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Sometimes failing is more fun than achieving a goal.
For a project I have next summer, I needed to go south to Oregon and scout out the Sisters, a group of three volcanoes near Bend. The South and Middle Sisters are non technical, but the North Sister has some fourth/fifth class scrambling, so I hit my Portland buddy Paul Turner up as he had just been up the North. What? He himself was scouting for a mission to nail all three Sisters, plus Broken Top, in a day, and would I like to join him? Of course I would!
We intended to start from the Pole Creek Trailhead, but fires near the town of Sisters had closed that area. Instead I arrived at the Green Lakes Trailhead at 2am after a long drive down from Seattle. We started off at 6:30am; in retrospect we should have began sooner. The plan was to head up Broken Top, then follow trails to North Sister, head south to hit Middle, and finally South, then drop back to Green Lakes and our car. About 35 miles and 13k’ of elevation of gain.
Broken Top was a lot of fun, about 10′ of non exposed fourth class climbing led to more exposed, but easier terrain to the summit. Smoke from the fires was heading east, away from our objectives, so we had some great views of the three Sisters. We continued down the NW ridge of Broken Top until we hit a trail with took us north to Soap Creek, where we turned west to climb the North. By this time, the wind had shifted and we had a light smoke that obscured vision for the rest of the day.
I soon discovered that I don’t enjoy volcano climbing in Oregon much at all. Scree. It’s all pumice scree. It’s horrible. We ascended the SE ridge of the North, and it was so much loose scree that comes out from underneath you. Not really dangerous, just terrible. Finally we made it to the “Terrible Traverse” section I’ve read so much on the North Sister. It definitely was steep, and still had some snow on it. Since it was late in the year, you could choose to crampon up and traverse across it or descend steep scree and traverse underneath the snow. We chose a combination of both and I’m not sure which one was better. We didn’t need a rope, but I can see in early season, when the entire area is snow covered, a rope would be very appreciated, especially when I’ll be solo. We continued a short traverse and then cut a hard right to enter the Bowling Alley. It was much more benign than expected, with only a few fourth class moves, mainly third class. In the gut of it, we trended to the right and exited at some rappel anchors on a little mini ridge. From there, it was pretty easy terrain to head along the ridge proper to the main summit, ahead to our left. Descending the Bowling Alley was slow, but felt comfortable. We kept kicking a lot of loose suitcase size rocks down off the traverse, as it’s just a giant choss pile, but we just went slow and deliberate.
On to the Middle Sister! Paul and I descended scree skiing off the SW ridge towards the Middle/North saddle and crossed a few snowfields to gain the north ridge of Middle. Pretty straightforward ascent with some side detours to try to wrangle some melting water from snow patches. We were atop pretty quick, and had a fun descent off the south face, trending to the left towards the Middle/South saddle. This is a large beautiful flat area that takes longer to get to than it looks. Taking a pause in the pristine alpine meadows, Paul and I discussed our status.
Paul had done a significant amount of scouting for this mission, but the one piece he hadn’t be able to see was the climb up the north ridge of South. I had assumed it was straightforward, like the south ridge, but looking at it now, it had a cliff section right on the ridge, 400 feet from the top. It was 7pm, and we had two hours of daylight left, at best. We knew there was a route up it, but did we want to attempt to find it, with steep choss under our tired feet, with only our headlights to guide us? How much do we want to risk? After a tough discussion, we made the call to bail. BUT, how to bail? We were MILES from any sort of trail (had been for most of the day!). Bailing would be an adventure in and of itself.
Analyzing the map, we decided to cut directly for Green Lakes on the southeast side of the mountain. While I love trail running, orienteering is really where it’s at. Ever since I completed my first Land Navigation course during ROTC in college, I have found myself in my element with a map, a compass, and shoes on my feet. It was so much fun never knowing what was up and over the next ridgeline. Would it be a snowy field, or a cliff?! The excitement was thrilling! There were no trails even close to this area, no climbing routes. This area of the mountain sees only a handful of visitors every year. We viewed the sunset over the three gorgeous sisters as we put pedal to the metal and started hammering out miles with ease. Paul and I nailed the trail almost exactly where I expected too, and had a dusk run along Green Lake and a four mile sprint down back to the car. Definitely one of the highlights of the summer!
Paul had a bunch of beer so we sat in the back of the van and drank until 2am. Good days in the mountains.
I headed back to the South Sister to scout that north ridge yesterday, and am happy with our decision to bail. The cliff band turned out to be legit, and although there is a way around it, in the dark, it would have been sketchy. We found what we thought was a fixed line, but looked like it had been there for years. The webbing (formerly red) was sun bleached white, and 90% cut through at one spot. I retied it to bypass the cut section, but then it turned out it wasn’t even anchored at the bottom. Oh god. Would have caught you in a little slip, but it would have just pendulumed you off a cliff in an actual fall. Good times!
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