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On Saturday morning Matt, Louis, and I drove to Pole Creek Trailhead for a weekend of ski mountaineering in the Three Sisters Wilderness and hopefully a summit of Middle Sister. Middle Sister (10,047') is the shortest of the Three Sisters, located in Central Oregon. The Hayden Glacier North Ridge route starts from Pole Creek Trailhead near Sisters, Oregon. It's about 14 miles round-trip, so it makes a nice overnighter or a very long day trip. The trek starts off on Pole Creek Trail # 4072 and then follows Camp Lake Trail # 4074 before heading above treeline West toward Middle Sister.
We arrived at the Pole Creek Trailhead where we found plenty of parking, but unfortunately no snow on the trail. We packed up all our ski mountaineering gear and started hiking up Pole Creek Trail # 4072. We had heard a report from a local ranger stating there was no snow on the road, but plenty of snow on the trail. We had hoped this was the case so we could skin up at the car and ski the whole way to base camp (approximately 5 miles).
We left the trailhead around 10:45 AM. It was warm and we were soon shedding layers. After about half a mile, we starting seeing patches of snow. About 1-2 miles in, the snow finally became more consistent and the temperature dropped a little.
Eventually the conditions were good enough to take our skis off our packs and start skinning toward our intended base camp. This was the first time ski mountaineering for both Matt and I, so we were very excited to test out our new gear. I am using K2 Backup skis with Dynafit Vertical ST bindings and Garmount Axon AT boots. It's a great setup, but the boots did a number on my feet after having to walk in them the first 2-3 miles.
We skied to around 6,800' in elevation and found a good spot with a view to set up base camp. There was a small melted out area, but I chose to set up my Marmot Alpinist tent in the snow. The weather was mostly cloudy with sun breaks, a far cry from the weather forecast of mostly sunny skies. Winds were light but steadily increased throughout the afternoon.
We had great views of Broken Top, Middle Sister, and North Sister from camp.
After getting camp set up and eating lunch, we decided to climb partway up Middle Sister and ski down. This is when we got our first warning that the weather was going to change. Just as we started climbing, it started snowing lightly, then changed to rain, then stopped. Definitely not what we had been hoping for. We continued on and climbed another 1,000 vertical feet before skiing back down to camp. It was really fun for my first backcountry skiing experience. We had considered continuing on to the summit before dark, but had left our ice axes and crampons back at camp. In hindsight, that was a disappointing mistake.
Back at camp the wind continued to pick up, so we built a windbreak out of snow blocks in front of my tent. We carved out places to sit and cooked dinner sheltered from the wind. We had a few sun breaks and enjoyed more great views of the mountains before going to bed early.
I woke up just after midnight to perfect conditions. Stars were out over Middle Sister and the wind had completely died down. The temperature had dropped and the snow was starting to firm up. I was excited and hoped it would hold into the morning. I decided to leave my tent door open to enjoy the stars. Unfortunately I woke a little while later to rain drops on my face and howling winds. So much for the nice weather.
The weather did not improve by morning. We woke up just after 5 AM, and luckily it was not raining, but the summit of Middle Sister was covered by clouds. After breakfast, we decided to make a summit attempt, hoping the weather would improve.
The summit of Middle Sister remained in the clouds as we climbed higher and higher up Hayden Glacier toward Prouty Point. There were a few sun breaks behind us to the East, but only dark clouds in front of us.
Visibility became poor around 8,500'. We took a break and discussed what to do next. We finally decided to turn around since summiting in a whiteout would yield very disappointing views and a possibly dangerous ski descent. At least we were able to enjoy a couple thousand vertical feet of ski descent back to camp. It sure beat having to walk. The time savings is amazing and it wasn't slower or didn't feel like any more work going up.
After breaking camp, we skied back toward the Pole Creek Trail. We took a slightly different route in the hopes of skiing more than walking. Our efforts were rewarded with a slightly shorter walk back to the trailhead.
Even though the weather didn't cooperate, we had a fun adventure. It was a great introduction to ski mountaineering and has wet my appetite for more (minus all the walking in ski boots). I had great company on this trip and am sure we will all be back later in the year to try summiting Middle Sister again.