For many years I had thought about doing the Three Sistersí Marathon, a piece of gratuitous self-punishment that involves climbing all three Sisters, North, Middle, and South, in less than 24 hours. This summer I found myself in better shape than I had been in ten years and decided I better get going while the going is good. I put out the word, seeking climbing partners who were both in good shape and missing a few brain cells. I found three possible, but one went off to Nepal, one wasnít free until mid-September, and the other wanted to set a speed record beyond my abilities. Frustrated, I decided to go solo. Solo climbing is not the safest thing, but knowing the route and knowing that I am very wary when I am alone, I felt that I could limit my risks.
At 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 18, Kelly, my ever patient wife, dropped me off at the Pole Creek Trail Head. On the drive up she had been telling me about the new movie "Signs" and its tale of alien invaders. After an hour of hiking, with only the company of my headlamp, two brilliant eyes appeared out of the dark in front of me, not eight feet away... Luckily, I think that deer must have seen the same movie and it ran off to tell its own tale of aliens in the woods. By 4:15 a.m. I came upon an encampment of Mazamas, who, though aliens from the big city, seemed friendly enough. They were preparing to head off to North Sister. After exchanging plans for the day, I headed off to meet my real quarry -- the scree.
The central Cascades seem to offer a tremendous variety of scree, a horn of plenty for the true connoisseur. Scree is the loose rock that covers the volcanoes of the Northwest and is such a curse to go up and a joy to descend. North Sister offers the whole range on display, from the bus-sized boulders that tumble down the slopes at a light kick to the packed sand dunes that disguise themselves as mountains. The specialty of North Sister are the cliffs made up of a mix of gravel and sand, best thought of as scree wannabe.
After quickly going over a few warm up scree slopes formed by the Hayden Glacier, I wallowed up the great slope to the South Ridge. This 300 ft. section of scree can easily take 10 minutes, half of which are taken up standing knee deep in the stuff wondering why you are doing this to yourself. The wise may ponder how any mountain still exists given how much scree comes down with each step, but I just try to keep moving. On the ridge top the going got easier until one of my great climbing talents appeared -- misdirection. Traversing under a formation called the Camelís Hump, I went up a gully 50 feet before the correct one. This meant 20-30 feet of semi-desperate scramble up scree wannabe. My one thought was that there just had to be a better way down -- there was. Juxtaposition changes perspective, so after that little scramble, I found the two cruxes of the climb, "Terrible Traverse" and the "Bowling Alley," to be cake walks. Conditions were perfect and the rock was solid when it needed to be, allowing me to summit at 8:00 am. The summit of North Sister is one of the most delightful in the Cascades, with its complicated architecture of three pinnacles. I spoke with my groggy wife on the cell phone and headed down five minutes later. The descent was uneventful. I exchanged pleasantries with the Mazamas and bounded down the scree slope and off to Middle Sister.
The crossing to Middle Sister took longer than I expected, but I stopped to fill up on some clear glacier water. In the marathon, water is the limiting factor, you need more than you really want to carry. Luckily, there are a couple of good water sources along the way. I made quick time up Middle, summiting at 10:30 am. Again, I used my cell phone to call Kelly, who was now less groggy. After a ten minute break for a sandwich and some water, I headed down the south side of the mountain. I had never been on the south side of Middle Sister and was interested to see the route. Seduced by some lovely scree slopes, I went a bit off route and descended the south face of the Southeast Ridge. I did have a tedious boulder field to cross about mid way down the face, but otherwise I had a slow-motion ski down to the Chamber Lakes area between Middle and South. The nagging question I had on the way down was why would anyone go up this slope? Going up this route is not something I plan to do soon.
Again, the crossing between the mountains took longer than I had estimated. After my second ten minute break, I headed up 3000 ft. of the true mother lode of scree slopes. South Sister is made up of deep layers of pink andesite rock, a mixture of gravel and sand that crumbles at the touch, true scree wannabe. At about 9800 ft. there is a buttress, you can see it from town, that you need to get around. To the west side of this buttress is a cirque carved deep into the andesite. The key to this section is to stay close to the buttress, climb it directly, and stay off the andesite as much as possible. I came to a point where the trail had a fork, one looking sketchy and the other looking easier. After a long look, I took the seemingly easier way. Like so many such choices in life, what looks easy at first is often harder in the long run. I quickly found myself too far out into the cirque, struggling up a cliff of mixed sand and scree wannabe, with a nasty drop beneath me. I was particularly annoyed at myself for having made the same mistake I had made on this route two years ago. There was nothing to do but go forward. I climbed up with the same technique that you would a steep sand dune: I spread my weight and kept moving. After scurrying to the top of the buttress, I cursed loudly and promised myself, for the second time, never to make that mistake again. I headed up the last lovely, and secure, scree slope. Since I was full of adrenaline, it went quickly, summiting at 3:00 pm.
After a chat with a couple of Forest Service rangers and a final phone call to Kelly to confirm a pick up time, I headed down the express way of South Sister south side. The red andesite was now my friend, helping me on my way. By late summer the many hikers have pounded in a wide, sandy trail, that I had never appreciated so much before. As I descended, I realized that I was running low on water. By the time I reached the trees that mark the last descent to Devilís Lake, I was pondering the effects of dehydration on the kidneys. Just as I had convinced myself that kidney stones had to be my future, Kelly appeared with our wonder dog, Louie, and a bottle of Fanta. It was joyous to be living again, though Iím not sure I made much sense by then. We hiked out together, arriving at the Devilís Lake trail head at 5:30 p.m., 15 hours of almost nonstop motion.
So the uninitiated may ask what I got out of this adventure. W.H. Auden once wrote that "...poetry makes nothing happen: it survives..." I feel much the same about climbing. Nothing really comes of it, nothing really changes, yet I will cherish my day with the scree for many years to come. I experienced the challenge of climbing, the beauty of the mountains and the joy of simply moving. I walk away knowing that there are other scree slopes in the lives of men (my apologies to Maurice Herzog.)