Corie: I had some extremely conflicted feelings going into this trip. This time, I knew how hard it was going to be, and I knew, also, that we were going to be facing several vertical miles of unfamiliar terrain that was stated to be the crux of the entire traverse (coming up Southie). I was, however, more mentally prepared for the North and Middle and knew how nicely they could go and how much fun they would be to link up again. Conflict aside, I was pumped, as usual, to go on another light & fast trip in a (partially) new area.
I really, really love moving light & fast. Like a lot. It's easier, it requires greater skill, it often enforces safety, and you're able to be fully enveloped in the experience of climbing since you're not bogged down in the wonderland of crafting the perfect iPhone shot, bullshitting for 30 unecessary minutes while fixing your gaiters, or thinking about anything other than exactly what you're doing, how you're doing it, and how your body is feeling in the moment. It's amazing. North Sister remains my favorite of the three mountains and I feel safe saying that now since we've climbed all three sisters THREE TIMES this year alone. Middle offers a more interesting trek in the winter and I will be happy to visit her again when she's under a thick veil of snow.
South Sister, in general, was an experience. At one point, Andy started laughing down at me and when I asked, "wait, why are you laughing...?" He replied, "Just watching you touch everything and seeing it all disintegrating beneath you is hilarious." I mean... it wasn't hilarious in the sense that things falling apart beneath you while you're climbing in a no-fall zone is funny... it was funny in the sense that, once again, we'd found ourselves climbing in a no-fall zone with things falling apart beneath us. We must have extra lives to the millionth power stored up or something. We were both also feeling the affects of spending so much time at altitude at this point which didnt help matters.
When we reached the summit, I had no words. I felt my eyes well up with happy, exhausted tears. We soaked it all in- altitude headache forgotten temporarily, I inhaled 10,000' air for the third time that day and felt such bliss at what we'd managed to accomplish. I am so eager to go back a year from now and push for a faster time- now that we have the beta and a connection with each of these mountains, I truly believe that we'll be able to move quickly, and safely, up and down, three times, in true, beautiful, happy, alive, chossy-alpine style.
Andy: I was so psyched to pull this one off! After having tried it once before, we knew a little more about how to link the peaks, where to get water, what realistic goals were, and where the crux would be. Even with prior knowledge, the traverse was no small feat for us. I was a little more apprehensive going into the traverse this time; the days were shorter, which meant more headlamp-eliminated travel. Moving by headlamp up a singletrack trail through the woods isn't much slower, but navigating talus fields can be much slower in the dark. Approaching the saddle for North/Middle covers about a mile of this terrain, and I was a little worried about how much it would slow us down. Additionally, colder temperatures had us packing an extra layer and wearing pants this time, which didn’t slow us down much, but it’s different from running shorts.
The weather was scheduled to hold steady at overcast and low winds all day. It was nice to not sweat profusely, but watching for those cumulonimbus harbingers had me watching my back more often. North and Middle went smoothly, and we plunged down into the Middle/South saddle. After a quick water refill, we launched up South to climb scree primarily and tread lightly on crumbling Cascade ash higher up. It was actually really fun to climb a different aspect of mountain I’ve become quite familiar with, but even more rewarding to manage a traverse of the entire Sisters group.
We rolled into Pole Creek close to midnight on Friday night, electing to do the push on Saturday so it would be easier to negotiate a ride from Devil's Lake back to Pole Creek. The main issue was that if we left at our proposed time of 330am, we would be operating on a dangerously little amount of sleep that could likely prevent our success. So, we elected to awake at 445am, and left at 515am, hitting the talus field below the Middle/North saddle by daylight after running the first few miles. We made sure to optimize our breaks (if and when they were needed), fueled ourselves with KIND bars when needed, and made sure we had warmed our bodies with a cup of RUNA before leaving the truck in the morning.
Starting a little later also allowed us to scope out the route off of North and over Prouty Point a little better. We stayed much closer to the line of ascent, instead of dropping off to the west like last time. This allowed us to make a direct line up through a rock band, traverse back to the west to avoid unnecessary elevation gain, and line up for Middle. If we had some extra traction (Yaktrax, or something similar), it seems possible to drop off to the west more quickly and traverse the edge of the Collier glacier. This would be a less direct line, but would prevent a 300' climb back up the side of Prouty. Something to consider for future traverses...
From there, it was a cruise up to the summit of Middle, and back down and over to the section leading up to South. We grabbed water off the remnants of the lower Irving glacier.
Coming up the north side of South Sister was mostly a scree walk with no trail - slow going. The ridge becomes more prominent higher up and we found staying on the top allowed the easiest travel. Once we reached the large buttress of choss, we stayed to the climber's right. For the next 500' feet, the angle steepens and the rock gets incredibly chossy. It would be best not to fall up here. At the top of the choss chute, we topped out on a more solid, grey band of rock. Although it looked like a teetering pile of refrigerator-sized plates, we scrambled up it without much trouble onto the final summit field. The way down was straightforward, in the dark, and beautiful. Ecstasy abounded, even with energy stores nearly depleted, and we were able to slowly jog sections on the descent.
Beers at the car, brought to us by our amazing friends, were the icing on the cake.
Equipment List- for a Light & Fast Summer trip
- REI 18L flashpacks
- 1.5L water each - refill between Middle and South
- trail runners + trail gaiters
- lightweight shell
- insulated jacket
- softshell/long pants + light baselayer top
*we elected not to bring helmets on this trip- we can't really recommend this for others because rock fall is guarenteed on these mountains and sooner or later you'll probably get hit in the head :(
Pole Creek TH to North Sister Summit: 4h15m
North Sister Summit to Middle Sister Summit: 3h2m
Middle Sister Summit to South Sister Summit: 4h52m
Car to Car: 14h41m
For the GPS track, check out view ranger.
More nerding on milage and elevation gain.