Cascades Mountaineers Summit
North Sister via North East Face

by Tom Herron, 4/28/02

On April 28th, Tom Herron and Allen Light climbed North Sister via the Northeast Face. The pair left the road to Pole Creek trailhead at 6:30 am and summitted the Glisan Pinnacle at 3:30 pm. The following is a trip report prepared by Tom Herron.

I have been trying to climb North Sister for several years, but each attempt has been thwarted by bad weather or lack of time. There’s not much one can do about weather, but adequate time is a matter of knowing the route, knowing your abilities, and planning accordingly. As I’ve made four previous attempts in winter and summer conditions, I knew the winter conditions would be slower than summer and that the summit pinnacle would be the slowest going. I also knew that because I’ve mostly sat in front of my computer this winter I was not in the peak physical condition. With this in mind, I estimated that the climb could be done in ten to twelve hours round trip from the Pole Creek Trailhead if we made a bee-line for the mountain and went up the North Ridge.

For my partner on this attempt I had recruited fellow Cascades Mountaineer, Allen Light. Like me, Allen had climbed South Sister and Middle Sister but had not yet been to the top of North. I met with Allen on Saturday, and we agreed to try the North Ridge. Allen’s GPS software, we logged several waypoints along our route to summit that we would aim for the following day. Although the weather Saturday was mostly cloudy and cold, the forecast for Sunday was partly cloudy with light winds and warmer temperatures.

I picked up Allen at 4:30 on Sunday morning. After a cup of coffee and loading our gear, we headed for Sisters. By 6:00 we were within a mile of the trailhead, but there was too much snow on the road to continue. Fortunately, the point where we had to stop is almost as close to the North Ridge as is the Pole Creek Trailhead (the last mile of road heads south while the mountain is off to the west.) Allen had chosen to travel on skins and skis while I had chosen to use snow shoes. By 6:30, we were suited up and following the GPS toward our first way point.

The GPS has a feature that allows it estimate your current direction by watching your change in position over time. The display then shows you an arrow indicating which direction your selected waypoint is. However, since we were traveling off trail and had to zigzag around trees, the estimated direction wasn’t too accurate. I found it much easier to simply read the bearing to destination off the GPS and set my compass accordingly. By 8:00 we were starting to get glimpses of North Sister through the trees. The only problem was it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Somehow we had gotten about 20 degrees off course. After some discussion, we came to the conclusion that the Bearing reported on the GPS was a magnetic bearing and not a true north bearing. Sure enough, once I set my compass for zero declination, it agreed perfectly with the GPS. Of course, we were now well south of where we wanted to be. Rather than try to return to our originally planned course, we decided to head straight for the mountain.

Image 1: North Sister with snow covered northeast face on right side

This put us at the base of the mountain’s northeast face at 9:30. The face is mostly snow covered with a few rock outcroppings. The top and right edge of the face is defined by the mountain’s North Ridge. To the left is a steep ridge off the summit that separates the Thayer Glacier basin on the East Face from the Villard Glacier basin on the upper left of the Northeast Face. From our location at the base of the face, the top of the north ridge was about 2200’ higher and the summit was another 500’ above that.

After a short break, we continued up the snowfield to the right of the Villard. Allen was still on skis switchbacking his way up the slope, while I had switched to crampons and was heading directly up. About halfway up the slope, Allen stashed his skis and also put on crampons. A few clouds had begun to move in and were occasionally obscuring the summit. We were still below the cloud ceiling though, and to the north we could see the whole line of Cascades Volcanoes from Mt Washington to Mt Adams.

Image 2: Mt. Washington to Mt. Adams visible to north

Snow conditions were quite good for climbing—a hard crust covered with 1” to 4” of powder. By 12:00 we reached the top of the top of the ridge and could finally see out to the west. The summit, however, was still hidden in clouds. I guessed that it wouldn’t be far though, and told Allen I thought we be on top by 1 pm. About halfway up the ridge was a rock outcropping that forced us to traverse the west slope and up a snowfilled chute back onto the ridge.

Image 3: Allen climbing north ridge toward snow chute

Wind had filled the chute with light snow up to 18” deep. Working our way up the short, 45-degree slope inside the chute took us the better part of a half hour. By the time we finally got back onto the ridge, it was already 1 pm. Given the views, though, we didn’t mind. The clouds had lifted while we battled up the chute and we could now clearly see the summit pinnacles less than a thousand feet away.

Image 4: Summit pinnacles from top of snow chute

We were also now able to see Middle Sister and were looking directly at the Hayden Glacier headwall on its northeast side.

Image 5: Hayden Glacier headwall on Middle Sister


Image 6: Looking down the north ridge from top of chute (left side)

At 2 pm we arrived a small ledge at the edge of the Bowling Alley. The summit was now no more than a few hundred feet away. Inside the bowling alley, though, everything was covered with a thick layers of rime ice. As we talked over our options, my lack of conditioning was showing—I felt completely drained.

I was beginning to drag when we first reached the ridge, but I had been able to boost my energy by snacking and drinking lots of water. Now, I seemed to have truly run out of gas. I told Allen how exhausted I felt and suggested that given the time of day, maybe this was close enough. I had been this close so many times and had to turn back, that I almost felt destined to have to turn around this time. Allen didn’t hesitate though. He just looked at me and said, “We gotta give it a try. Let’s just go slow. As long as we start down by four, we’ll make it back.” This little bit of encouragement was all it took to shake me out of my slump. I was tired, but we were going to make it!

We roped up to traverse around a rime covered outcropping to the base of the Glisan Pinnacle. The slope and exposure were no worse that many of our previous traverses, but we weren’t quite sure how stable the wall of rime was.

Image 7: Traversing around the rime covered wall

We placed a picket, backed up with an ice axe, as an anchor and I belayed Allen across the traverse. At a saddle on the other side, Allen placed another picket/ice ace anchor and belayed me across. I continued across and up a set up another anchor in a rock outcropping partway up the steep couloir leading to the summit.

Image 8: Bend in distance, snow chute to summit in foreground

With me belaying, Allen came up to join me and then lead the final pitch.

9. Allen at the crux of the final pitch

He set up another picket anchor and I climbed up to join him at a rock ledge just below the summit proper. While I untied from the rope, Allen scrambled up the snow to the summit. As I followed his tracks, I felt like I was on top of world. And judging by the grin on Allen he felt the same.

Image 10: Allen on top of the Glisan Pinnacle with Broken Top in background


Image 11: One happy mountaineer! Allen Light


Image 12: Another happy mountaineer! Tom Herron