Middle Sister

            Three Sisters is over 3 hours drive from Portland, so I drove up on Monday and camped at Scott Lake, with a six mile day hike just to warm up my legs.  I got up before dawn, made coffee and ate breakfast before dawn, put my car-camping gear back in the car, loaded my new pack, then unloaded it and loaded it again more compactly, and arrived at the trailhead right at 7:30.  There I saw a rather dismaying message that the entire Obsidian area, including the trail to the beginning of the Collier Glacier route I planned to take, requires a special permit that must be obtained in advance from the main ranger station:  the note emphasized “both day use and overnight use.”  I debated a minute, determined that “day use” does not include hiking through on the way to a less over-used area and, promising not to stop for a granola bar or take a picture or otherwise “use” the area on the way through, proceeded.  (It turns out that the Forest Service does not intend to rule out through-hikers; they simply worded the sign very poorly.) 

            The first part of the hike – 5.1 miles to the beginning of the climber’s trail – went smoothly, and I completed it in a little over 1.5 hours.  I stopped to fill my canteens at Glacier Creek, wasted a little time looking for the trail up over the rockfall from which the creek emerges, and then proceeded.  The trail was quite steep even at the beginning, which I expected – it was also rather rough. Collier Glacier from the top When I crossed the first ridge above the beginning of the climber’s trail and broke out into the valley leading up to Collier Glacier, I faced a strong and gusty headwind, which plagued me all the way to the summit.  At times it felt like the gusts were actually going to blow me over, and it also felt like the wind added 25 or 30 pounds to the effective weight of my pack.  Another annoyance that I hadn’t anticipated – the equinoctial sun was at almost exactly the same elevation in the sky as the slope of the mountain, and it was directly in my face.  Even seeing the trail ahead of me was difficult; taking pictures of the trail ahead impossible. 

            Other than these two inconveniences, the hike up the valley to Collier glacier, then on up the glacier, was a lot of fun.  I decided to climb the moraine next to the glacier and deferred putting on my crampons and walking up the snow, a decision I regretted.  The adjustable crampons work like a charm, and once I was on the glacier I found walking on the snow much easier than stumbling over watermelon-sized rocks and slip-sliding through loose gravel and fine sand on the moraine. 

            At about 1000 feet below the summit, however, I had no choice.  I came to the end of the glacier and ran out of snow – just when the slope grew steeper.  The ground was no firmer – my impression is that Middle Sister is just a huge pile of rocks and sand; even the top is just a huge boulder, about the size of a large refrigerator, undistinguished in any way except that it is a bit higher than the surrounding boulders. North Sister from Middle Sister summit The route turns southward at the top of Collier Glacier, and obligingly, the sun also wheeled on around, so it was still directly in my face as I peered upward at the trail ahead.  After an hour or so of sand-pile walking (two feet up for every foot of actual elevation gain) I reached the top at about 1:15 and sat down for a sandwich and a bit of scenery.  I had begun with the idea that, if things went well, I might give the north route up South sister a try that same afternoon, but reaching the top that late was not “going well,” so I gave up on that plan.

            I took a few pictures but it was a very hazy day – a forest fire had started down near Oakridge, adding to the thick pall of smog from the Willamette Valley, and the pictures I did take of the other Cascade peaks were pretty unexciting.  But my eye is better at filtering out haze than my camera, and the view was spectacular.  Particularly spectacular was the view of North Sister, which I don’t think I will ever climb, and South Sister, which I was thinking of climbing the next day.  North Sister is accessed by a ridge that looks, close-up, to be much worse than the ridge I had just scrambled up, and it is topped by a pair of spectacular spires, both over 200 feet high.  Turning my eye southward, I rehearsed what I had read about the north route up South Sister and traced where it must go.  It looked very steep, even from three miles away. 

            The way down, along the ridge that stretches out to the south and east, looked a lot like what I had just scrambled up.Ridge down to saddle from summit  It is blocked by a large rock outcropping, but otherwise looked fairly easy to get down.  The wind, which had plagued me the entire day, died as a started down the ridge.  When I reached the outcropping, I followed what appeared to be the trail, missed where it turned back up toward the ridge, and ended up following a secondary descent that drops pretty well straight down the fall line.  That way appears to be considerably steeper; much of it is over unstable heaps of rock that require constant testing and unrelenting caution.  Once I realized I had taken the wrong trail, I considered scrambling back up the ridge trail – and later wished I had, since the direct descent was misery the entire way.  The descent took at least half again as long as the ridge trail would have taken, and I didn’t reach the level of the saddle between the two peaks until nearly 3:30.  I hiked on down to Camp Lake, about 500 feet below the saddle, found a level stretch for my sleeping pad, and sat down to take my boots off and enjoy a snack of some salty peanuts.  With no tent and no campfires allowed, even if I were inclined to have one, setting up camp is a pretty minimal exercise – a good thing, because I had pretty minimal energy. 

            As I gazed at South Sister, tracing what appeared to be the best route up, and discussing it with another hiker who was camped at the lake (planning to climb Middle Sister the next day)  I decided that it looked doable, and I should at least give a try.  So I decided I would get up early the next morning, forego the opportunity for a second leisurely pot of coffee, and give it a go.

North Route South Sister