Mountain #12: Middle Sister

June 7, 2015


Andy: I’ve experienced a few truly magical places while climbing and hiking around the country:  standing in the Merced soaking tired muscles watching the sky fade to black, awed by a bright pink virga-induced sunset from Aries Butte; being amused by a mountain goat parade on the 4th of July in The Enchantments… these memories and others like them are love letters between me and world. I’m pretty enamored by Mother Nature, and during these experiences I get the feeling that it’s mutual. The Three Sisters Wilderness is another magical place. 


I can’t quite put my finger on it, but these peaks are just so rad. Maybe it’s because with closer proximity of the summits to one another, it feels like more of a “range” compared to other Cascade volcanoes. Walking in from the Pole Creek TH, you definitely get the feeling of being surrounded by mountains. Broken Top and Bachelor stand guard in the south, and the Sisters proper fill in a wall of mountains directly in front and sweeping to the north. 


We decided to take two days for our climb, and started the 5 mile approach in the early afternoon on Saturday. Walking through the old Pole Creek burn sucks a little bit, with no shade and desolate landscape, but it keeps the mosquitoes at bay. As we moved higher in elevation, more life appeared and we were treated to some of our first alpine flowers of the season. Beautiful. 



We camped at the toe of the Hayden glacier and dropped into bed early in order to get an alpine start the next day. After reading reports of significant crevasses in the Hayden glacier, we opted to bring a rope for the glacier travel. We knew that we could likely avoid the crevasses and obviate the need for a rope, but figured that it wouldn’t hurt to dial in our glacier travel systems even more. The following morning started out in the dark, but the sun quickly brought the summer alpine-glow to the mountains around us. The route turned out to be quite easy, just a mile long hike up the glacier and a quick climb up the north ridge. While not nearly the challenge of our past few peaks, this mountain was super fun and astonishingly beautiful.


Corie: My first mistake was not thinking about the heat. The hike in was relatively flat with limited elevation gain but it was blindingly hot and in full sun since the Pole Creek fire had burned out all of the natural protection years before we even thought of making this trip.  But, once again, the Cascades are so beautiful and Jefferson, the Sisters, and Broken Top taunted us around each turn and kept us heading up and up, further into the Three Sisters Wilderness Area. And then… we hit the trees… which led us through a mile of mosquito-infested vegetation. I had (intelligently) decided to hike in wearing spandex shorts and a sports bra and I was eaten alive. 


We eventually crossed the two creeks that framed the death trap the mosquitoes had created and made it into the safe zone.  We drank water freshly melted out from the Hayden Glacier and relished in its freshness; never have I tasted water so pure and revitalizing. The sun rose throughout this stretch of climbing and we were very, very happy about our decision to wake up at a proper climbing hour since the heat was becoming intense and the skyline was simply astounding and growing more beautiful by the minute.  Streaks of pink slipped across the mountains in the distance and suddenly every aspect of the mountain-framed world we were living in was beyond recognition, its breathtaking transformation causing us to stare around, mouths agape, while searching for cell phones to take photos with and momentarily abandoning the climb at frequent intervals.


I actually found myself joking that I wanted to find a way to make it harder… and both Andy and I discussed how casual the climb had been as we sat on the summit, 10,000’ above sea level, eating KIND bars and soaking in the sunshine.  We had the summit to ourselves and the two parties coming up behind us were moving quite slowly so we took our time enjoying the view.  I had recently read a forum that was discussing the differences between Alpinists and Mountaineers.  Someone had suggested, in jest, that it was the number of remaining fingers and toes that separated the two.  I think, in part, I agree but hope I never fall into the sub-10 digit population of Alpinists (Alpinistsclimb mountains; Mountaineers walk up them) and live well into old age typing my colorful trip reports in the same, slightly chaotic manner that I currently do.        


In Summary…

Middle Sister coughed up a different experience for us this weekend than it likely would have had we planned this trip two weeks earlier or two weeks later- between the high temperatures and the utter lack of recent snowfall, the hike in was brutally hot and the snowline was raising itself by the day. The trail in, however, is very apparent and aside from having to search for the climber’s trail, getting to the Hayden Glacier from the Pole Creek Trailhead is very straightforward.  We decided to camp higher up than the few other parties we saw, partially due to having left the ground cloth at home to save space/weight in our packs, partially due to wanting to camp away from other humans (who could be loud and obnoxious), and partially due to feeling a little lazy about the next morning’s wake up call and wanting to have to climb the shortest distance we could arrange.  We pitched the tent, organized our gear for the next day, and ate dinner.  Before going to sleep, we set up our harnesses and rope and practiced roped, glacier-travel for a few minutes.  This was the first peak we brought the rope on that did not include any actual alpine climbing because after reading multiple trip reports and seeing photos of the crevasses that open on the Hayden Glacier later in the season, we took this trip as an opportunity to practice our crevasse rescue protocols.  We were unsure of how avoidable the crevasses would be (if they had formed yet) and decided to be prepared for the worst case scenario.


Our strategy on Sunday morning was to awake at 3:30am for a 4:00am departure time, to eat breakfast quickly and gear up.  Andy traveled in front so we were able to use gravity to our advantage should we encounter, and fall into, a hidden crevasse. The morning was beautiful and the snow, despite still being relatively soft, was in good climbing condition.  


We were also the first ones up and made good time up to the glacier where we saw, forming in incredible patterns, crevasses.  The lack of snowpack coupled with the well-above-freezing temperatures had stitched many of them across the landscape but we were able to easily avoid them by sticking to the still-prominent ridge line that led up to the col between North Sister and Middle Sister.  Who knows what the glacier will look like later in the season so anyone planning on climbing Middle later in the year should be intentional about checking conditions and reading recent trip reports.


By the time we hit the col, the sun was fully up.  We packed away the rope and our harnesses and headed up an intermittently steep section of mixed terrain- snow, ice, and melting-out rock which, at its steepest points, was maybe 40-45* with relatively safe run out due to the melted out, rockier sections.  Even at 7am, the previous day’s steps were heavily melted out and we spent much of the climb that wasn’t on ice breaking through the crusty surface of the snow. After a quick inventory, we discovered that the summit was heavily corniced and we intentionally stayed as far back from the edge as we could manage.  Checking for cornices should become part of one’s natural landscape inventory whenever spending time in the mountains, especially late in the season when the snow is soft and melting out.


We reversed the route for the descent, being intentional about where we were descending to prevent rock and ice fall on the few parties coming up the ridge toward the summit.  This was a great, easy climb for anyone with mountaineering experience but preparedness for crevasses would be a wise choice, especially given the abnormal weather year we’ve had.


Equipment List- North Ridge via Pole Creek Trail Head


- Identical to Lassen Peak, plus

- Harnesses
- 50m rope
- Crevasse rescue gear


The Stats: 



Detailed maps and GPS data can be found here for the approach, and here for the climb to the summit.


Total Distance: 14.8 miles. Pole Creek TH to Camp: 5.6 miles. Camp to Summit 1.74 miles.

Time: Pole Creek Trail Head to Camp (7,300’): 3:33 hrs, Camp to Summit: 2:58 hrs

Starting Elevation: 5,338′

Summit Elevation: 10,065′

Elevation Gain: 4,718′


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