This entire day was a mess. We had originally set out to try the Three Sisters Traverse, hopeful that it was still early enough in the year that most lines would be skiable and that we’d spend more time on skis that we would on foot. How very, very wrong we were…
We ditched the pup off with Corie’s parents and drove separately to Devil’s Lake TH where we left a water– and snack–laden car. We turned around and drove to Pole Creek TH, grabbing burritos along the way and building up our stoke for our 3am wake-up time. We had both been combating severe allergies during the week leading up to this excursion and the residual lung irritation had Andy coughing throughout the 5 hours we had to sleep.
There’s an adage that some ultrarunners take seriously, “don’t try anything new on race day.” We’ve both run ultras and should *know* better than to try something new before setting out to climb and ski 3 volcanoes in a single push but for some reason our logic failed us... We both have the HyperLite Mountain Gear Ice Pack- upgraded to carry skis easily in the mountains. We also both have the HyperLite Mountain Gear Summit Pack- which is not designed to carry anything heavy, much less skis. Andy outfitted our packs to carry skis in what we guessed would be a reasonable manner on the evening before we headed to Central Oregon. Neither of us really tested what a fully loaded, ski & boot-equipped Summit Pack would feel like. As it turns out… it doesn’t feel awesome. More on that later.
We made good time hiking up toward the SE Ridge, surprised at how little snow remained for this time of year and feeling the early pangs of ‘uncomfortable backpack’ starting to dig into our backs and shoulders. We gained the SE Ridge, still in our approach shoes, and continued to hike… still in our approach shoes. More back pain, more shoulder pain, and some irritation that we hadn’t encountered consistently skinnable conditions yet.
Somewhere around 8,500’, we slowed considerably. A combination of discomfort, fatigue from not sleeping much in the week prior, and general crankiness over climate change had us second- and third-guessing our motivation to complete the traverse. By the time the sun rose and we were traversing onto the S Ridge, the decision was made for us.
We were looking at a difficult-to-link-on-skis descent between North and Middle Sister and what looked like more ski packing or slow shenanigans up Middle’s thin N Ridge. Given the pace we’d been moving at all morning, the discomfort of our ski-laden packs, our lack of desire to pack skis *down* anything, and our combined sleep deprivation, we decided to ditch our skis at the top of the South ridge and plan to simply climb North Sister.
We headed straight up a series of snow runnels, finding fun and engaging climbing between rockbands. The climbing stayed low-angle (maybe 30 degrees) until we reached the “terrible traverse” – which wasn’t so terrible being covered in snow! We traversed to the base of the bowling alley, getting really solid sticks with our tools and crampons, and started to plan out our route.
What is typically a delightful field of dry choss in the summer had been transformed through the spring melt-freeze cycles into a delightful field of icy choss and rotten snow! We carefully picked our way up the gully to the left of the summer route, traversing right on rotten snow and mush to gain the ridge below one of its many radical gendarmes.
The summit pinnacle was bare of snow and ice and we dry tooled our way to the summit, enjoying a peaceful summit to ourselves and getting better eyes on the rest of the Sisters. We peeked over to the East side of North Sister, eyeing another route up to the summit pinnacle and making plans for next Spring when we hope to complete the full ski mountaineer’s traverse (which means climbing North Sister).
Our descent was uneventful but we did end up rappelling down the Bowling Alley for safety and efficiency’s sake. There are multiple options for rapping (cue the need for webbing clean-up when it can be dug out from under the snow and ice) but we just slung a horn, rapped 15m out of the choss-zone and down-climbed/traversed our way back to our skis.
We managed to find some good corn skiing down the east side of the South ridge which almost made up for all of the amateur mistakes we made on our ascent.
A winter or spring accent of the full traverse is quite difficult and should not be underestimated. Completing the traverse with skis has pros and cons. Two gentlemen completed the traverse a few days before we did without skis and I think they greatly benefited from less gear and less weight. Their choice was probably best given the lack of snow. We did very little skinning on the way up and the available descents were not conducive to linking up with the next mountain. We were probably two or three weeks late on optimal conditions for skis. Conditions change and the tools used must follow suit.
We’ve noticed many people doing the Sisters traverse on skis but not summiting North Sister, simply skiing from the south arm from about 9,800’. Although elevation-wise, the majority of the mountain has been climbed, all the ‘climbing’ lies in the final ~200’. This last section of climbing necessitates crampons with good front points, two tools or axes, and, depending on comfort and skill level, a rope and protection. All these things add significant weight and unfortunately are only used for this relatively small section of the traverse. They also complicate the backpack situation. Crampons, tools, and skis with boots on the outside of the backpack can quickly get cluster f-ed, and be quite uncomfortable to carry. Luckily, modern gear provides plenty of options for lightweight but technically competent tools.
In addition to more gear, summiting North Sister also requires significantly more time. We soloed to the summit with Petzl Lynx crampons and Quarks/X-Alps, and raped a 50’ section on the way down. This felt like a good compromise between speed and safety. With less competent crampons or one tool, we probably would have enjoyed protection on the way up, if any was to be found. In the future, we’d probably employ this method again with maybe a slightly longer rap rope and leave all the screws, pickets, and rock gear at home. Even with soloing to the summit, this section of North Sister still takes about an hour to ascend and a little less to descend. This can definitely be done faster with familiarity and confidence soloing AI2-3 with some sections of choss, but still adds significant time to the overall traverse.
Equipment List- North Sister
- 1 liter of water each
- Map and GPS (Gaia on iPhone)
- Skis, AT Boots, Ski Poles
- Ice tools (Quarks/X-Alps) and crampons (Petzl Lynx)
- Rope (30m 8mm) (wished this was a little longer)
- 6 screws, 2 pickets (used none)
- Small cams, a few nuts (used none)
Starting Elevation: 5,300'
Final Elevation: 10,085’
Elevation Gain: ~4,700’
Pole Creek TH to Summit: 7.6 miles
Pole Creek TH to Summit: 7 hours 38 m
Total: 13 hours
Strava GPS link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1603886012