August 11, 2002
Prior to this trip, I had been on North Sister three times, all last summer: the first time with a partner, Nancy Noble (we didn’t quite summit…), the second time solo to the summit and a third time-also successful-with my two yoga instructor friends from Bend, Kristen and Angelina. My age is 52, I am a 5.9 climber who prefers mountaineering, and in good shape.
For various reasons, North Sister intrigues me. The first climb, with Nancy, was last July. We reached the NW ridge after a tedious seven mile approach from McKenzie Pass. Gaining the ridge by mid-day and contemplating the mountain, both of us were more than a little awed by the silent animosity of the mountain. I discussed that trip in a previous dispatch to the Cascade Mountaineer’s Trip Report files…the second trip, solo and via the SE ridge, was a sheer thrill and more than a little nerve wracking. The third summit, again via the SE ridge, was plain hard work but fun, as I watched my partners thoroughly enjoy the mini-epic. All three trips up the mountain were one-day climbs.
After this fourth attempt, solo for the second time, I realized that I have a familiarity with the mountain that might be shared with others looking for an interesting day-excursion on an intriguing mountain.
Do not attempt this solo one-day trip unless you are in strong physical condition. Think fast, light and smart a la Twight and Meissner…. Yes, it’s a tiny mountain but the North Sister can thump you hard…
If going solo, take two cell phones (one for a backup) and check-in with someone every few hours…DO NOT go up there alone without someone knowing exactly what you are doing and who is willing to wait carefully for your check-in calls (yes, when you ask them to help you out with this, they will try to talk you out of going…). And yes, I know going solo is not advised. Consider the description in one of the mountain guides regarding Broken Top: “There are no advisable routes to the top…”. However, the guide goes on to describe several routes and people do go to the top.
Note that Oregon Cascade mountaineering’s biggest challenge is rock-fall. It rains rock up there. Stay on top of ridges and avoid any slopes that are flat, or God help you, concave…
A clear warm Sunday, I left my house in Bend at 8:30am and arrived at Pole Creek trailhead shortly prior to 9:30…I packed 140 ounces of water, two cell phones, a poly long sleeve shirt and a nylon jacket, sock hat and regular baseball type hats, sunglasses and four PB&J; sandwiches. Yes, of course take the ten essentials. Take trail 4070 to Soap Creek, then take 4074 south. Twenty minutes south of Soap Creek I spotted the mountain through a break in the trees, took a compass bearing uphill and plowed due west through the woods. I was out of the trees and on the bottom reaches of the SE ridge of North Sister by 11:30 (as you can see, my preference is the SE ridge. However, approaching from the saddle to the Middle Sister is a good choice too. Re the NW ridge: I do not recommend it in the summer). Once out of the trees, the approach to this point offers a profoundly intimidating view of the menacing maw of the east flank of the mountain: constant rock-fall slithers down this steep coned face of gullies, ridges and narrow snow fields. 2,300 vertical feet of No Man’s Land, capped on top by the Prouty and Glisan Pinnacles which seem impossibly high and far away. The SE ridge that I would climb circles the mountain’s east flank to the south and is, to say the least, an unstable hike. But, it’s relatively free of rock fall.
I headed up the ridge at 12 noon. It’s loose and tenuous footing. When ridge fins appear, as a general rule it’s best to skirt to the south side of the fins. And the view to the south is great, with two small implausibly turquoise glacier pools, and a waterfall, far below. Exposure isn’t bad unless you want it to be (for that intrigue, try skirting a fin on the north side…) It’s 2,000 vertical feet of shaky climbing up the ridge to the base of the pinnacles at the 9,800 foot elevation. Loop carefully around the west side of Prouty Pinnacle, a long, boat-shaped mass, the northern point of which is the summit. For those not comfortable with scree, skirting the base of the pinnacle is the thorny part. Skirt the pinnacles for several hundred yards, staying high, until a steep gully to the NE appears. There is a distinct climber’s trail that reaches straight up but don’t take it. Instead, go just a short way up this channel and bear back hard to the right. This is the problematic part as many climbers have decided the steep ravine straight up to the NE must be the way to the top due to the prominent scramble-trail that goes quite far up the gully.. Nope. It’s a waste of time and exists only because of numerous thwarted climbers who went up and then back down in frustration. If you do go that way you will reach the pinnacle not too far from the top. But, climbing at that point is not something any sane person would attempt. With no protection possibilities, and horribly rotten rock, the exposure is sickening. So, instead of taking that route, go only about 20% of the way up the gully, look back hard to the right and climb a ten foot step to the channel known fondly (fondly?) as the Bowling Alley. Climb up and into it-it’s about 40 feet wide-and immediately skirt to the extreme north wall to avoid rock fall. It’s a rock-fest especially if someone is ahead of you. Wear your helmet! On my third climb in the Bowling Alley, my friend Angelina who was belaying me, took a direct hit on the top of her helmet from a silver-dollar sized missile. To this day, I can still hear the impact (she was uninjured, by the way). After 100 yards, come to a nasty, steep face. At this face, be sure to bear right and up as it’s tempting to think one must go straight up. Now, climb up and out of the Bowling Alley … Don’t fall here, exposure is dreadful and a tumble will mean not walking out under one’s own power, or worse. It is a five minute climb from there to the 10,094 foot summit and I reached it at 2:30pm, two and one half hours after leaving the base of the ridge at about 7,800 feet. Note that there was virtually no snow or ice to deal with on this mid-August climb.
In the summer, the experienced climber can solo the Bowling Alley, but with a party of two, I would take a rope and gear. Actually, even when soloing, a rope would be useful for the down-climb. For the lead or solo climber at the crux, there are less than marginal pro possibilities. However, there are rap slings for the return trip. Down-climbing here, without a rope, is an exercise in cautious, full-attention, detail-oriented focus. Do not fall.
I emphasize that doing this climb solo is risky for anyone, experienced or not (and, I absolutely disclaim any responsibility for anyone climbing the mountain upon reading this trip report. Here’s my advice: “there are no recommended routes to the summit.”)
For someone the least bit tentative or inexperienced, I strongly recommend the South or Middle Sister. That being said, I consider South Sister to be Drake Park at an angle and Middle Sister, for whatever reason, lackluster…there is something about North Sister: rather than some inherent sinister spirit, my guess it has to do with the ominous black profile (especially when backlit), the gaping east flank as one approaches from that side, the sheer instability of the entire massif, the treacherous final approach to the summit around the bottom of Prouty Pillar and up through the sinister Bowling Alley…and, once on top, the primal fall-away gullies and ridges that contort the gut. Once the summit is attained, one feels the usual euphoria but there is also a disorientation and vertigo that accompanies the downward glance: while enjoying the view from the top of North Sister, the logistics of getting down again are very much on one’s mind …
On this trip, after carefully down-climbing the Bowling Alley and skirting back around the pinnacle heading south, and before descending the SE ridge, I climbed down into the aforementioned “maw” of the east flank. Once in there, it seemed for lack of a better word, evil; much more intimidating than when viewed off the SE ridge during the ascent. Nasty, nasty…so much is loose and tenuous and it gets steeper and steeper as one proceeds. As I down-climbed I felt like I was being sucked in…no matter what I do to prevent it, it seems that with every climb there comes a “stupid part” that figuratively slaps me in the face. This side excursion was that part of this climb. I got out of there.
I don’t climb with gaiters but coming back down the ridge they’re mandatory as the scree goes on and on, clear down to 7,000 feet.
Get to the bottom of the steepest part of the ridge, at the 7,800 foot level, not too far from the glacial lake that is hard against the bottom of the east flank. From here, take a compass bearing due east and go two miles or so until trail 4074 is reached (keep your eyes open! Don’t miss it!). Upon reaching the trail, it’s ten minutes to Soap Creek and, from there, just a little over 30 minutes to the trailhead at Pole Creek. My total trip was just shy of nine hours counting breaks and the obligatory thirty minutes on top.
This worked for me: on the approach that morning, I had strategically planted three twenty ounce bottles of water for the return trip. That made for three sweet rewards a mile or so apart on the walk out. On this climb, counting the drive to and from the trailhead, I drank 200 fluid ounces of water: that’s 13+ pounds of water total. I arrived back at my house with a body weight of only three ounces less than when I left, rather than the usual five pounds less. That’s a good thing.
I tried something interesting this time, recommended by my tri-athlete friend Amanda who works at Nike: an electrolyte replacement in pill form called Endurolytes (www.e-caps.com) produced by a company called Hammer Nutrition. No more sugary drinks…I took a capsule every hour and felt strong the entire climb and all the way back to the car. I usually semi-bonk in the hot sun at four to six hours and this time, for the first time, it didn’t happen. It is clear to me that in the past I have mistaken dehydration or sheer exhaustion for simple electrolyte depletion. I was very pleased with the results and won’t do anything of an epic nature without them (if you buy this product, offer these people my name and customer number, 37391, so I can get a discount on my next purchase. I look forward to taking E-caps on this September’s Cycle Oregon which promises long, long hot days across the eastern Oregon desert.
So, in Raymond Carver’s words, I characterize a solo of North Sister as “a small, good thing” for the soul. With a tantalizing touch of intrigue and a hint of menace to counter this too-damn-civilized world, the North Sister is a perfect one-day mountain escape. Just for the day, it’s a vacation to another planet.