South Sister P5K WSC

Sat, Jun 3, 2006

With: Matthew Holliman
Rick Kent

Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

The plan was simple in its conception: drive to Oregon and Washington for ten days, climbing as many of the volcanic peaks as we could along the way. We hoped to culminate our efforts and acclimatization with a single day ascent of Mt. Rainier, and that was the primary objective as we started out. But as sometimes happens, things change. Due to circumstances both within and outside our control, we never made it to Washington. But we made the best of it in Oregon, climbing 9 of 11 major volcanoes in the state, despite weather and injuries.

There were three of us on this dayhiking extravaganza. Matthew, who had been in China on business for the past several months had grown restless and soft from inactivity, and was eager to climb something, anything. Rick, joining us from Bakersfield, had climbed a few of the cascades, but there were many more he was interested in climbing. What we didn't know was that summer doesn't really start in the Pacific Northwest until after the July 4th holiday, and showing up a month early - particularly in a high snow year - meant lots of snow and uncertain weather. We'd get plenty of both.

Driving from San Jose around midnight, we planned to drive to Bend, OR, climbing Mt. Eddy and Mt. Thielsen along the way. It seemed so elementary in the planning stages. Rick slept in the back of the van while we headed north. It had been a fine day in San Jose and the stars were out as we left the Bay Area. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the weather turned as we drove north, starting with a thin cloud layer, then growing thicker, then dropping lower. By the time we reached Mt. Shasta it was drizzling lightly. We pulled off the Interstate 5 at Weed and assessed our first destination - Mt. Eddy. Morning had arrived, but not the sun. The cloud layer bottomed out around 7,000ft, our summit was at something over 9,000ft. It would be a hike in rain and clouds with no views whatsoever. It didn't take more than a few seconds to nix driving to the trailhead. We continued north on US97.

Now it was my turn to nap in the back while Rick drove us north into Oregon. Some 3hrs later we turned off the highway and drove some 20 miles to the Mt. Thielsen Trailhead on the west side of the peak. It was 10a now, but the rain had been fairly steady, albeit light, since we had crossed into Oregon. We got out of the van and walked around, looking at the sky and the trail and noting there were no other cars around anywhere. The little miracle that would abort the rain showers never came. We cancelled the second outing of the day and headed for Bend. Strike Two.

It was still early in the day, but climbing seemed out of the question, so we stopped at the High Desert Museum about half an hour south of Bend. It was a funny name in a funny location, because the museum and the entire area around it was a second generation Ponderosa forest. What did this have to do with desert? My inclination was to believe Oregonians had no idea what a desert really looked like. Used to abundant rainfall and dense, lush forests west of the Pacific Crest, perhaps these drier forests (resembling the Southern Sierra to a great extent) were their idea of desert. Later we found that one needed only drive a few more miles to the east before the forests did indeed give out to drier desert region, but it seemed funnier to go with our first inclinations. Going into the museum, we were stopped by the steep price of admission - $11 per person. We paid it anyway, and fully came to regret it. Though the museum is in fairly good shape (it is well-maintained and looks almost new), the exhibits were less than enthralling to us. There were history lessons in logging, a collection of live raptors, a lone river otter, and plenty of desert exhibits, few of which impressed us. It looked more like someone's personal hobbies and collections thrown together to make a museum than as something with an overall master plan. We couldn't recommend the museum even if you have nothing else to do.

A better expenditure of time and money (only $5 for the carload) was found at the Lava River monument just outside Bend. This large lava tube ran for more than a mile, one of the longest ones in the country. It was great fun to walk the length of it with our headlamps. Out of the rain, it was a cool 42F inside. The temperature was very close to the dewpoint as our breath would leave lasting fog as made our way along. We followed the tube about as far as it was possible to go. Eventually the headroom narrowed to a hunch, then to a crawl, then we gave up and turned back. On the way back I managed to turn my ankle, twisting it worse than I have ever done in more than 10 years of tackling talus and boulder fields. I was afraid my Cascade adventure might be over before it had even started. I managed to limp my way back to the van. We finished the drive to Bend, and once we were settled in our room, I iced my ankle for the next several hours.

We were up the next morning before 5a. The swelling and pain in my ankle had gone down enough that I decided to join Matthew and Rick for a climb of South Sister. I would be feeling the ankle the entire day and with nearly every step, but it wasn't a sharp pain and it didn't seem to slow me down any. The weather had improved only to the degree that it was no longer raining, but the heavy cloud cover continued and it was impossible to discern whether it was an improving trend or a temporary lull. South Sister was chosen because it was a non-technical outing, one we ought to be able to complete even if the rain returned. We drove to the Devils Lake TH which had opened only a week earlier. There was 4-5 feet of snow at the 5,400-foot elevation where we started, which we would come to find was the norm for the rest of the week's outings as well. Heading out around 6a, Matthew and I were on snowshoes while Rick carried his in his pack. There seemed to be no advantage to either, and for the rest of the trip we would simply leave the snowshoes behind and travel on foot over the consolidated snow we found almost everywhere.

The climb of the South Ridge is the easiest on the mountain, a little more than 5 miles to the summit, though nearly 5,000ft of gain. They call this the "dog route," presumeably because even a dog could do it, but more generally it describes the easiest route on a mountain. This was a new term not used in the Sierra, and though it seems derogatory, we would happily take the dog routes all week. We spent the first hour doing the initial steep climb through the forest until we reached the windswept plateau south of the mountain. Snow, snow, and then more snow was about all we encountered for the next couple hours. By 8:45a we had climbed the steep flank of the South Ridge and were on the ridge proper. A small, frozen lake lower on the northeast side of the ridge helped confirm our position on the map. We couldn't see much else as we had climbed into the cloud layer and the ridge and summit above us were obscured.

We took a short break here to dump a load of gear. We were carrying rope, helmets, harnesses, and climbing gear in addition to the snowshoes, crampons, and axes. We had gotten the idea that we might tackle Broken Top on the way back from South Sister, but we had done a poor job of discerning just what this entailed ahead of time. Only now did we realize that there was a 3,000-foot saddle between the two, and Broken Top didn't really lie along the way, but well to the side. It would have been a difficult two-fer in the summertime with good weather, but seemed far too ambitious now. As we dumped our gear in a pile, we wondered what others coming across our cache would think of us bringing all this rock climbing gear to South Sister's dog route. "Stupid Californians."

Leaving the snowshoes behind as well, we headed up the ridge over snow with our crampons on. At least half of the ridge above we came to find was swept clear of snow on the windward side, but it seemed just as easy to continue on the snow. It took another hour to reach the foggy summit area. Rick was about five minutes behind me, Matthew some distance behind him. There were no rocks to provide contrast, and in the soupy fog and near-level ground it was very disorienting. I paced out a set of footprints in the snow to the left and right for 30-40 yards to aid in locating the descent route on the way back. When Rick showed up he pulled out his GPS and confirmed we were close to the summit, though which way exactly was a matter of small debate. We decided to continue on instead of waiting for Matthew, expecting that he could follow our footprints in the snow. Rick with GPS in hand, myself with a compass, we headed across the plateau, our paths diverging slightly as our instruments suggested somewhat different courses. We never got out of sight of each other, so side by side at about 15 yards distance, we wandered through the whiteout. A distant horizon came into view momentarily, making it look like we still had 1,000ft of climbing and about half a mile to cover. It soon became clear that this was an optical illusion, and the 'distant horizon' was the opposite side of the crater maybe 50 yards in front of us. Only about 100ft of climbing to go.

We topped out on the summit at 10a. The only way to know was by confirming with the GPS. Without it, it would have been impossible to know if there wasn't another higher point another 50 yards along the ridge. The wind was blowing quite strongly now and we ducked down on the lee side of the mountain to get out of the wind and wait for Matthew. It was quite pleasant sitting there out of the wind, but without any sort of views at all. Would the whole week be like this we wondered? Matthew was able to follow our tracks and met up with us a short time later. We didn't stay long at the top before heading back down.

Halfway back to our cache, another party emerged from the fog to greet us, led in the front by a dog. There could be no remaining doubt about this being the dog route. We met a total of three parties on the ridge, only one of which was heading to the summit. The others were there primarily to ski, and reaching the ridge was the goal before turning around. While we packed up all our unused gear, the others donned their skis. The advantage of skis was made quickly apparent as they zipped off out of sight through the clouds below.

It took less than two hours to return to the car from the ridge. The three of us got split up immediately, all taking slightly different routes down. I had thought I was following our snowshoe tracks on the way back, but eventually found they belonged to another party that I caught up with, and found myself further east than we had gone on the ascent. There were plenty of tracks all over as it turned out, and most of them led back to Devils Lake eventually, so finding the way down off the plateau wasn't very hard. Being the first to return, I had plenty of time to lay out all my wet gear in the parking lot to start drying, change into comfy shoes, and quaff half my beer before Rick showed up. Matthew brought up the rear to finish the day shortly after 1p. It wasn't a rousing success, but we had made it to the summit. How we would fare on the more difficult summits in such inclimate weather was uncertain, but it wasn't looking too good. We drove back to Bend, intent on studying the forcast for the next few days and praying for better weather to come...


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