Three Sisters Traverse: Attempt

September 13, 2015

Corie: This was by far the most balls out day of my life.  The fact that it ended in what can be conventionally deemed as "failure" meant a lot at first but looking back on this entire adventure, it was simply a grueling way of demonstrating our overall fitness and communication as partners- moving this light and fast over so many miles and with so much elevation gain can only be done by partners who not only possess similiar enough skills to perform high-risk activities (solo'ing North Sister) and travel across incredibly unstable terrain (between North and Middle and again coming down the South side of Middle) but who are also able to do so while bordering on red-lining.  I was the most excited about heading up North Sister the "correct way" considering how much of a misadventure we'd had during our previous trip. I was pretty sure going into it that we had the correct beta, and sure enough, we did. North Sister is currently my FAVORITE mountain- not only does what she offer to climbers vary from one extreme to the other (I'm sure she's a real peach in the winter), but she also is just... underappreciated.  Now, I'm not saying that everyone and their mom needs to head out on a trip to climb this beauty, but I am saying that if you have skills mountaineering in the cascades, open your horizons to beautiful "Faith" and get ready to have your eyes open to some really amazing (sometimes scary) chossaineering.




An interesting learning moment from this trip for me was the back and forth conversation Andy and I had when we were scrambling up the chossy South Ridge of North Sister at 4am in the pitch black darkness: "how is it [over there]?" "oh, well, it's pretty good actually. It's less loose than it was down there."  You know you've spent a lot of time in the Cascades when __________________.  The fact that "less loose" was an identifier of good terrain was just as hilarious at 4am as it was after we safely made it up and down North Sister.  The worst and hardest part of the entire traverse was dealing with the sharp, loose terrain: coming down North to Prouty point, coming down Middle to the flat area heading up South, and the ridge scrambling we did when we were trying to find the correct route up South.  I came home bleeding with my trail runners ripped up- the volcanic choss was soooo sharp that putting your hand down to catch yourself was nearly as dangerous as simply falling down (which I did plenty of).  




All in all, this entire adventure was an absolute delight- we saw some very interesting and new aspects of each of these mountains, gained a deep appreciation (and love, on my end) for a very frowned-upon mountain, and found out that failure should really be viewed as motivation to train harder, prepare better, and ramp up your psych to the highest level you possibly can.  I become progressively more excited about our next attempt as time goes by and nerding out about route finding beta with our friends has been a fun, post-attempt exercise :)




Andy: I love light and fast missions and traverses so the Three Sisters Traverse/Marathon/Awesome-fest has been near the top of my list for a while. Having done all these mountains separately we felt prepared to throw an attempt at the traverse, but many unknowns still remained. We were psyched and felt fit at the trailhead when we started out. The stars were twinkling and air was crisp as we ran up most of the approach trail from Pole Creek. We quick-hiked the steepest sections and made great time reaching the moraine that leads to the south ridge of North. North Sister went quickly and easily as we picked our way across the snow-free traverse at first light. The Bowling alley was easily ascended and we crested the summit right at sunrise. Sunrises from summits are breathtaking moments and ones that I don't quickly forget. The light and warmth seemed like a good omen so we wasted little time and moved onwards towards Middle.



Middle went equally as quickly despite some circuitous navigation around Prouty Point. Our descent from Middle was a little scattered as we lost anything that resembled a trail and navigated towards South. As Corie mentioned above, we got confused about which ridge to take up South and wasted too much time going back and forth and up and down on heinous terrain. We made the call to bail back to Pole Creek which was disappointing but prudent given the time of day and our energy level. We’ll be back!



In Summary...


This trip was meant to be as light & fast as possible so we packed the fewest possible calories, brought the most minimal amount of gear, and planned to stop for water when it was available.  We elected to use the "Killian Jornet method" and use our body's motion to provide warmth- all stops were multipurpose meaning that if someone needed to pee, that time would also be used to grab another KIND bar out or to add/remove layers as needed.  Communication was key and we talked constantly about different landmarks to aim for, how we were feeling, how we felt about our pace, etc.. our food selection was also a crucial aspect of this trip and we will write a separate post on nutrition in the mountains to cover how and why we made the choices we made.




Going into this trip, we felt decently prepared- we did some intense looking into what went wrong on our trip up North Sister the previous month, reviewed the topos for beta to get over to South Siter, and talked through timing, our turn around time, and how much wiggle room (if any) we would allow ourselves during this trip.  The trickiest portions of the traverse were finding the most direct path between North and Middle, and finding the correct ridge to get up the North side of South.  


We elected to aim for a less-heinous-from-the-ground looking ridge for our push up South and, unfortunately, chose wrong. Six hours after leaving the summit of Middle Sister, we found ourselves facing a dead end and, with our view of the ridge we'd been aiming for being improved, we realized that the likelihood of having a refridgerator sized rock drop on us during our ascent was higher than we were willing to risk.  Regretfully, we turned around and began the long, depressed, exhausted walkout that comes when you realize that 20+ miles of moving and route-finding as quickly as possible has yielded 2 of 3 summits.



Lessons Learned

- Having a bail time is crucial when attempting a big objective.  It would have been easy for us to continue going balls out into the night, opening us up to making foolish mistakes.

- This time of year, water is readily available- carrying more than ~1.5L at a time isn't necessary if you are willing to go slightly out of your way to get water from cleanly flowing glacier runoff. We refilled in the Middle-South saddle from some snow patches near the base of South. There are plentiful options for refilling between North and Middle if needed.

- Gaiters are highly recommended due to copious amounts of scree.

- The book Oregon High (out of print) has the best descriptions and pictures for the north side routes up South Sister. We should have taken route 21, but instead wrongly traversed towards 24 (see below). As many others have reported, this is probably the crux of the traverse.





Equipment List- for a Light & Fast Summer trip

- REI 18L flashpacks

- 2L water each - plan to refill between Middle and South

- trail runners + trail gaiters

- lightweight shell

- running shorts + light baselayer top

- snacks

- headlamps

- sunscreen stick (Corie burns easily)


*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 :(




The Stats:

Pole Creek TH to North Sister Summit: 4h12m

North Sister Summit to Middle Sister Summit: 2h38m

Turn around time: 3pm

For the track, check out Corie's Strava.



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