Middle Sister

  • Date: July 2, 2017
  • Start: Pole Creek Trailhead
  • Duration: 14 hours 25 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Map: Adventures Maps: Three Sisters Wilderness
  • References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; Outdoor Project

After thorough review and practice of glacier travel and crevasse rescue with Timberline Mountain Guides back in June, we wanted to put our skills to the test. We have our sights set on Glacier Peak in late July (and maybe Rainier in August?) but wanted to get a practice run in on another mountain beforehand. Our instructor suggested we climb Middle Sister via Hayden Glacier to review climbing as a rope team. Two weekends later, with clear skies and no wind in the forecast, we set out for the Pole Creek Trailhead to make our summit bid.

After a restless night sleeping in the car, we hit the trail just before 3:30 am. The majority of the approach to Hayden Glacier is through a burn area (from the 2012 Pole Creek Fire). Similar to the approach hike on Mount Adams, the trail was dry and dusty. The clouds of dust getting kicked up by Mack, who was leading the way, left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. At least the sun wasn’t baking us yet. After about 1.6 miles on Pole Creek Trail and 0.7 on Green Lakes Trail, we crossed Soap Creek and headed up the Camp Lake Trail. We still had a ways to go before reaching the glacier.

Around this time, my stomach kindly reminded me that it hadn’t eaten anything since our early-ish dinner the night before. I pulled a Luna bar out of my pocket and began munching on it as we continued hiking. On the second or third bite, I felt my fake upper lateral (held in place by a very outdated bridge) wiggle. Uh oh. I’d just gotten this tooth put back in place six days earlier! (Sidenote: It had fallen out after nearly ten years and, as a result, I’m now scheduled for implant surgery at the end of this year) I stopped dead in my tracks. Mack asked, “How loose is it?” I reached into my mouth to press gently on it and find it. It popped out onto my hand. Mack just stared in disbelief. “That loose,” I replied. Perfect. Just another thing to stress about on Monday. I placed the tooth in a Ziploc and we continued on. I was naturally pretty pissed off about the whole situation, but at least it didn’t interfere with my ability to climb. Just another part of the adventure I guess.

As expected, we hit snow a couple of miles in. From here we followed Whychus Creek through the forest and up to timberline. As we made our way through the remaining trees, we finally got our first glimpse of Middle Sister and Hayden Glacier that day.  Sunrise had come and gone by this point and the landscape before us glistened in the early morning sunshine. Despite the tooth mishap, it was going to be a beautiful day.

Taking a break next to Whychus Creek

We traversed the snowfield and made our way to the base of Hayden Glacier, looking around every so often to gaze upon the slew of majestic peaks around us, including North Sister, South Sister, and Broken Top. Central Oregon sure is a fantastic place for bagging volcanoes! At the base of the glacier, we dropped our packs, traded trekking poles for ice axes, donned our crampons and helmets, and, for the first time ever, roped up as a two person team! I’m not gonna lie, I felt pretty badass with my kiwi coil wrapped snug around my chest, while wearing a harness dripping with slings, carabiners, and other gear.

Approaching Hayden Glacier

As I mentioned way back in our Mount Baker/Alpinism 1 post, I’m not a fan of climbing on a rope team. Although it wasn’t as tedious with Mack, it was still frustrating to not be able to move at the pace I wanted. We both aspire to climb more glaciated and technical mountains though, so roped climbing is something we need to become more comfortable with. We didn’t really find our rhythm on this climb, but I’m sure we’ll continue to improve with more practice.

We stayed to the right of the basin where most of the crevasses seemed to be. In fact, roping up probably wasn’t necessary at all where we were climbing (and with how much snow there was)! We took a break at the saddle on the left of Prouty Point. Now that the glacier travel portion was over, we unclipped and untied from the rope and coiled it back up for pack storage. It was time for the steep snow climbing (and scree) portion!

“Scree and loose rock is my favorite terrain to climb in!” said no one ever. It’s especially sketchy while wearing crampons. You’re just a misstep away from breaking an ankle or blowing out a knee. At least it wasn’t very crowded when we scrambled up the ridge, so rockfall, though still a concern, wasn’t stressing us out too much. Despite the unpleasant nature of the terrain, we had an incredible view of North Sister. One day…

Crossing the saddle from Prouty Point
North Ridge of Middle Sister
Looking out at North Sister

The final push to the summit plateau was on steep snow. My favorite! However, since our approach hike was longer than what we’re used to (and we started a bit later in the morning), the sun had turned this slope into a slushy hillside by the time we started up. It wasn’t too terrible though. We were still able to kick in solid platforms and use the boot path/staircase carved out by previous climbers. It was definitely easier than walking on scree!

Final traverse

By the time we were traversing the plateau to the summit, the father-son duo ahead of us was packing up to leave. At 11:20 am, we had this beautiful summit all to ourselves! The weather was perfect, too. There was absolutely no wind blowing us off the top and freezing our extremities like there has been on our last few summits. We were actually able to hang out, soak in the gorgeous views (including our next objective: South Sister), take lots of pictures, post Instagram stories, and refuel with snacks. We were probably on the summit for at least a half hour (if not longer).

View from the summit

View of South Sister and Broken Top from the summit

Down climbing the steep snow section went fairly quickly. It’s amazing to see how much our footwork has improved since we started mountaineering last year. I actually felt comfortable plunge stepping and side stepping a lot of it this time around. Down climbing the scree filled ridge was a different story though. We were so relieved when we finally made it back onto snow.

Sooo many volcanoes! (L to R: Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Jefferson, Hood, and Adams)
Heading back down the ridge

We kept our harnesses on in the event we felt the need to rope up on the way back down the Hayden, but it was never necessary. There were actually numerous parties hiking up with just trekking poles and hiking boots! I didn’t even see ice axes sometimes! Yikes. The monster crevasses starting to open up below us on our right were a constant reminder that you definitely need proper gear on this climb. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions about these other people’s abilities though, so I’ll stop before this turns into a pedantic LNT Plan Ahead and Prepare rant.

Gnarly crevasses

The rest of the slog down was pretty uneventful. As usual, we became more restless and cranky as the afternoon dragged on and we were still miles from the car. At one point, we lost the trail and had to backtrack to find out where we’d gotten off. I think the heat was doing a number on our brains. Refilling our bladders with ice cold water from Whychus Creek lifted our spirits for a short while. We hit a low point once we were back in the burn area and fully exposed to the hot afternoon sun. We were moving downhill now and able to haul ass (or at least as fast as our overheating bodies would allow). Exhausted, sweaty, and covered in dust, we finally stumbled into the parking lot around 5:50 pm, about 14.5 hours after heading out that morning. Another successful volcano adventure for the books though!

Back on the Pole Creek Trail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s