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Friday night, five of us (Al, Matt, Paul, Phillip, and I) drove from Portland through Sisters, Oregon in order to get an alpine start (i.e. way before sunrise) climbing North Sister Saturday morning. At 10,085 feet tall, North Sister (also known as "Faith") is the fourth tallest peak in Oregon and the oldest and hardest of the Three Sisters to climb. It is a shield volcano while neighboring Middle and South Sister are stratovolcanos. North Sister is highly eroded with rockfall, a common occurrence. It is a technical climb and proper gear and protection should be considered mandatory for anyone attempting to summit. We chose to approach from the East starting at the Pole Creek trailhead along Pole Creek trail # 4072 and then cutting East before Soap Creek along the climbers trail. From here we eventually gained the SE ridge towards the summit. Our descent route was along the SW ridge, then along the edge of Hayden Glacier, before meeting up with Camp Lake trail # 4074 back to Pole Creek trail # 4072. This route is about 13.5 miles round-trip.
We found a place to camp several miles from the Pole Creek trailhead on Friday evening around 10 PM. We were delayed by a slow, but good, meal at a restaurant in Sisters. Instead of messing around with tents, we simply slept under the star-filled sky. Before hitting the sack, we organized all our gear and planned to wake up at 2 AM, hoping to be on the trail by 2:45 AM.
After what seemed like a quick nap, I awoke to Matt saying it was time to get up and that we were six minutes late (apparently all three of his alarms failed to go off). Like any normal work day, I bolted out of bed and began preparations for the day ahead. The others were a little more relaxed in waking up. Eventually, we packed up all our gear and ate a quick breakfast. Matt and Phillip went on ahead to use the restroom at the trailhead, while Al, Paul, and I waited for the coffee to percolate. I played around with my new HighGear ATF8 Altimeter anxious to begin our climb.
We finally hit the Pole Creek trail around 3:35 AM (almost an hour late) with headlamps illuminating our way. We found snow above 6,000 feet and made it about four miles in before sunrise. After crossing soap creek, we were able to watch the rising sun shine on the Western side of North Sister. Our target was finally in sight.
As we hit the SE ridge, the snow disappeared and we started climbing up crumbly rock that compares to walking on a pile of ball bearings. Most forward steps yielded a half step sliding back down. I was thankful to have my trekking poles to help power through this terrain and keep my balance.
As we continued to climb and the sun rose, we had fantastic views of Broken Top, Mount Bachelor, and South Sister. There wasn't much in the way of vegetation at this elevation besides a few small wildflowers.
We continued gaining elevation along the SE ridge, passing several gendarnes (pinnacle or spire atop a mountain ridge) on our quest for the summit. At this point we put our helmets on, as rock fall was a constant danger. Our group was quite large for a technical climb like North Sister and we each brought our strengths and weaknesses. At times we had to slow down our pace or wait for the whole group to get back together. Two or three people would have been a more ideal group size.
The higher we climbed, the more amazing the views became. This was one of the most scenic climbs I have ever been on. Middle Sister stood close by, only about 40 feet shorter than North Sister. Beyond that, Mount Bailey and Diamond Peak were clearly visible.
After we reached the base of Prouty Pinnacle (summit block) the fun began. A little while earlier we had spotted another, even larger, group of climbers coming up the SW ridge route who turned out to be Mazamas. They had beat us to the first snow traverse on the East side of North Sister. We sat and waited about 30 minutes while they traversed, using a fixed hand line protected with snow pickets and anchored to rocks on either end. Luckily the Mazamas offered to let us use their rope to traverse before taking it down. One-by-one, we quickly tied onto the fixed line using a prusik hitch (friction knot that tightens when weight is applied) and traversed across the icy snow to the other side of the line. At this point, the Mazamas let us pass them and we continued on toward the summit.
We scrambled up some class 3-4 rock and traversed across some less steep, softer snow on the West side of North Sister before hitting the next real snow traverse back on the East side. Instead of setting up a fixed line like the Mazamas did on the previous traverse, we decided on a running belay (simul-climbing). This is where the entire team ties directly into the rope together and moves as a team climbing simultaneously. Phillip (experienced climber and Mazama volunteer leader) took the lead and started placing protection (snow pickets) along the traverse while Matt belayed him. I followed, tying into the rope with a figure eight on a bight knot. Soon we were all safely across. It was starting to get late and we noticed the Mazamas turning back. Their extra-large group would take too much time to safely get to the summit and back. They made a good decision.
There was only one more traverse left, known as the "Terrible Traverse," before hitting the "Bowling Alley" and then the summit. We stopped to evaluate the conditions and whether continuing was for our group. We were at about 9,800 feet in elevation, less than 300 vertical feet from the summit. It was already early afternoon and the snow was quickly turning to mush as the sun hit it, creating unstable conditions. Phillip and I really wanted to continue on, but common sense and group consensus prevailed. We decided to turn back and come again another day.
We decided to traverse unprotected on the way back. While not the safest decision, it was hard to justify trying to protect the traverse with snow pickets that might easily be pulled out of the softening snow in the event of a falling climber. Such an event could have the potential to send the entire team tumbling a thousand-plus feet below. Freed from a rope, Matt was able to take a few awesome photos. Thanks Matt! Having a second ice axe or ice tool came in very handy on this traverse.
Soon we were all safely headed down the SW ridge towards Hayden Glacier. We once again found ourselves on unstable, crumbly rock which changed colors between grey, black, red, and yellow. We observed a small natural arch as we quickly descended. I slipped and fell once, but quickly regained my footing and continued on. Matt made it look easy as he basically boot skied down the loose rock. I wish I had his balance.
Once down to the Hayden Glacier, we noticed a deep randkluft (crevasse between rock and ice) separating the mountain from the glacier. We found a safe way onto the glacier and quickly hiked towards the treeline.
Back on the Pole Creek trail, it was nice to be able to see what we had been hiking on in the dark. The trail is well maintained with most blown down trees cut out of the way. We arrived back at the trailhead around 5:30 PM. It was a long 14 hour day with only a few hours of sleep the night before. Even though we didn't summit, I had an amazing time. It was great to climb with new people and learn a some new things. And there is always another day to climb North Sister. I'll be back!