingerly trying to lose ground to get back to the route when the older partner came around the corner after exiting the Bowling Alley. I had to stop and let him pass under me lest I should knock rocks upon him. I finally got back to the regular route around the same time he was pausing to put on crampons, while Bob looked on. My lightweight pair of aluminum crampons would have done nicely in my backpack, I thought. While Bob was making his way around the more tiring, but safer route around the base of the snowfield, I scouted out the entrance to the Bowling Alley, noting a ramp leading from the traverse right to the base of it. Back together, we went up the ramp to the infamous Bowling Alley together.

This section has probably the worst reputation of the route. It can be ugly indeed with snow or ice. Without either, it is far tamer. The lower half is mid-angle loose stuff, but mostly small talus and pebbles to knock down, not large boulders. We managed up and down without knocking down anything of consequence which made me think our friend's partner was perhaps a little less careful when he let go his barrage. As the alley turns to the right, or south, it gets steeper and goes to class 3-4. Two sets of rappel slings can be seen near the top. I went first and found the rock quality much better than the lower half and the holds surprisingly good and plentiful. I went up without a hitch, reaching the lower rappel sling in a few minutes. Behind me, Bob hesitated on the steeper section. I offered to toss down the rope to him if he liked, and though he didn't really want to have to bother with it, in the end he decided it would be more prudent.

Out came the rope which I first flaked before coiling and tossing to him. I belayed him off the rappel slings for the forty or so feet of the steep section. After this, things get decidedly easier. While Bob continued up easier terrain to the last south-facing headwall leading to the summit, I reconfigured the rope for rappeling before leaving it and starting up after him. This last class 3 section is easier than we had expected and far easier than it looks. A series of well-placed ledges makes it a cinch and only fifteen minutes after pulling the rope from my pack we were at the highpoint. I smiled as I found myself unable to restrain from reminding Bob about his 100% certainty in our being screwed. He was already backtracking, claiming that he was 100% certain we'd find snow, which we did. It was a good laugh. We had succeeded after half a dozen misses between us and we reveled in our top-of-the-world view. It was disappointing that the smoke was so prevalent in the area, obscuring the far views which we knew would be spectacular. We ate lunch in the warm sunshine, in no particular hurry to leave which pleasant conditions.

There are three summits to North Sister, the middle one being the highest, designated as Prouty Pinnacle, or Peak (depending on which guidebook you're reading). The south summit is considered part of Prouty and often called South Horn - we would pay it a visit before descending back down the Bowling Alley. The north summit is Glisan Pinnacle, or Peak and is a more formidable bonus. We noted a fixed rope was left dangling down a scary class 4ish chute towards the saddle between the two. Bob had reached that saddle on a previous attempt from the north, but without the help of the rope had gotten no further. Neither of us were in any mood to continue over to Glisan, happy if we managed to extract ourselves without twisting an ankle, or worse.

After about 20min at the summit, lunch consumed, I began to fidget and get a bit chilled. Bob picked up the hint as I strapped my pack on, and in a another minute we were on our way back. After Bob rappeled the upper section of the Bowling Alley (the 50m rope just serving to get him to down with only a few feet to spare), I pulled the rope up, coiled it and returned it to the pack before downclimbing the route. Rappels always seem to scare me as I dislike trusting my life to hardware and I felt better doing this one as a downclimb, trusting to my boots and choice of holds. Back at the traverse we both took the safer route around the bottom of the snowfield before returning to the southern end where we regrouped and started the easier portion along the use trail back down the South Ridge.

For a change of pace we decided to descend the South Ridge route rather than return on the SE Ridge, which proved to be easier and faster. There was almost 1,000ft of steep, sandy descending from the lower portion of the South Ridge to the northern edge of the Hayden Glacier. The sand was mixed with gravel and other unpleasantries that made it necessary to use some caution on the descent, but for the most part it was both swift and fun. It would have been horrible had we attempted to ascend that face, but I believe the regular route avoids it by continuing along the edge of the glacier to the saddle between Middle and North Sisters. We picked up a use trail for much of the remaining descent back to the main trail, though not before losing it more than once. We caught up with the other two climbers in the open, sparsely forested terrain about half a mile above the trail. They were going slowly but steadily and would likely make their way back to the Pole Creek TH before dark, or shortly afterwards. We found our way back to the maintained trail not long before 3p and a little over an hour later were back at Pole Creek. Success! At 9.5hrs, the outing went off with only the smallest of hitches and were both elated. We celebrated back is Sisters over dinner that Bob kindly treated me to. We briefly considered teaming up for something easier the next day but Bob was feeling like cashing in while he was ahead (and his legs tired) and driving home, and headed off to Bend to get a good night's sleep in a motel first. I headed south a few hours to sleep near the top of Odell Butte that night - I still wanted to get a few more Oregon peaks in before heading back to San Jose the next day...

Late summer is undoubtedly the easiest time to climb North Sister. The traverse is hardly terrible - there's actually a use trail running across it. Without snow it is little more than class 2-3. The Bowling Alley is fairly easy too. I wouldn't consider using a rope on here, but others are not so comfortable with exposure. I might bring axe/crampons though just in case there is snow - would certainly save some time and what I thought was the hardest part of the day.


Bob Foote (via email) comments on 03/17/15:
I climbed N. Sister in September 1971 as I was entering the 8th grade. The traverse was completely covered in frozen snow. I think it was mostly a permanent snowfield in those years. We were led by Jon Karakauer (yes THAT Jon Krakauer). Jon was a senior in High School and already a good climber. Jon cut steps across the traverse and all the adults and us 8th graders picked our way across. I was terrified. We had no crampons and just ice axes. If we slipped it would have been the end. Now days in our litigious society, no one would take the risk of leading an inexperienced bunch of school kids on such a climb. No one spoke up and we all did it without voicing our concern or fear. The worst part was I knew we had to recross it on the way back.

The "bowling alley" was clear of snow and just frozen rocks and some verglas. The bowing alley term came in use later. It was just called the final gully. We roped up and climbed up and rappelled back down. I enjoyed seeing your pictures from 2014. It brought back memories of siting on the summit in the warm sun. Jon had forgot his lunch and snacks but we found some pop tarts in the summit register box. He was pretty hungry. But I always wondered what the climb would have been like if the gully was full of snow.

Willi Unsoeld did a winter climb of N. Sister while training for the Everest 63 Expedition. Those were the days of goldline ropes and wool gear. He said the winter weather in the Oregon Cascades met everything he saw in the Himalayas.

I have enjoyed reading about your Sierra Challenge and experiences. Maybe someday I can come down for a day or two when everyone is pooped and you need a partner. I am so impressed when I read your 30 mile days climbing Taboose Pass and Marion Peak. I have some work to do to make it 30 miles. You make it sound easy.
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