Three Sisters Traverse 4/24

Back at the car after a great morning of skiing Taryn and I pondered our next move. All of our objectives lay to the north. While we wanted to end up in the Cascades, an obvious stop along the way was the Three Sisters outside of Bend. I had spent a week skiing at Mt. Bachelor way back in the spring 2013 and had done one fun day or nordic skiing into the Three Sisters Wilderness. I remember finding the landscape inspiring and I was intrigued by the idea of applying all the skills and fitness I had developed over the years to revisit the mountains. We figured we could break up the drive with a few days in Bend, and then continue up to the Cascades once full spring weather had finally arrived.

As soon as we checked the weather for the region we realized this idealistic itinerary wasn’t going to happen. The weather showed excellent sunny weather the following day, but then at least a week of unsettled weather following that. If we wanted to ski in the Three Sisters it would have to be tomorrow. We quickly packed up the car and started the five hour drive up to the Three Sisters.

While driving we started working out plans for the following day. An obvious objective was the Three Sister Traverse, a 25+ mile, 10k point-to-point adventure that links up all three summits. The logistics were daunting however. Aside from the obvious question of how our bodies would handle back-to-back big days, doing the traverse would mean figuring out how to get the 50+ miles (by road) back to our car at the end of the day. With a bit of research we learned there was a shuttle from Mt. Bachelor (the end of the traverse) back to Bend. Taryn was able to get in touch with a friend who lived in Bend who was willing to loan us his car to do the car shuttle from Bend back to the Pole Creek Trailhead (the start of the traverse). The only caveat with our well crafted plan was that the last shuttle down from Mt. Bachelor was at 5pm. Since we really had no idea how long the traverse would take us, it would mean a very early start. But we figured we could always audible and do a shorter out-and-back if we weren’t feeling it, so we set our directions to Pole Creek Trailhead and tried to savor the bit of downtime in the car.

The final section of forest road to Pole Creek Trailhead ended up still being snow covered so we stopped a mile and a half short of the trailhead for the night (hey, at least a shorter car shuttle the next day right!). It was already getting dark as we settled in for the night so we made a quick dinner and then went straight to bed, our alarms set for 3:15am the next morning.

The morning alarm was predictably grim, but the starry sky promised a deep re-freeze and a bluebird day. We were moving by 4am. We walked the first half mile or so before the snow became consistent to skin. Another mile or so and we reached the actual trailhead. The trail rose gently and the skinning was wonderfully meditative, the trees passing by as dark blurs.

After a mile on the trail the sky had lightened enough for us to make out the faint outline of North Sister. We had also climbed enough elevation that the trees had begun to thin. After a quick discussion we decided to leave the trail and cut cross-country, deciding that the trail would take us unnecessarily far south before before cutting back west towards the Sisters. Some thicker-than-expected bushwhacking had us momentarily second guessing our decision, but soon the trees opened up for good and we were able to make good time on the wonderfully refrozen snow.

The terrain proved more rolling than we expected, but luckily sunrise was now near enough that the dark outlines crystalized into well defined features, allowing us to weave our way the biggest dips and avoid too much elevation loss.

As we continued our approach we marveled at the impressive east face of North Sister. It would be cool to come back and ski some of the more technical lines in the area.

As we continued to wrap around the flank of North Sister we were treated to our first views of the entire traverse. Mt. Bachelor looked preposterously far away, and even South Sister, our final planned summit, appeared worryingly distant. The perspective also made it clear that bailing partway through the traverse would be an unpleasant endeavour as the terrain drained east and west whereas our car lay to the north.

But a more immediate concern quickly redirected our attention. In an effort to take a direct route to our intended route up North Sister we had ended up high on a ridge coming down off North Sister. The terrain on the north side had been gradual enough to hardly notice, but the ridge dropped steeply off to the south. The snow was still frozen enough that sidehilling looked dicey, but descending directly off the ridge would mean losing a bunch of hard-earned elevation. Our laziness prevailed and we made a series of dicey cuts across snow and talus until we were able to join the lower angle slopes heading up towards North Sister.

The vast volcanic landscape continued to offer interesting route-finding, requiring us to circle around several calderas en route to North Sister. Eventually though we arrived at the bast of the steep slope on the south side of North Sister. From there we put our skis on our back and enjoyed firm-but-manageable booting the 1000ft up to the South Ridge of North Sister.

Cresting the ridge we saw a windswept ridge, interrupted by bands of chossy rock. The travel to the summit looked slow and precarious, with basically no additional skiing on the descent so we decided to take the asterisk on the day and descend from there.

The snow was still quite solid from the night’s refreeze, but the morning sun had softened it enough to make our descent fairly reasonable despite the steep pitch of the slope.

As we were descending we saw a group of three approaching and, reaching the bottom, we skied over to say hi. The group informed us that they were also planning on doing the Three Sisters Traverse. When they heard that we were anxious about making the 5pm last shuttle down they kindly informed us that they could give us a ride down if we needed it.

While the morning’s solitude had been nice, it was comforting knowing there was another group out in the area as well. There’s definitely an interesting psychological phenomenon knowing there is a weaker/slower group behind you (they said they had left the car at 3:15am). While I don’t usually feel unsafe on adventures such as these, the feeling of “we’re a long way from home” can feel unsettling. But when I see another group and feel complete certainty that they will be okay, it instantly erases any doubts I have about my own abilities.

Saying goodbye to the group we took off toward the col between Middle and North Sister and watched from afar while the group took advantage of our bootpack to work up North Sister.

En route to the col we passed some of the coolest rock I have ever seen, a towering 100+ foot section of swirling hexagonal volcanic deposit.

The consistent slope made for quick travel and we managed to climb the ~900 feet up to the col in about half an hour. We skinned the first part of the ridge, but soon encountered increasingly firm sastrugi and and growing exposure so we opted to switch again to booting. While never overly steep or complex the ridge offered a nice change of pace from all the wide-open skinning we had been doing, a bit of “ski mountaineering” mixed in with an otherwise “skimo” heavy day.

We reached the summit of Middle Sister a bit before 10am and took a moment to grab some food and take in the views. Mt. Bachelor still looked desperately far away, but so far things had been going smoothly and we felt hopeful that we could make our 5pm cutoff.

More pressing was the horrendous looking descent off the south side of Middle Sister. The sastrugi we had encountered heading up the ridge was just a warmup for what lay below us; a patchwork of half-covered rocks and ice chunks, themselves covered with more ice, a fractal landscape of teeth-rattling heinousness.

The route-finding also looked non-trivial. The ridge up South Sister was obvious, a singular ramp leading through an otherwise cliff-filled face. But in between us and that ridge was 4+ miles of complex volcanic-shaped terrain that would require precise navigation to avoid unnecessary mileage and climbing. We took advantage of the bird eye view and mapped out a potential route, snapping a few pictures for later reference, before stepping into our skis and dropping off the summit.

We followed the southern ridge for a hundred feet before cutting onto the southwest face in search of better snow. This search proved futile and we resorted to careful jump turns down through the ice.

After descending another ~500 feet we realized we were getting sucked too far west and would end up well off-course if we continued. We traversed skiers left on a lower angle section, targeting a gentle ridge. We crossed above a steeper bowl and contemplated descending into it to avoid crossing some windblown rock bands, but opted against it. This ended up being a critical decision as dropping into that bowl would have necessitated a mile or two of flat skinning to get back on track. The nature of skiing off a cone is that any small mistake in direction can get quickly amplified as you descend.

Our instincts were good, however, and soon we were looking down a long stretch of smooth snow that led down to a frozen lake we had identified on the summit. This final section of descent was glorious, wide open turns on the first real corn we had experienced in two days.

Soon enough we we down on the shore of the frozen lake, thrilled to have successfully navigated the descent. It was close to 11am at this point so we took the time to have some lunch and enjoy the nice weather. We knew we still had a long way to go, but it felt good to have checked off two out of the three summits for the day.

Refreshed and refueled we left the comfort of the lake and started working through the complex terrain up to the flanks of South Sister. Our study on top of Middle Sister paid off and, with the help of some zoomed-in photos, we were able to navigate towards the north ridge with no major detours. We weaved first above and then below winding fins of volcanic rock, before arriving at a steep slope that led up to the north ridge.

The midday sun was scorching at this point and we’d been on the go for seven and a half hours. The 2,000ft climb up the ridge seemed daunting and I was feeling deep in a bonk. Luckily the easiest path to civilization at this point was over South Sister which made it easy to motivate to move forward.

From afar the north ridge had looked potentially steep and exposed, but as is often the case, proved quite manageable. The large cliffs down the fall-line definitely demanded care but with crampons and an ice ax it felt very secure.

In the photo below you can see Taryn making her was up the north ridge with Middle and North Sister behind her. This photo clearly shows how dropping into the bowl beneath the southwest face of South Sister (rather than traversing through the rock bands) could have suckered us into a miles long detour.

After an hour and half of booting up the ridge we made it to the lip of the summit crater. Getting through the corniced lip required a bit of care, but a few steep snow moves later and we were on top of the summit crater. A few more minutes and we had traversed to the true summit of South Sister. It was special to be able to look back at Middle and North Sister and marvel at all the ground we had covered. It was 1pm and we had already covered 15 miles and over 9,000ft of elevation gain, not bad for a morning of skiing!

Turning our attention to the south we could see Sparks Lake, Cascade Lake Highway, and, in the distance, Mt. Bachelor. In our brief research the evening prior we knew that the final section along the closed Cascade Lake Highway to Mt. Bachelor was supposed to be a real slog and now we could see why. The complex rolling terrain prevented us from descending directly towards Mt. Bachelor. Instead we saw that we would have to head due south following the natural drainage and then do a long gradual climb back up the road to Mt. Bachelor. The one silver lining was that the south face of South Sister was free of the terrible sastrugi that had plagued Middle Sister. The upper flanks of the peak had corned up wonderfully and we enjoyed perfect swooping turns down off the summit.

We soaked up the perfection knowing it would be short lived. After about 2500ft of glorious skiing we felt our skis began to stick and by the time we got down to 7500ft the snow was downright slushy. Unfortunately hitting the most direct drainage to the road required traversing to the end of a long flat plateau (visible in the picture below) before dropping further. This plateau was sloped just enough downhill to trick us into staying in ski mode, but we ended up awkwardly shuffling and sidestepping a good portion of it. Dropping off the end of the plateau we again found ski-able terrain, but at this point the snow had lost any remaining support-ability. Our narrow skis sunk into the wet concrete and we often found ourselves knee deep in slush.

It was a great relief when we saw the opening with the road ahead. Our relief only last a minute, however, when we realized we still had 6.5 miles of flat-to-slightly-uphill skinning ahead of us. It was now 2:30pm which meant we had two and a half hours to cover the remain distance. Without saying much we pulled out our skins and got moving.

The next 6.5 miles were some of the more unpleasant I’ve experienced on skis. The angle was just steep enough to make skating impossible, but flat enough to make skinning frustrating. Taryn, using her superior nordic skiing technique, took off her skins and detached her heels so she could kick and glide. I couldn’t manage that without slipping backwards so forged ahead with my glopping skins. Both methods felt slow and inefficient. The flat angle and hot sun also meant that both of us immediately started developing blisters. With a mile or two to go I witnessed Taryn almost stage a sit-down strike, something I’ve never seen before. It was truly heinous.

But our determination paid off and after two hours of slogging we saw the Mt. Bachelor ski resort come into view. With half an hour remaining before the final shuttle we finally knew we were going to be able to make it. Stepping out of our skis and onto the paved road felt heavenly, and we started making our way towards the parking lot.

While walking along the road we noticed a large numbers of cars heading down towards Bend. Feeling lucky we stuck out our thumb and almost immediately some nice guys in a truck stopped for us. They didn’t have room in their truck, but offered us a ride down in the bed of their truck. We happily accepted and climbed in. The ride down was truly magical. After twelve and a half hours on the go we finally got a chance to sit down and loosen our boots. The warm spring-evening air blew in our faces and we giggled as we sped down the mountain, feeling utterly alive.

Getting down into Bend, Taryn’s friend came and scooped us. Seeing our haggard state he kindly offered to feed us dinner and for us to spend the night, and offer which we immediately accepted.

Of course, the epilogue to our day, the car retrieval still lay before us. With heavy eyelids and increasingly stiff bodies, we dropped the friend off at his house and drove the hour to the van and then the hour back. Getting back to the house we wolfed down some amazing pasta and then crawled to bed. As we fell asleep we marveled at the fact that it was just over 48 hours since we had left San Francisco. What a 48 hours it had been.





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