Corie: This trip was a series of… unplanned… experiences. First of all, we rolled into the TH after midnight and were so tired from the week that our desire to beat the heat with a proper “alpine start” was immediately nixed. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it but, we didn’t even hit the trail until 7am. Whoops. Carrying our 18L packs up the trail was incredible- a vast contrast to packing overnight gear up to the Hayden glacier when we did Middle Sister- and we made good time. We took a break near the edge of the Hayden and stared in alarm at how little of it remained; we were examining beautiful dregs of glacial ice and crevasses etched in crazy formations on nearly every aspect of it. Nuts. We hadn’t even seen a tent pitched on our way up but by the time we hit the South Ridge, we saw a pair of climbers descending from near the summit pinnacle. When we eventually ran into them, they told us that they had opted out of the Terrible Traverse after encountering a series of hanging snowfields. I swallowed slowly and prepared myself for the idea of not actually making it to the summit on this trip.
Traversing around, between, and beneath gendarmes and crazy piles of ALARMINGLY loose rock was an excellent break from the choss and scree that we’d been climbing and my commentary changed from “agh choss!” to “oh my god, this is just so much fun!” *insert sarcastic tone of voice here*. It actually was fun, but only in the “well this is new and different and also pretty much everything I touch is disintegrating beneath me” sense of things. I was still relatively sarcastic and light hearted when we hit the “Terrible Traverse” Little did I know that the Terrible part hadn’t even began.
Neither of us thought this mountain was be much of a challenge so when we finally made our way across the spicy, loose, wet, sharp, melting, and just plain shitty traverse to what we thought was the Bowling Alley, I breathed a sigh of relief, turned around, and quickly sucked that breath back in. We stared into the face of a gully full of the things alpine rock nightmares are made from- just… look at the photos. After a hundred yards of “climbing” the gully, three pitches of run out climbing on the worst rock in the Cascades, and some creative route finding (note: rap stations DO NOT indicate the correct route on the mountain), we reached the summit and realized that we’d probably done it wrong. Laughing, we rapped down the spicy bits and began our descent, taking a new line down the mountain in an effort to make up for lost time and get hydrated via Hayden runoff ASAP. This climb was a mental limit-pusher for sure but I am excited to go back and “do it right” next time.
Andy: I’d heard stories and read accounts of North Sister climbs. None of them included adjectives like: bomber, solid, casual, or easy. But having climbed throughout the Cascades on lots of crumbling mud/ash conglomerate sprinkled with boulders that liked to sit in your lap or take out your ankles, I figured it couldn’t be too bad. People run up this thing, soloing it in trail runners and continue on to climb two, three, or four other mountains. It’s not easy, but it can’t be too bad.
On our way up the South Ridge we noted one party that appeared to be at the base of the Bowling Alley when we started, and as we gained elevation they descended. When our paths crossed they told us they did not quite make it to the start of the BA, stymied by some snow and ice that remained on the Terrible Traverse. To hear this from a couple guys armed with ice axes made me feel a little ill-equipped in my running shorts and trail shoes. When we made it to what we thought was the Terrible Traverse, we were pleasantly surprised to find a decent ledge around a cirque, reminiscent of Broken Top. Upon rounding the next corner, we encountered the actual traverse. Oh… I see now. A few separate snow fields desperately holding on in the 70* weather made the path across circuitous and chossy beyond belief, but doable. After crossing the traverse we screwed up. We traversed way too far into a “Bowling Highway” of sorts, and up into 5th class terrain.
We pitched it out into 3 sections, each with a few 5.7-5.8 moves and found a few ancient rap/bail anchors, which were just enough encouragement to continue on. On the second pitch I found myself 30′ off the deck of a sloping ledge, no pro to speak of, with both of the blocks I was standing on wiggling, and took my left handhold out of the mountain and tossed it into the abyss. Nothing was even close to stable. This is stupid. I would have given anything for just an edge that would take 50% of my weight. This is death climbing. With extreme timidity and cautiousness we eventually reached the summit. Some types of climbing take brute strength. This type required you to move with the delicate softness of a cat. Now that I know where the actual route is supposed to go, the climb doesn’t seem as scary, but the variation we did was definitely gripping.
We approached via Pole Creek TH to skirt the special entry permit required for the Obsidian Trail approach. The distance for both approaches seem fairly similar (about 6 miles). As the trail moves towards the Hayden Glacier the path towards North Sister becomes a little less distinct, but fairly straight forward. Instead of following the ridge crest of the glacier as for Middle Sister, the trail stays low and shoots for the saddle between Prouty Point and the south ridge of North Sister. We moved up the ridge directly, but it can also be gained at a less intense angle by moving north along the Collier Glacier and traversing up the ridge on the west side to reach the crest. Along the ridge we found that most gendarmes are best passed on the climbers left, except for the last few.
The best path across the Terrible Traverse seemed to stay high, but we moved up and down the slope to avoid the snow and ice that was left. The Bowling Alley is accessed by traversing up a slight ramp at the end of the traverse. We moved around the bottom of this ramp and traversed into a rotten gully. This TR has great annotated photos that show the proper route and features. We can’t say much abut the climbing up the actual Bowling Alley as we completely missed it, but we managed our variation with a 30 meter rope and 3 medium-sized cams. This mountain absolutely requires comfort climbing and walking on highly exposed terrain, as well as skill and experience with the art of “not-pulling,” aka, the ability to use your entire body to stay connected to a variety of surfaces while not pulling said surfaces down upon yourself. Go prepared, plan for extra hours route finding if you get off route, and take TRs with a grain of salt since this Sister is in a constant state of flux.
Equipment List- South Ridge via Pole Creek TH.
- 3 liters of water each. We refilled on descent from the glacier runoff.
- Lots of bars, candy, snack mix, and sandwiches
- Rain shells
- Light pullover for Andy, micro-puff for Corie
- Lightweight hiking shoes or trail runners
- 1st Aid Kit + various other essentials
- Helmets (absolutely necessary!)
- 30m rope
- 0.5, 0.75, 1 BD cams + a few cords and slings
- Belay/rappel devices
Detailed maps and GPS data can be found on View Ranger:
The GPS screwed up and didn’t completely capture the ascent, but did capture the descent, until the phone died before the intersection of the Camp Lake and Green Lakes trails.
Total Distance: ~16.5 miles.
Time: Round Trip: 14 hours (approximately)
Pole Creek TH to Summit: 8 hours
Summit to Pole Creek TH: 6 hours
Starting Elevation: 5,339′
Summit Elevation: 10,085′
Elevation Gain: 4,746′