South Sister

  • Date: July 4, 2017
  • Start: Devils Lake Trailhead
  • Distance: 12.5 miles
  • Duration: 11 hours 25 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Map: Adventure Maps: Three Sisters Wilderness
  • References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; Outdoor Project

Although we were still pretty beat from a long Sunday on Middle Sister (and lots of driving before and after), the prospect of a weekday climbing adventure to celebrate Fourth of July was just too good to pass up. Plus, with no glacier travel to contend with, we felt comfortable bringing Cassie along this time! After work Monday night, we packed up the car again and made the long trek back to Central Oregon, arriving at Devils Lake Trailhead just before midnight. We settled into our sleeping bags in the front seats (something we’ve become quite accustomed to this year) and Cassie nestled down in her dog bed for a few short hours of sleep.

Fighting to sleep as much as possible before having to start hiking/climbing, we didn’t get up until 5 am, maybe even a little after. We finally hit the trail at 6:15 am. As expected, we hit snow early on while we were still below tree line. Since we were only wearing our regular hiking boots instead of mountaineering boots, microspikes ended up being particularly useful in gaining traction and keeping a decent pace.

Putting on microspikes

After gaining a little more elevation, we made it out of the forest and were rewarded with our first view of South Sister, dominating the horizon against a backdrop of wispy clouds spread across a blue sky. I never realized how majestic and grand South Sister is until I looked upon her in that moment. Although the mountain is part of the Three Sisters range, she seems to stand alone, far away from the other two Sisters.

A massive snowfield (which, in lighter snow years, has a clearly defined dirt trail) lay before us. We took Cassie off leash here since we’d be able to keep an eye on her with ease in such an open, fairly unobstructed, space. Her excitement bubbled over as she did sprints back and forth across the snow, often times shoving her face straight into it and flailing around in a ridiculous manner. She was definitely stoked to be playing in the snow again. I can’t remember the last time she had the opportunity! We continued on the boot path leading to the mountain.

Cassie licking the snow
Little dog, big mountain

Broken Top

The snowfield was a relatively flat walk. Then, we reached the base of the mountain and the climbing really began. Now that the slope had steepened, we put away our trekking poles and pulled out our axes. Cassie led the way as we traversed left, following several climbers in front of us. During rest steps, I would take a moment to absorb my surroundings, which were absolutely stunning in the clear weather. To the southeast, you can see Broken Top and, further back, Mount Bachelor and Sparks Lake. Mount Bachelor in particular brought a smile to my face because it was my first volcano “climb” back in 2015 and the trip that sparked my desire to climb more.

We continued to give Cassie her freedom in leading the way, but then she ventured further left then we wanted to be, leading us to a rather sketchy scree slope (as opposed to following the snowfield up). She’d consistently been trying to walk on whatever non-snow covered terrain she could find at this point, which is probably why she led us here. I imagine the snow was starting to irritate her paws, but since we were about to walk on sandier terrain, we decided to wait until we were back on snow to put on her Pawz dog boots.

The scramble up this slope was incredibly slow going and uncomfortable. The loose scree not only created a one-step-forward-two-steps-back situation, but it also dislodged larger rocks. We constantly had to check to make sure nobody was behind us and that Cassie remained next to or in front of us so she wasn’t hit by these rocks. After pulling ourselves up and over the surprisingly long hill, we were finally back on trail heading up to the base of Lewis Glacier.

Sketchy scree slope

The ridge next to Lewis Glacier is the final section of climbing before you reach the summit of South Sister. Although it’s a bit of a slog, the views are a beautiful distraction from the endless climbing. The glacier fed tarn at the base of Lewis (commonly confused with Teardrop Lake, which is actually located in the summit crater) was definitely my favorite sight as we continued our hike up.

Tarn at the base of Lewis Glacier

The wind hit us hard when we finally reached the crater rim. So much for those calm conditions we experienced on Middle Sister two days earlier! At least we weren’t in a cloud. We skirted the edge of the rim instead of cutting across the snowfield to reach the true summit on the northeast end of the crater. At 12:15 pm we stood atop the highest of the Three Sisters and the third highest peak in all of Oregon. A very exhausted Cassie (who obviously didn’t care that she’d just summited her first Cascade volcano!) curled up behind some rocks for a well-deserved summit snooze while Mack and I took in the views and captured them on camera.

Summit snooze for Cassie
Family photo!
Middle and North Sisters

Teardrop Pool is still snow covered

We’d hoped to have lunch on the summit, but the wind was too much of a nuisance. Back down the ridge we went! Cassie happily led the way, probably very excited to be escaping the wind and heading in the direction of the car.

Leading the way down

The little tarn we’d passed on the way up seemed like the perfect spot to break for lunch. After completing the ridge, we descended into the small basin holding the tarn and settled onto the rocky shore to enjoy some food. It was also the perfect place to refill our water bladders. Nothing better than glacier water to keep us hydrated and refreshed on the way back down. Cassie went back to sleep while we ate. She was so tired that even the ground squirrel constantly trying to sneak in to steal food didn’t phase her.

Lunch break

Lunch break nap

The rest of our descent was fairly uneventful. We did get in some good glissading on the snow slopes though! Mack usually went first, so it was fun to watch Cassie chase after him, trying to figure out what he was doing. We would’ve made pretty good time getting down to the flat snowfield section, but then the zipper on Mack’s hardshell pants malfunctioned and we ended up having to stop for awhile so he could fix it.

Now that the sun had been heating up the snow for a few hours, we came back to a field of suncups as far as the eye could see. If you’ve ever hiked through suncups, you know it’s not fun and makes it difficult to move quickly. Total exposure to the hot afternoon sun didn’t help either. The edge of the forest was a welcome sight. We descended back into the shade, shed some layers, then booked it down the trail to escape the hoards of mosquitoes trying to eat us alive.


Attempting to fix the zipper on his hardshell pants

The forest section passed quickly and before we knew it we were back at the climber trail sign with only a quarter mile left to hike. After crossing the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway and meandering through one final forested section, we entered the parking lot at 5:40 pm. Before completing the sufferfest of a drive back home, we treated ourselves to dinner and drinks at Three Creeks Brewing in Sisters, capping off the most incredible Fourth of July we’ve ever had. Wonder if we’ll be able to top it next year?

Just a quarter mile back to the car!
Another picture of Cassie sleeping

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