North and Middle Sisters Trip Report July 29-August 01 2007
IntroductionSomeone was shaking me by the shoulder. It was barely light yet and I woke up reluctantly. On either side of my sleeping bag two tiny, perfect mannequins dressed in the latest medieval fashion looked down at me expectantly. One had in his hand a tiny, perfect climbing boot. “Cinderella” said he “the prince commands you to try this on”. “Cheeky monkey” I thought, but did as I was told nevertheless. Needless to say, I could barely get the thing over my big toe let alone my foot. “You’re not Cinderella” said my visitor “and you shall NOT go to the ball. And while we’re on the subject of balls, you’re quite likely to get two of your own hung out to dry today if you’re seriously thinking of trying to climb yonder pile of choss”. And with that a regal fanfare smote the air and my friends disappeared.
All nonsense of course but the fanfare at least was real. Graham, my tent-mate, was using his nose trumpet in order to wake up the dead and sleep for the night was clearly over. Just beyond our campsite the first tongue of the Collier Glacier beckoned and beyond that North Sister looked no less frightening than she had when we arrived the previous evening.
Three years previously I had enjoyed a pleasant day on South Sister. Tales of horrible volcanic scree had proved almost groundless and the southernmost of the girls had turned out to be a lovely outing. Some cinders below the crater rim to be sure, but nothing to get too upset about. A real Cinderella of a mountain in fact. However, no self-respecting climber could possibly look beyond that (or any other) summit and not immediately want to climb all that he or she can see. In this case Middle and North Sister each crooked a seductive finger and begged me to put them on my dance card. Always prey to female charms – I had no choice in the matter.
Injury and other obstacles prevented an immediate return to the area but this year proved auspicious and I was able to co-opt Graham, my usual climbing partner as well as Tony a fellow volcano enthusiast for the trip.
July 29; Victoria to BendSomething new for southern Vancouver Islanders heading south is the ability to reserve on the MV Coho to Port Angeles. This means we can clear US Customs quickly, enjoy a pleasant drive down Hood Canal rather than battling nose-to-tail traffic on 300 unwanted kilometres of I5 and, best of all, miss Seattle and Tacoma entirely as well as most of Olympia. This saves at least 2 hours and, since there’s a 6 am sailing in summer, means we get more than a 3 hour jump on the standard BC Ferries route.
We left Victoria by this method on July 29 and were happily ensconced in a nice hotel in Bend by 3.30pm. Lots of time to relax, prep gear, have a nice dinner and most importantly, get a really good nights sleep prior to the trip.
July 30; To camp below the CollierSince our intention was to climb both Middle and North Sisters, a camp convenient for both was called for and we decided to place this in the vicinity of the lower Collier Glacier. We didn’t anticipate a long approach (as proved to be the case) and so were able to enjoy a leisurely morning before heading off to the Obsidian Trailhead at about 10.30.
A brief visit to the ranger station in Sisters provided a recent report from a Mazama who had summited North Sis the previous week. He reported no snow anywhere on the SW ridge route, “horrible scree on the dirty traverses” and not much else apart from good rap slings in place at the top of the Bowling Alley. There are no climbing rangers stationed at Sisters so unless someone has been by and provided them with information, as in our case, a visit there is pretty much redundant.
In any event we were at the trailhead and under way by 11.15.
It’s a steady climb through the forest to the first notable point along the way, the Jerry Lava Field. We were soon across this on excellent trail before breaking for lunch at Sunshine Meadows at about 12.30. Aptly named, the sun shone down from cloudless skies, the stream burbled, the alpine flowers dazzled the senses of sight and smell and, best of all, the mozzies had gone on vacation. Just a month previously, I had been nearly eaten alive on Mt McLaughlin and expected the same here. All was truly right with the world!
On then up to the junction with the PCT and then straight on up the climbers trail with both Sisters now in view. The alpine meadows were now even more spectacular than those at Sunshine.
Here I have to note an error in the SP description. More detail on the approach to the Collier is given in the Middle Sister write-up. Brian states “Once at the PCT follow the climbers trail going straight ahead. …..The meadow gives way to more rocky terrain and the trail gets harder to follow. About 7-10 minutes after the meadow, the trail will follow right next to a creek and then head sharply to the right up a 5-10 meter hill. At this point, head across the creek to the left and do not follow the trail to the right.” It is quite true that going straight on across the stream is possible and there is a series of braided trails beyond this point. However, the best trail can be found by turning right, going up the 5-10 metre hill alongside the stream and then looking for a crossing to the left (east). This crossing is much more obvious than the first and leads to excellent trail providing easy access almost as far as the glacier. We only discovered this on the way down but, having experienced both routes, report this for those that come after us.
Beyond the meadows the first loose scree appeared but we continued to make steady progress in spite of our heavy packs.
At about 3.45 we could see that we were approaching the first snow tongues coming off the Collier and, having knocked off over 1000 metres out of the 1650 we needed to summit either Middle or North, decided to call it a day. An idyllic campsite presented itself almost immediately. A sheltered bench with views of both objectives as well as Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Jefferson and even Hood. A drip coming off the snow for water, two ready cleared tent spots and at a point where we could put crampons on pretty well from the off the next day. There was not another thing we could ask for. Altitude at camp was ~2,400 metres.
The evening passed pleasantly re-hydrating, eating, chatting and pretty soon afterwards, in lots of sleeping.
July 31; North Sister Summit DayMy imagined visitors notwithstanding and as always before summit day, I slept poorly and was awake well before the alarm went off at 5.30 am. We got up to crystal clear conditions, temperatures just above freezing and not a breath of wind. Breakfast, gear prep – packs thankfully a lot lighter than yesterday – and we were under way right on the stroke of 7.
As anticipated the position of our camp was ideal and we were able to put crampons on 2 minutes up-slope on perfect, hard snow.
Our approach to North Sis took us east and then southeast across the Collier, twice having to remove crampons to negotiate scree/shale ridges. The extremely loose friable character of the rock became immediately apparent. On this day, crevasse hazard was manageable without roping up. We were satisfied that, on this course at least, the slots were open and avoidable.
Our chosen course took us right to the foot of the SW ridge where the Hayden Glacier comes up from the east to meet the head of the Collier at a narrow col. With hindsight this was a mistake. Later in the day we spotted a climbers path starting further northwest of the col and going more directly up the west face towards the first gendarme which bars access to the summit block. In fact the SP route description makes a clear reference to this option. For better or worse, however, we made our choice, stashed the crampons, put on the helmets and started up the cinders.
The first 30 minutes was a classic 3 steps forward, 2 steps back battle. Unlike South Sis, this was really serious scree. Legs whirling madly, hit the anaerobic threshold, recover, start again. Ugh! Eventually the terrain got a bit more stable but then we discovered that we were confronted by a bluff that none of us felt happy about. A rap was possible, of course, but the wall appeared to overhang and, therefore, the return route was what concerned us. The alternative was to detour down to the west and climb back up 50 more metres of 30° volcanic sand to the ridge north of the obstruction. This could certainly be reversed. However, we now started to make our first serious contributions to the debris on the Collier 200 vertical metres below as we booted stuff off by the truckload. We checked constantly for parties below but there were none. On this, and probably most days, we had North Sis and her charms all to ourselves. Needless to say, had we spotted the more direct route noted above, we would have been spared this effort.
Back on the ridge once more we had relatively firm going until one more steep bit had us scrabbling for decent footing just before the first gendarme.
Yet more loose rock accompanied the traverses down, up and around the three gendarmes going first west then east and finally west again to the start of the “Terrible Traverse” all the while kicking stuff off by the ton. Epic fun – just not at the time it was happening.
The TT wasn’t too bad at all and certainly no worse than what had gone before. Some exposure and loose as hell to be sure but with no snow you probably weren’t going too far if you fell. Interestingly enough, here, as elsewhere on the mountain, we never saw a rock fall that we did not kick off ourselves. The whole thing seemed to be in perfect, if precarious, equilibrium with us as the only perturbation. Most likely all in my imagination but it offered some comfort at the time.
Once across the TT we made our second and worst mistake. The entrance to the “Bowling Alley” is not a continuation of the TT – although boot tracks lead that way. Instead the route into the Alley makes an abrupt right turn up a rock step. We noticed no marking for this but did mark it with a cairn it on the way down. Instead we went only slightly right and onto the worst and steepest scree in my experience. In hindsight, we were on the way up Glissan Peak or to the north ridge of North Sister but at the time I didn’t care. We were on serious, unprotectable ground, way out of our depth and all three of us knew it. Moving one at a time we backed off carefully, dislodging more stuff in the 10 minutes we spent on the exercise than the rest of the day combined. Never again do I want to be on ground like that. The only consolation was that we were able to spot the entrance to the Bowling Alley from above and could head that way with purpose. One tricky step-up had us in and onto the Class 3 ground at the bottom of the Alley. This was loose but a paved highway compared to 10 minutes earlier. It was soon behind us and we could see the rap slings at the top of the 4th Class pitch above. We soloed this perfectly comfortably on bomber rock, exited right to the saddle between the true summit and the south horn, walked left around the saddle and up the nice solid Class 3 wall to the summit arriving at 12.50pm.
We estimate that we lost an hour in total on the downclimb on the lower ridge and by our false start on the Bowling Alley. No matter. We were up and our reward lay all around. The air was clear and full of butterflies. The other Sisters and their cousins to the south and beyond in the distance Diamond Peak and Mt Thielsen. To the northwest the same volcanoes we had been able to see all the way up but looking much diminished from our present height. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the vista taken as a whole, however, were the rotten and crumbling arêtes and ridges falling away in all directions. We were on top of one enormous pile of volcanic junk!
The summit of North Sister is rewardingly small. Perfect for hero shots but not for lunch. So after a futile search for a summit register - this is one Cascade volcano that really should have one - and the obligatory photo session we dropped down to a ledge just below the summit for a well-deserved bite to eat.
We set off down after just over half an hour on top at 1.25pm. We rapped the Class 4 section of the Bowling Alley, slithered down the rest and were off the Terrible Traverse by 2.15. Once we’d finished traversing the gendarmes, the rest of the descent was not that unpleasant. Lots more contributions to the junk on the Collier as we slid down but we felt sure enough that no one was in harms way and we punctuated each rockslide with top-of-the lungs warnings to be on the safe side. We put the crampons back on at the foot of the ridge at 3.25 and rolled into camp exactly 2 hours later.
Later that evening after we’d got our breath back a bit, we began to wonder exactly what had taken over 10 hours to climb and reverse just over 650 vertical metres. There was a fair bit of map distance to cover between our camp and the foot of the route but what really used up the time was all that slipping and sliding. North Sister guards her virtue well. Any aspiring suitor should allow lots of time to woo her artfully and should make every step along the way count.
Our evening was an exact replica of the previous one and we were in the land of nod well before 9pm.
August 01; To Middle Sister Summit and out
Summit day nerves were not a fraction as bad as those preceding North Sister and I slept well. No imagined morning visitors manifested themselves, although Graham’s trumpet call to action sounded right on time at 5.30. We anticipated no major problems today so took our time over breakfast and only left the tents at 7.15.
Anyone familiar with the British tradition of the Christmas pantomime knows that, of Cinderella’s two ugly sisters, one is always a real horror show, whereas the other, with a touch of makeup here and some modern underwear there, might not be too bad. In fact a guy in drag with several days worth of stubble usually plays the senior harridan. A fair analogy for North Sister, I thought, so let’s hope it holds for her slightly prettier sister.
Our course across the Collier took us over yesterday’s ground for the first hour. We then began to trend further south towards the base of Middle’s north ridge. We hadn’t brought the rope today, so, naturally, Graham soon punched through a crevasse with his pole. This forced an end run and recourse to travel on a safe rock feature before one last snowfield gave way to a boulder field, a grassy “meadow” clearly used for camping and finally the saddle at the base of the north ridge at 9.45. Here we ran into the first people we’d seen since leaving Sisters 2 days before.
The pantomime analogy held true to its promise. The north ridge of Middle Sister does have some very loose passages and is certainly harder than South Sister but she turned out to be a lot mellower than the guy in drag across the way. We walked onto the summit at 10.55 less than an hour after leaving the saddle.
Middle offers a spectacular panorama of Broken Top, Batchelor, South Sister and the more distant volcanoes to the south. I snapped away happily already trying to remember which directory my stitching software was to be found in. To the north and west our old and familiar friends of the last three days greeted us across a cloudless space. Literally hundreds of butterflies surrounded us, far more than on the previous day. They provided that touch of makeup that the second sister needs to make her desirable. Sweetheart, you can dance with me any time you want, I thought.
An early lunch and we were scree-sliding back down at 11.30. Only 35 minutes later and we’d recovered our crampons and were happily back on snow. We reached camp at 1.20 for just over 6 hours total. A quick brew, pack up and we were on a beer-focused forced march down to the car at 2.30.
In fact, now that the pressure was off, even thoughts of beer couldn’t stop us lingering in the meadows above the PCT to take photo after photo of the glorious scenes there. In my long experience I have been in fewer, if any, more lovely places.
Eventually we tore ourselves away and resumed the descent. I have to say that the last 5 or 6 km over the lava field and down through the forest seemed to take forever. Knees and feet whose complaints couldn’t afford to be heard in the last 3 days now began to insist that we listen. In fact they soon became a screaming cacophony. No amount of reasoning with them worked. They even threatened us with strike action. But we skillfully persevered with the negotiations and just when they’d realized we were only stalling, Tony’s truck came into view at 5.50. Fooled the stupid buggers!
By 8pm we were once more in our nice hotel, showered and the first of many beers was about to appear.
Many thanks to Graham and Tony for their companionship on this outstanding trip. Both great climbers with outstanding mountain sense. A privilege to share the experience with you guys!
A Few Closing WordsThe Cinderella analogy notwithstanding, this TR is meant to improve continuity with regard to Brian Jenkins descriptions as well as provide the reader with some real examples of what to expect on a late season snow-free ascent of the two routes described above.
North Sister is truly a brute of a mountain in these conditions and should be taken very seriously. Move slowly and quietly up the SW ridge and along the traverses and maybe she won’t notice you’re there and throw stuff at you. The upper section of the Bowling Alley is fine but I still tested every handhold thoroughly. I felt that the final Class 3 section to the summit offered the only trustworthy rock on the mountain, probably because stuff has been falling off it longer than anywhere else.
Like Cinders’ second sister, Middle Sis aspires to loveliness and just about makes it. The scree slog up the north ridge is not much harder or looser than Cinderella herself to the south, but unlike South, Middle is better guarded by a glacier approach and this makes her a more difficult prospect. Although the SP descriptions make relatively light of the crevasse hazards, I would maintain a healthy scepictism on this aspect. Look about you carefully and, if in any doubt at all, rope up.
And finally to everyone’s real reason for bagging all three girls. Who wouldn’t want to have inscribed on their tombstone or as part of their eulogy; “One of so-and-so’s most noteworthy achievements was to climb three sisters in Oregon, two of them one right after the other”. Who cares if the real reason gets lost in the passage of time……..