Sunday, June 3, 2018

South Sister

The Cascade volcanoes march north
12.5 miles round trip, 4900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead (closed in winter), Northwest Forest Pass required

South Sister is a stratovolcano, the tallest of the Three Sisters and the third tallest peak in the state of Oregon. It is also one of the easier major Cascade volcanoes to summit: in late summer, hikers can follow a steep, rocky, and strenuous trail to the 10,358-foot peak. The views from this volcanic peak are some of the most astounding in the Pacific Northwest, including a jaw-dropping view to both the north and the south of the chain of volcanoes composing the Cascade Mountains from California's Mount Shasta to Washington's Mount Rainier. I chose to climb South Sister in late spring, taking advantage of early season snow cover to avoid the late season scree and crowds.

It's important to understand that an easy volcano doesn't mean an easy hike. This is a hike that should only be attempted by experienced hikers; the climb is only easy in the sense that it is not a technical glacial climb, even though it ascends a glaciated peak. Hikers who come before the snowfields along the trail melt out should carry an ice axe and know how to self arrest; crampons or microspikes are also necessary. Let me be clear about what this means: if you don't know which end of an ice axe you'd use to self arrest, you shouldn't be climbing South Sister before the snow melts.

I climbed South Sister over a Memorial Day weekend trip to Bend. Waking a little after 3, I drove from Bend out to the trailhead at Devils Lake on the Cascades Lakes Highway in the dark, with the silhouettes of Mount Bachelor, Broken Top, and South Sister occasionally visible in the light of the almost-full moon. The parking lot at Devils Lake was almost full by the time I arrived and plenty of skiers and other hikers were preparing to set out when I left the trailhead a little before 5 AM. Although not a true alpine start, I chose to start early for optimal snow conditions and to complete as much of the climb as possible before the sun softened the snow.

Leaving the parking area, the trail crossed a stream via a log bridge and quickly came to the Cascades Lakes Highway again. The trail crossed the road and came to what was effectively a second trailhead, where I filled out a self-issue permit for hiking in the Three Sisters Wilderness. Past the road, the trail entered the forest and began a steady uphill climb through the forest. About a mile in, the trail turned into a small gulch; here, patchy snow turned into solid cover and the trail disappeared beneath a few feet of consolidated snow. I followed the tracks of the hundreds of hikers and skiers who had ascended up the valley previously. The ascent in the gulch was initially gentle, but at the north end of the gulch, the path ascended steeply to exit the gulch and reach a junction with the trail to Moraine Lake about two miles from the trailhead. The trail sign was just barely poking above the snow, signaling that I was still on track towards the summit.

Here, the forest opened up, yielding great views for the rest of the hike. I trudged uphill through an open, snowy clearing dotted with trees that gave the first clear views of South Sister and the climb ahead. Looking back, I could see clouds filling the valley of the Cascades Lakes and the just-risen sun casting its light on Mount Bachelor and Diamond Peak farther to the south.

Mount Bachelor from the Golf Course
After a three-quarter mile trudge across snow, I ascended a small hill and then came out onto the Golf Course, an even larger open area that was at the moment still covered in snow. South Sister rose directly ahead: I studied the route ahead before crossing the Golf Course to reach the foot of mountain and the start of the true climb. Broken Top was visible to the east.

Looking to the climb ahead from the Golf Course
Leaving the Golf Course, I began the long slog up South Sister. Although the trail was not visible under the many feet of snow, tracks of previous hikers marked the route, which followed the west side (left on the climb up) of the ridge leading up from the Golf Course. The shadow of the ridge kept this stretch of the climb in the shadow, keeping the snow hard even after sunrise. Continuous climbing brought me up to a small saddle where the snow ended briefly; here, I hopped back on the trail for an ascent up a scree slope.

Halfway up
At the top of the scree slope, I emerged at a saddle between a small moraine rockpile and South Ridge, which led up and around the Lewis Glacier to the summit crater. The Lewis Glacier filled the depression between South Ridge and Hodge Crest but at this point in the year was still fully covered by the winter snowpack. A small, robin's egg blue tarn lay at the foot of the glacier. The wind was roaring here, with a sustained gale force. This particular saddle was about 1.2 mile uphill from the base of the climb at the Golf Course and was still 1500 feet in elevation below the summit.

Lewis Glacier and the final ascent to the crater
At this point, most climbers had the option of either hiking on scree or snow; a snowbank above the Lewis Glacier allowed for hiking in the snow along South Ridge, while South Ridge itself had melted out and allowed for scree hiking. I chose scree hiking to avoid some sketchy cornice stretches of the snow climb; this route made for an unpleasant experience, with loose footing and a constant blast of ash in my face from the high winds. The ever-improving views made up for the discomfort, with Broken Top now fully visible along with a line of volcanoes extending south to Mount Scott on the rim of Crater Lake.

Broken Top and the Lewis Glacier tarn
The scree hiking didn't last forever: the final slope up to the crater rim was still more or less fully snowbound. I donned my microspikes again for the final push uphill through the brutal winds.

The final push
Almost five hours after setting out, I stood atop the crater rim of South Sister. Before crossing the crater to reach the true summit on the crater's north side, I gazed south to appreciate the vista of lakes, volcanoes, and forest that stretched south all the way to Mount McLoughlin in southern Oregon and Mount Shasta in northern California.

Views south to the Cascade Lakes, Mount Scott, and Mount Thielsen
South Sister is crowned by a wide, flat summit crater. The crater is mostly filled by a glacier; when the winter snowpack melts in late summer, a small tarn- Teardrop Lake, the highest body of water in the state of Oregon- will exist for a few months each year. During my visit, the glacier was still fully covered by snow and Teardrop Pool was still months from forming. I hiked across the crater and then completed the final uphill to reach the true summit.

A string of climbers approaching and leaving the summit
Summit crater of South Sister
The summit of South Sister boasts a viewshed that is nearly unrivalled in the contiguous United States. It is the only spot which I know where it is possible to simultaneously see Mount Shasta in California and Mount Rainier in Washington State. Almost every major volcano between the two is visible from here as well: McLoughlin, the remnants of Mount Mazama (Crater Lake's rim), Mount Thielsen, Diamond Peak, Newberry Caldera, Mount Bachelor, Broken Top, Middle and North Sister, Three-Fingered Jack, Jefferson, Hood, St. Helens, and Adams. Smaller nearby landmarks like Black Butte, Smith Rock, and the city of Bend were clearly visible as well, as were the Cascade Lakes (Sparks, Elk, and Lava Lakes) to the south. Gazing west, I could see past the many ridges of the Cascades out to the Coast Ranges. Both the ridge of Hodge Crest and the crevasses of Prouty Glacier were visible on the eastern flanks of South Sister itself.

The view north: Middle and North Sister, Three-Fingered Jack, Jefferson, Hood, Adams, St. Helens, Rainier
Broken Top and Mount Bachelor
On the descent, I plunge stepped my way down the mountain, this time choosing to stick to the snow. Although I noticed a few glissade tracks on my way up, I was unfortunately only able to do a few short glissades. The snow was still much too hard for good glissading due to the wind and many of the glissade tracks appeared to have sketchy runouts into rocky areas or away from the route.

South Sister is a rare spot where the extraordinary alpine world of a high summit is accessible to those lacking technical alpine skills. Along with Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams in Washington State, it is an excellent way for experienced hikers to try out mountaineering. The peak is a well known gateway drug to mountaineering: no less an outdoors luminary than writer Jon Krakauer was introduced to mountaineering on the slopes of this mountain.

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