Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Middle Sister (OR) - Southeast Ridge

In one of the local guidebooks for backcountry skiing in Oregon, the southeast ridge of Middle Sister was claimed to be one of the best descents, boasting “a clean 3,000 foot fall line among beautiful volcanic scenery”. With a ringing endorsement like that, both Rich and I started discussing a timeframe to check it out for ourselves. Since we’d plan to do it as an overnighter and we’d need to wait until the road was open to the Pole Creek trailhead, the window would be pretty small, at least to hit it during the prime corn season. Right around May 1st, I received word that the road was finally open. I quickly checked the weather forecast which showed perfect conditions for the following weekend – no precipitation and mild temps. Armed with the good news I quickly emailed Rich about doing it that weekend, which he immediately agreed to. Along with the two of us, Maryne (Rich’s wife) would be accompanying us for the hike in/out and at basecamp that night.

Since we weren’t planning to ski until Sunday, we were able to leave Eugene on Saturday at 8:30am, which is a pretty lax departure for spring touring. We arrived at the Pole Creek trailhead around 11am, and the temps were starting to warm up. The parking lot was full of both hikers and backcountry skiers who were gearing up or had already started up the trail. We actually grabbed one of the very last parking spots which was quite a tight fit. At around 5,300’ in elevation the surrounding area was completely void of snow, which meant we would need to do a bit of hiking before transitioning over to skins. Since my pack was only 42L it was already overburdened, so strapping my snowboard and boots to the back panel made for a pretty awkward load.

The area that we commenced our hike through was the site of the Pole Creek wildfire, which was started by lightning and scorched about 40 square miles of forest land in late summer of 2012. Although the burn destroyed the flora and certainly displaced much of the fauna, some of the undergrowth and wildlife had started to make a return . The burn area did have its own unique beauty, with the charred carcasses of trees as far as the eye could see and the canopy-less forest providing views of the volcanic peaks found within the Three Sisters Wilderness. Of course, with the trees in their weakened state and the fact that we were there well before any trail clearing had been done for the season, I figured we would be dealing with at least a little blow-down along the way. Sure enough, as soon as we walked past the trailhead sign we were immediately forced to navigate around a couple of logs that were laying across the trail – we hoped that this wasn’t a sign of what was to come…

Blow-down from the start

Settling in for the long haul

As we hiked along the first section of the trail, I was taken back to a mountain bike ride I’d done a few times on Trail 99, which travels through the same burn area (ride report here). From the parking lot, the Pole Creek Trail ascended at a gradual rate and eventually flattened out around the 1.5-mile mark after climbing ~600 vertical feet. Over the next mile we walked over and around many more downfall until we reached Soap Creek, which required some fancy foot work to navigate across without getting soggy sneakers. On the other side of the creek, the trail continued to climb and we soon started to encounter patches of snow. I hoped that meant that we’d be able to start skinning soon since my pack was really starting to dig into my shoulders, due to the extra weight/leverage being applied by my snowboard.

Rich and Maryne heading into the Three Sisters Wilderness

The author shows off his awkward load
(photo by Rich Dana)

A typical section of trail in the burn area

The bare canopy provided great views of the Sisters

At around 3.5 miles and 6,000’ we reached a point where the snow was mostly covering the forest floor, and we decided it was time to transition over to skins. Maryne, who was sans skis, would be making the rest of the trek on a pair of rented snowshoes, which was certainly better than boot packing but not nearly as easy going as skinning. I checked my GPS from time to time, and noticed that we had started to veer a little off track, even though we were following some previous skin tracks and some ribbon markings that had been tied to various trees along the way. I had learned from previous ski tours that you shouldn't necessary rely on other people’s tracks since you cannot be certain where they will lead you. After consulting with Rich and Maryne we decided to stick to the skin trail but reevaluate every so often to make sure it wasn’t leading us too far off track. Eventually the tracks started heading southwest like we hoped they would, traversing just below the treeline on the eastern flank of Middle and North Sister.

Skinning -- finally!

Following the skin track toward South Sister 

More typical scenery on the way to camp

Before long, we reached NF Whychus Creek (formally NF Squaw Creek), which this high up had no flowing water and took the form of a natural snow halfpipe. We hiked up the solid streambed for about an eighth of a mile before climbing out of it on the south side and crossing over the timberline. Over the next mile, we continued in a southwest direction through large snowfields devoid of trees, except for the few stunted ones that dotted the vast snow-covered landscape. At around the 7-mile mark (according to my GPS) and at ~7,000’ we reached another group of backcountry skiers/snowboarders on a bench just up from, and to the north of, Camp Lake. Their crew was from all over the globe, which included England and New Zealand. Since they were super welcoming and the bench was much more wind-protected than Camp Lake, we decided that it would probably be best to camp up there as well. The side benefit was that we’d have to do less climbing on our way to the summit, and I was also pretty spent and ready to set-up camp anyway. With our decision made, we quickly found a nice little nook a hundred yards or so to the north of the other crew. The wind was sustained and the peaks of all Three Sisters were hidden in the clouds, which had recently blown in – my hope was that it would clear out by morning and our goal of summiting wouldn’t be crushed by whiteout conditions and/or strong winds.

Heading up NF Whychus Creek

First views of Middle Sister

Crossing over the timberline

Rich and Maryne with some nice views of Broken Top

Looking west onto Middle and North Sister, blanketed in clouds.

The last section before Camp Lake had us crossing expansive snowfields.

After setting up camp, melting snow, and eating dinner, it was now 8pm and the sun was starting to set, casting a brilliant glow onto the northwest face of South Sister, which was the dominant landmark from our campsite. After watching the sunset, I climbed into my tent and fell asleep, dozing in and out of consciousness over the course of the night. The winds became stronger as the night wore on, but I still held out hope that tomorrow would bring with it much better conditions.

Our camp for the night

Rich and Maryne enjoying the arduous task of melting snow... 

The setting sun slashed some nice colors on South Sister

As seen from my tent

The next morning brought a mixed bag of weather. The sun was shining bright with only high clouds, but the wind was still pretty strong. As we were eating breakfast and preparing our gear for the day's hike toward the summit, two people from the other crew rode by and were calling it quits, due to the wind. Both Rich and I were a little more optimistic and figured we should try and ascend, evaluating conditions as we went along – the worst case scenario was that we wouldn’t make the summit and would have to drop in early. Speaking of breakfast, I had mistakenly bought a freeze-dried meal that required cooking outside of the pouch, and since I only brought a Jetboil, I forwent the eggs and went with an energy bar and a small bag of jerky instead – Mmmm, the breakfast of champions… Once we had fueled up and finished packing our gear, we bid a farewell to Maryne, who was planning to hang out in camp and get some work done.

Morning brought plenty of sunshine and very few clouds.
What this photo doesn't show you is the persistent wind. 

After climbing up a short bit from our camp, we came across a field of lava rock that lined the northern edge of one of the bottom bowls. Instead of heading down into the bowl and climbing up the snow we decided it would just be easier to hike up the rock field for a few a hundred feet. Now skinning again, we traversed the bowl and continued west, navigating a patchwork of snowfields that lead us around a few rock islands.

Rich hikes up a rock field near the start of day two

Eye on the prize

Another view of South Sister during the climb up Middle Sister

Once we reached the Irving Glacier, which forms the massive snowfield dropping down the southeast ridge, our approach began to steepen and eventually forced us to do a bit more hiking. Once again, we found ourselves navigating a field of sharp and somewhat loose lava rock, until the terrain was more conducive to skinning. Once we were back on our skis, our route up the southeast ridge required us to put in some steep kick-turns as we switchbacked up the steepening slope. Right around the 9,000’ mark we reached a point where it was just too steep to skin, although this time we didn’t have a rock field to ascend along, so our best option was to bootpack up the face.

Heading up the southeast ridge

Getting steeper

Although the wind gusts weren’t as strong as the ones I had faced a week earlier on Diamond Peak, they were much more sustained, bringing on flashbacks from the difficulty we faced on the bootpack from that ascent. Along with the wind slowing our progress, I was really starting to feel the effects of the elevation and was having a hard time catching my breath. My initial plan was to catch up to Rich and take turns kicking in steps but I was so spent that I had to rest every 20 vertical feet or so and started to fall a little behind. Luckily, Rich didn’t seem to be having the difficulties that I was, and he finished up the hard work all the way to the bench at around 9,700’.

Rich establishes the boot pack while I fall behind

Getting closer

Nearing the bench at the top of the skiable section of the SE Ridge

From the bench, the summit was a mere 1/8 of a mile and about 350 vertical feet. It was clearly visible and well within reach, but three factors prevented us from attempting the summit pitch. The first was the wind, which at this point was both fairly strong and sustained; it was also coming from the southwest and threatened to blow us off a 1,000’ drop onto the Diller Glacier. Even if you survived the initial plunge, the glacier had open crevasses that were positioned as a perfect catcher’s mit, ready to scoop anything that was thrown at it. The second was time – not only had we gotten out of camp about an hour later than planned, but we had also ascended slower than anticipated (~3 hours instead of 2). Since we still had 6 or 7 miles to the car after we got back to camp, daylight was turning into a real concern. Lastly, the elevation was definitely affecting my endurance, and I just wasn’t motivated to go any further. Although we were a little bummed that we wouldn’t be summiting we both felt good about the decision; Plus, we still had a ~2,500’ decent below us, which wasn’t a bad contingency prize!

Rich, taking in the view from the bench.

Looking onto Broken Top and Mount Bachelor 

A closeup of South Sister 

After taking a short break to catch our breath and eat a snack, we transitioned over for the descent and prepared to drop in. From the small bench you really couldn’t see the line, so we slowly edged our way down the ridgeline until the face opened up and the path was revealed. The first ~600’ vertical feet was fairly steep with a slope angle in the mid to high 30s. Although it wasn't crusted over, the snow was a bit firm and large particles would break away with each turn and fall down the face in front of us. As we made our way down, the slope lessened and the snow softened, with the sweet spot occurring about halfway down at around 8,500’. Although the snow was stable enough and the threat of an avalanche danger was low, we still leapfrogged down the hill, mainly so that I could snap some photos along the way.

Dropping in for the first turns of the day

Making turns on the steeper stuff near the top

Rich readies for the next pitch 

Dropping into another section

At this point Rich is about halfway down with a couple of good pitches still below him.
On a side note, look at all the good looking terrain on South Sister!

Down another 500’ the gradient mellowed out and the snow started to get really soft and sticky, to the point that I had to straight-line it across the flatter sections to make sure I got to the other side. Eventually I reached one section that I wasn't quite able to make it across, which led to unstrapping from my board and doing a bit of postholeing. Luckily the hike through the snow didn't last long and soon I was strapping back in above the last drop of the day - a double pitch that led down toward Camp Lake, which at this point in the season was still frozen over. Stopping short of the lake we skinned up and over a small ridge to our base camp, which was right on the other side. There we met back up with Maryne, who I'm sure was ready to start the journey back to the car.

Rich cuts continues to cut turns as the snow became softer and the slope mellowed out a bit

Reaching the flat traverse

Rich drops down one last pitch. Obviously the snow was
getting pretty slushy here, as evident by the deep tracks.

Packing up camp took a bit of time, at least for me. The other two got it done much more quickly, and since Maryne would be snowshoeing, we decided that it would be best for them to head out while I finished loading up my gear. The plan was to meet at about a mile and a half away, where we'd peel off the skin track and head back using a more direct route along the Camp Lake Trail – at least that's the way it looked on the map... Since I was now traveling solo, I fired up some tunes and zoned out while I followed along the previously laid tracks. I was definitely feeling the miles we'd already put in that day and I knew that I was going to be pretty spent by the time we got back to the car. About 45 minutes later I caught up with Rich and Maryne who had been awaiting my arrival.

Since I had the GPS, the plan was for me to lead us back, since the trail was still buried under feet of snow and wouldn't offer any guidance. Basically, I'd skin for about 50' and then stop and take a reading and correct our bearing as needed. Unfortunately with our slow pace and thick tree cover it was difficult to navigate using the map screen, and I ended up leading us a little too far to the south. Although we were paralleling the trail, the terrain we had to navigate was far from ideal -- threading between trees with lots of short ups and downs, as well as a few unexpected stream crossings. Before too long, we reached the snow line and changed into our hiking shoes for the remainder of the route back to the car. Even though we still weren't on the actual trail, we were now traveling through the Pole Creek burn area and trailblazing wasn't too difficult, although we did have to climb around more than a few downed trees. Eventually we did reconnect with the trail, just above the Soap Creek stream crossing.

Now in familiar territory, we put our heads down and set a pretty good pace. All of us were pretty beat down and yearning for the car. Probably the worst part was the straps from my pack digging into my shoulders, which I knew would be feeling the abuse for at least the next few days. I'm not sure if it was because I was so tired but there seemed to be more downed logs than there had been on the way in. Since we'd hadn't had any weather to bring them down I had to chalk it up to my bad memory. With about a mile and a half left, the trail started its descent back to the parking lot, which was certainly welcome. Once the car came into view we had a mini celebration, stoked that we'd hiked over the last fallen log of the trip. Back at the car, we threw in our gear but didn't even bother to change into clean clothes -- we only had one thing on our mind -- food! A half-hour later, we found ourselves eating some great Mexican food in downtown Sisters. The drive back to Eugene was certainly tiring, but I was kept awake by the memories of the great adventure we'd just completed in the Three Sisters Wilderness.

Middle Sister was everything I'd hoped for -- A big volcano experience with a sweet descent that was well worth the effort. Of course I wish we would have gotten to summit, but sometimes you just have to know when to fold 'em. I also wish we could have stayed another day since the north face of South Sister was right there and had some pretty good looking terrain. As for snow camping, it was a great first experience which allowed me to try out some of my new gear. There were certainly things that I wasn't quite prepared for, and other things I was probably overprepared for; therefore, I'm glad that conditions were pretty forgiving, albeit a bit windy. Would I do this trip again... absolutely! Both the snowboarding and scenery were really top shelf - I can't believe how lucky we are to live near such an amazing place!

Our tracks:

Red = Ascent
Blue = Descent

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