After tagging Oregon's highest peak, Mt. Hood, earlier this year and declaring the rest of the Cascade volcanos were my bucket list for the next 10 years I couldn't pass up a chance to get up South Sister while we were in the area.
WAIT! You can't solo a volcano with a broken hand!
That's what the physical therapist said, but she wasn't at the house when I packed up and left at 4am. Google successfully navigated me to the trailhead at Devil's Lake so I was ready to head out at 5am. It was 59F and very pleasant.
After entering the Sisters Wilderness the trail climbs steadily, but nothing crazy. Certainly not as steep as Mailbox. The route descriptions warned that if you couldn't handle this first section in the trees you'd be no match for the rest of the trip. The only problem I had was that I was without trekking poles (stupid hand) and there was an intense buzzing in my ears.
I took the headphones out and the buzzing continued. I tapped the side of my head, but the buzzing continued. It was pretty constant except when I'd near a big stump and it would get louder and louder until I hurried away. Bees. But they didn't bug me and there were no mosquitos so no big deal.
After a mile or so I left the trees and got my first good look at the peak. Big and red, but nothing looked too bad. But before I'd get to start climbing, I had to cross a rolling plain. The trail ran right along the edge that dropped into the moraine. That's when the runner blasted past me. <sigh> He was cruising and I was not. Humbling. (I felt slightly less bad when I saw he was walking up a hill a little way ahead.)
At the other end of the plains the trail ticked sharply upward. The sand and grass gave way to flowers and pumice. As I climbed the yellow rock became red. I was passed by another hiker as I stopped to catch my breath at 8,500 feet.
The trail was easy to follow, but lots of boots have made it loose. In a few spots there was still a touch of snow and the climbing was much easier. If I were to climb again, I'd definitely do it earlier in the year when the snow extended all the way down to the plains.
A young couple were coming down and said they'd camped at the top. I was envious. The stars must have been spectacular at 10,000 feet. The runner passed me on his way down, too.
As I crossed into the crater, still full of snow. The highpoint was on the other side of the crater. I started around to the left and followed tracks across the snow. I should have stopped to dig out my glasses, but instead I squinted my way across. On the far side it was just a quick scramble to the true summit.
The views were amazing. I shot a quick video pano and dozens and dozens and then even more photos. I shoot a lot of photos usually, but I felt I just couldn't stop.
Most amazing was the view to the north. Front and center were Middle and North Sister. Middle Sister looks doable just like South Sister. North is a whole different challenge requiring rock climbing in lousy terrain.
Beyond the Sisters was Jefferson, the second highest mountain in Oregon. Hood, Adams, and Helens were visible on the horizon. All around the area were countless cinder cones that were part of the Newberry volcano, but that's for a different day.
Since I had pretty good phone reception I sent a few pics out. I wish I had coverage like that at my house, let alone on any of the peaks around home.
After 40 minutes of pictures, gawking, and just sitting and watching rocks fall down the northeast slope I figured it was time to go. I'd made decent time getting up and if I did as well down I'd be back in time for dinner, way ahead of schedule.
I found the actual trail around the crater rim that kept me off the snow and showed me one of the nicest high-altitude bivy sites I've ever seen complete with a high wall and views to die for.
On the way down I had plenty of time to chat with folks pushing their hardest to get up. Most were suffering under the sun and the thin air. They were more than happy to stop and talk. Folks from Portland and Seattle blamed their heavy breathing on living at sea level. The couple from Virginia though the bugs weren't bad... compared to what they were used to. The six year old that was cruising up the hill said he loved it, maybe because his father was barely able to keep up.
Lower, the mosquitos finally made an appearance. Combined with the growing heat, I had little interest in stopping to talk. The trees were oddly quiet until I could hear the road. Rinsing my head in the creek was a glorious relief as the temperature passed 90F.
Compared to other peaks on the bucket list, South Sister isn't much of a challenge. It's not super long (12 miles) and doesn't have a ton of gain (4,900 feet). It would probably be an annual trip if I lived in Central Oregon. The terrain is nicely varied between the trees, lakes, flats, and the final climb. A camp on the summit would be amazing.
I was able to get back to the house before the rest of the family and got a shower, pounded down a Coke (or two), and started icing my hand. When the kids flooded into the house it was back to normal and time to start thinking about the next day's adventures.
(Higher resolution pics are available on Flickr.)