I must enjoy torturing myself. I attempted The South Sister several years ago from Dutchman Flat and had to turn back when I reached Hell Creek due to deep snow. So this year I wanted to attempt it again. This time I had more experience and better, lighter gear. I spent most of January watching for a weather window to go. This year is an El Nino year and so the weather has been mild. I decided to go for it on February 01, 2010. I got my gear loaded up and route mapped out. After leaving information with my girlfirend I was ready to go for it. My total gear weight was at 55 pounds, this was counting everything I had on. The trip would be 24 miles round trip, with about 6000 feet of elevation gain. I planned to do this in two to three days. I was expecting some bad weather.
The long approach from Dutchman Flat
I arrived at Dutchman Flat at 4:00am and was mobile by 4:15. The weather at this point was clear and 19 degrees F. There was a large halo around the moon and winds were calm. I would have to snowshoe down the Cascade Lakes Highway 5.50 miles. This highway is closed during the winter to vehicles. There was about five feet of snow on the highway. As I snowshoed I could see that the moon was becoming more obscured by clouds. After just over two hours I reached Devils Lake and the start of the South Sister Climbers Route. I stopped here and took a short break. Light snow was beginning to fall at this point. I started to snowshoe up the Hell Creek Canyon. I decided to ascend a little further to the right than where my waypoints were. This was a bit of a mistake, since it put me ascending up the south side of Devils Hill. The sky was still dark and it was snowing more steadily. I opted to go ahead and traverse along the west face of Devils Hill. This kept me above the bottom of the canyon, but the terrian was more steep. The going was very slow. Finally after several hours I came out above the canyon near the Moraine Lakes area. I ended up in the bottom of a large depression with steep slopes leading back up to where I needed to go to get back on my route. I chose a path up through an area with some small trees to aviod setting off an avalanche since this was the leeward facing slope.
Starting the climb
I eventually got up onto the long plateau above Moraine Lakes that leads to the South Sister. It was now daylight but the snow was steadily coming down. It was a fine, single grain snow. The snowshoe along the palteau was long and slow. I had hoped the snow would be more condolidated at this elevation, but no such luck. It appeared there was about seven to ten feet of comsolidated snow with a foot or so of soft powder on top. As I traveled along the plateau I could start to see the base of the South Sister coming into view. The top two-thirds of the mountain was encased in clouds and snow. At this point I was getting very tired and wore out. Now I was having to set short term goals for myself to force myself to keep going. I would pick out a small group of trees and tell myself to get to that point, and then when I got there I would pick another goal. Every step was becoming painfull. I was experiencing flat light at this point and even with my goggles with red lenses I could not make out the terrain very well. I would not see the big drops or steep hills until I got to them. Everything looked flat. Finally after hours of snowshoeing I reach a Steep ridge. I start to pick my way up this. The ridge was narrow and had a rocky clifface on the west side. There was deep snow drifted at the bottom of it with a sharp drop below that. I opted to traverse along the top of the snow drifts at the bottom of the cliff. I had to use my poles as sort of a dead man several times to pull my self up the snow. I basically pushed my poles flat down into the snow and then pulled myself up. I came to one spot that had been cut out by the wind, with sort of a steep coulour effect. I ended up jumping over this and grabbing a small tree. Past this point was a steep push with deep powder snow. Finally I topped out on the narrow ridge.
I decided at this point to stop. The weather was worsening and I was completely exausted. I picked an area that was relatively flat on top of the exposed ridge. I had a little protection here from the wind thanks to a few trees. I spent about an hour flattening and leveling the snow, and pitching my tent. This was only the second time using this tent, and the first time using my new -25 sleeping bag. After getting camp set up I took a little rest. I then boiled up some water. I wasn't hungry at this point since I packed in a big breakfast which I ate on the approach. The weather continued to go downhill with about a 30-40 mph wind and icy snow falling. The snow was also drifting across the ridge. I was very comfortable in my tent.
My sleeping bag was extremely warm and comfortable. Sometime during the night the weather cleard out. I did not realize this until about 5am. I was expecting the weather to stay bad. The sun was now rising. I recieved about a foot of new snow. I called my girlfriend and she told me that a bigger storm was on its way. I could already see some high clouds approaching. The view from camp was awesome. I sttod there for about thirty minutes deciding on wether to continue to the summit. The temperature was coming up fast. My worry now was the south slope getting to much sun and avalanches occuring. I could see one large slab avalanche that had occured during the night on the South Sister. I was not feeling well this morning and unable to eat. I made the hard decision based on the all the factors to turn back. I do regret this descision, but I'm already thinking of doing it again. I packed up camp and headed out after snapping a bunch of pictures.
The long snowshoe to Dutchman Flat.
I decided to traverse along the top of the ridge and see if I could descend on the south end of it. When I got to the south end there was a large steep drop. I didn't want to take off my snowshoes for this and so I back tracked to where I came up it the day prior. I traversed along the same stteep slope below the cliff and finally reached the long plateau. It seemed to take forever to cross this. I was not moving very fast. After a long while I reached the top of the Hell Creek canyon. The views along the way to this point were amazing. Could see several peaks. I picked a route into the canyon down a steep cliff face. The going was quite slow through the canyon due to the deep snow and trees. After a couple of hours I reached the highway. It was now another 5.50 miles to Dutchman Flat. I stopped to eat a little and melt some more snow for water. I then began the long trip back. The trip back gains 1000 feet since there is an elevation drop to Devils Lake from Dutchman Flat. This trip back seemed to take forever and seemed I wasn't even moving at times. My body at this point was hurting everywhere. The snow was sticky and balling up under my snowhsoes, this was very irritating. After three hours from Devils Lake I finally reached my car. I was beat tired and sore. I ate some food and headed out.
MILES SNOWSHOED: 19.80
TIME SPENT SNOWSHOING: 16 hours
ELEVATION GAIN: 3000 feet
TOTAL GEAR WEIGHT: 55 pounds
COLDEST TEMPERATURE: 19 degrees F
WARMEST TEMPERATURE: 35 degrees
HIGHEST WINDS: 30-40 mph
SNOW DEPTH: 5-10 feet with deeper drifts
START TIME: Feb 01, 2010 0415
END TIME: Feb 02, 2010 1430
I have thrown around the sled idea. I built one a few years ago. The wieght was including everything, I only had about 38 pounds in my pack. Then theres the boots, snowshoes, poles, ect. If you ever want to join forces sometime on a long Cascade trip let me know.
Back when I was a poorly equipped young'un in Oregon, I did a similar trip starting from the Mt. Bachelor parking lot. I did it on snowshoes and carried in my alpine skis as I hadn't the bindings for randonee and was too impoverished to get anything better. This mountain trip is much better suited to do on SKIS! Dump the snowshoes. After I got some backcountry ski's I've only used my snowshoes for wintertime firewood gathering. You can so do this mountain on ski's and save yourself 1,000s of unburned calories. Take from one who summited South Sister with snowshoes in March. Never again. Of course, I won't even go into how stupid I was to snowshoe all the way around Crater Lake instead of skiing, cause it's just too pathetic. Awesome photo's and attitude in the trip report! I miss Oregon's volcanos.
I'm slowly working into skiis...I have skiis, but would like to find something that will fit onto my mountaineering boots. Maybe next winter I get set up with them. I don't mind the snowshoeing, but yes skiis would be better.
I love that region of Oregon and I love South Sister with TearDrop Lake and the stellar views of the surrounding area. You gave it a good shot but made the right decision in turning around. The volcano will likely be there and if not the other two are there.