Sunday, June 5, 2016

South Sister (OR) - Devils Lake to Summit

The last time I had been on South Sister was nearly 10 years ago during a full moon hike to the summit with a few friends. It was my first volcanic summit hike in Oregon and I still remember the feeling while standing at the top and being blown away by the grandeur of the Three Sisters Wilderness and its other volcanic peaks – it was one of those places that made you feel really small and insignificant. Standing at ~10,300’ it’s one of the easiest major peaks in Oregon to summit, even so, it still gave me a great sense of accomplishment and I knew I would want to make a return trip at some point.

South Sister from Moraine Lake
(taken on a hiking trip back in 2006)

A small crater about 1,300' from the summit
(taken on a hiking trip back in 2006)

Standing on the summit of South Sister
(taken on a hiking trip back in 2006)

Now 2016, and with splitboarding being one of my new hobbies, I began thinking about South Sister once again, only this time with the benefit of a much faster (and more fun) means of descending. Since Cascade Lakes Highway is closed during the winter, I figured I would just wait until late spring when the road was open, eliminating the 6-mile skin approach (one way) just to get to the trailhead. I had heard through both the guidebook and local beta that you should do it as soon as possible after the road opens, when there is still enough snow to ski all the way back to your car. Armed with this intel, I monitored the website (here) for the most current conditions and news on the scheduled opening. Right around the second week in May they released the opening date, which was set for Monday May 23rd. Since I already had off Thursday the 26th, I set that as my target date and went to work on pulling together a crew.

After emailing all of my touring buddies the only one that was available on Thursday was Andrew Boes. Since he is based in Salem, the plan was to meet at the Devils Lake trailhead at 8:30am. That would provide us the most direct route to the summit, around a 6-mile trek and 5,000' feet of vertical ascent. Google Maps had estimated my drive at around three hours, but with little to no traffic and breaking various speed limits I reached the parking lot in just over two hours. Luckily, the clouds that had blanketed the Willamette Valley had dissipated near the base of South Sister, and it looked like we'd have beautiful conditions for our day's adventure -- the sun was shining bright and the temperature at 5,500' feet was in the low 40s. Andrew reached the parking lot soon after, and once we had gotten geared up we started the long steady journey toward the summit.

My first view of South Sister, from Cascade Lakes Highway.

Made it!

Andrew gets ready while South Sister looms in the background

The first third of a mile was actually along the highway to where the South Sister Climber Trail (No. 36) started, near the mouth of Hell Creek. Over the next two miles and 1,200 vertical feet, we climbed up the gully between Kaleetan Butte and Devils Hill, which was in the trees but had minimal undergrowth. Unfortunately the snow on the lower half was very spotty so we were forced to hike instead of skinning. Eventually we got high enough in the drainage to where snow blanketed the entire forest floor and we were able to switch over to skis, making for a much quicker pace. At 6700' we reached the timberline and we were presented with an amazing view of South Sister, where almost our entire southern approach route was visible.

The start of the Climber Trail - 6 miles to the summit

Starting it off with hiking boots

Andrew nearing the point of skinning

Reaching the timberline

For the next mile or so we traveled along a flat bench that led to the foot of the mountain and the real climbing began. The snow was just starting to soften and provided decent traction under our skins as the slope gradually began to steepen. At about 8,000' the slope angle started to prove challenging, so I slipped on my ski crampons and was immediately given the extra bite that was needed to make it up the next few pitches. After one last set of steep switchbacks I found myself at the small frozen lake at the base of the Lewis Glacier, at an elevation of around 9,000'. As I waited for Andrew, who didn't have the luxury of ski crampons, I enjoyed the amazing views and watched as the clouds slowly moved in from the west, concealing the terrain that lay below us..

Andrew skins across the flat bench, hoping that the clouds continue to move through.

Some nice views along the way, including this one of Broken Top -- More skiable terrain!

Starting the real climb

Rising above the cloud layer

Andrew follows the skin track up one of the steeper sections on the lower half of the mountain

Looking toward the blanketed Willamette Valley

The Lewis Glacier

From the frozen lake, we continued our ascent up the south ridge between the Lewis Glacier and the Clark Glacier, where we saw other skiers and snowboarders making the trek, both up and down the mountain. The further up we skinned the steeper and more narrow the ridge became, until eventually we were forced to strap our planks to our packs and start bootpacking up the remaining 1,000 vertical feet to the summit crater. At this elevation the snow still hadn’t completely softened and in some places it was difficult to kick in steps with my snowboard boots. Not wanting to stop to unpack and attach my crampons for such a short distance, I decided to make the remainder of the climb without their assistance. Luckily the crew before us had kicked in shallow foot holds, but even then it was right on the line of needing the toe spikes. As I crested over the southern rim of the summit crater I was very relieved that the climbing was all but done.

Starting our ascent up the south ridge

Getting steeper and narrower

Andrew making steady progress up the south ridge
(Mount Bachelor in the background)

The final push toward the summit crater.
Luckily, the crew before us had kicked in some shallow steps.

Across the crater I could see a line of boot prints that lead up towards the true summit. Before tackling the last ¼ mile and 100’ ascent, I ate a quick snack while taking in the amazing views that surrounded me. I also decided to unbuckle my planks and skin across the crater, which helped reduce some of the load on my shoulders and sped things up a bit. Just below the summit I ran into two other splitboarders who were relaxing and enjoying the view to the north that looked onto the other two Sisters. I was really looking forward to seeing Middle Sister from this vantage point, as it would allow me to take in the entire line we had skied just a few weeks earlier down its southeast ridge (trip report here). When it finally came into view I was not disappointed – I would even go as far as to say that it’s the most spectacular vista that I’ve been to in Oregon - it’s that amazing! The clouds that had been moving in from the west had started to wrap around the base of the other Sisters, which only added to the overall grandeur of the scene.

Looking onto the true summit, from the southern rim of the crater.

The view I had been looking forward to -- Looking north on to Middle and North Sister

Looking onto a frozen Teardrop Pool, from just below the summit.

Before long, Andrew came into view and crossed the crater. When he reached the summit we celebrated a bit and had a quick lunch on our perch at ~10,300’ above sea level. With a strong breeze and cooler temps it started to get a bit chilly, so after about 10 minutes we transitioned over to descent mode and started heading down to find some warmer weather. Since we still needed to get across the crater to the south rim, I built up as much speed as I could off the summit, in hopes that I would be able to make it all the way across the crater. Unfortunately I only ended up making it about 3/4 of the way, but after a short hike I was once again strapped into my board and looking onto the ~3,200’ of high alpine descent that lay in front of us.

Andrew, closing in on the summit.

Looking southeast from the summit.
Broken Top on the left and Mount Bachelor on the right.

Since I wanted to take a few photos, I dropped in first and set up on the west side of the south face. The plan was for Andrew and I to meet up where the headwall funneled down onto the south ridge, near the cliff band at the top of the Lewis Glacier. Once he had skied past, I packed up my gear and dropped into my first real turns of the day down the face. The slope angle was in the high 30s and the snow was just starting to corn up, which produced some exciting edge transitions as I made my way down to the meeting spot, ~300 vertical feet below me.

Andrew drops in for his first turns of the day

Starting to warm up

Enjoying some great terrain and views

Nearing the meetup spot

Now on the south ridge, we discussed our next route down the mountain. Everyone that we had seen skiing to this point had taken the ridge down toward the frozen lake and continued down the face that sat directly below it; however, while scouting potential lines on the way up, it looked like the bowl(s) just to the west of the ridge would make for a better run. After deciding to go with our own line we looked for an opening in the lava rock fence that ran parallel to the ridge and separated us from the route to the west. We eventually spotted a doorway about 600’ down where we planned to meet up once again. Andrew dropped in first and made a series of tight turns to stay centered on the narrow ridge. Once he passed through the opening I took my turn, also keeping it tight to avoid what would have been a nasty fall off the eastern edge of the ridge and onto the Lewis Glacier.

Andrew prepares to drop into the second pitch, down the south ridge.

Kickin' up corn!

Just as we had imagined, the route that we were now lined up for looked amazing – a steep S-turn bowl that resembled an enormous luge course. Both the line and the snow conditions down the bowl ended up being fantastic, with every turn as good as any I had taken before it in the backcountry. Exiting the bowl required us to ride high up on the right wall to get around a rock island that was seated in the flat bottom.

Andrew dropping into the third pitch, to the west of the south ridge.

Lining up the S-turn bowl

Here we go!

Checking out the view on the way down

Andrew contemplating where to place his next series of turns

Heading high on the right wall to get around the rock island on the flat bottom

The author finishes up his line around the rock island
(photo by Andrew Boes)

For the last thousand vertical feet of alpine skiing, the slope started to mellow out, allowing for some wide flowy turns. Eventually the snow started to slush up and we had to straight line it to get across some of the flatter sections. Right at the 7,000' mark, the slope became too shallow for me to continue snowboarding down the hill, and I was forced to apply my skins for the rest of our time spent above timberline.

Starting to flatten out, but still finding plenty of fun turns

The author drops into the next pitch
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Straightlining it across the Velcro snow

Andrew nears the end of "the goods"

Heading back across the flats

Once we reached the forest setting, I was able to reassemble my snowboard and ride down the ravine for about a mile until the snow became too patchy to continue. From here, I hiked down the remaining mile to the highway, while Andrew linked together the ever shrinking islands of snow. By the time we reached the road I was pretty worn out, and the last third of a mile to the car only emphasized how tired I actually was. Back at the car we celebrated another successful mission over a beer, before parting ways and heading back to our respective towns.

The south aspect on South Sister holds some of the most popular backcountry routes in Oregon, and for good reason, as both the terrain and views are spectacular! Although it’s not the most difficult ascent/descent in the Cascade range you’ll still feel a sense of accomplishment when you’re celebrating back at the car over a beer. Comparing it to Middle Sister which I had done a few weeks prior, I would say that the terrain was just as good. The main benefit over Middle Sister is that it’s much more accessible and can be done as a day tour, albeit with less of a wilderness experience. That said, you could certainly turn it into an overnighter by camping at Moraine Lake, or better yet, staying at Green Lakes and combining it with a tour on Broken Top’s western bowl. I’ll certainly be repeating this tour again, and we’ll be anxiously waiting the opening of the Cascades Lakes Highway for many springs to come!

Our tracks:

This image shows our entire route, from the Devils Lake parking lot to the summit and back
(red = ascent, blue = descent)

A zoomed in view of our tracks on the upper mountain
(red = ascent, blue = descent)

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