At 3,157 metres, South Sister was my first real mountain - though it was a wonderful and pivotal experience, I just can't count Mount Kosciuszko, I'm sorry - and she was spectacular and absolutely brutal.
AS I REFLECT on this hike, sans fatigue, I am overwhelmed by the beauty that we had been surrounded by. The landscape here in the Three Sisters Wilderness and in Oregon, in general, is amazingly varied and very dramatic. There are dense green forests, sparkling lakes in hues of blue, pure white glaciers, sand-coloured meadows and red volcanic rock fields - all flanked by sky-spearing peaks, some perfectly cone-shaped, some rod-like and others interestingly eroded...I cannot believe that so many natural beauties can exist in the one place - but that is why the Pacific Northwest is so treasured. Our time here really capped off an excellent and diverse 5 weeks in the US that had started with the otherworldly burnt orange and red sandstone of Zion and that included the cool, majestic granite of Yosemite.
WE WERE SUPPOSED to stay in Sisters the night before and drive to the Devils Lake Trailhead very early in the morning. At a whim, we decided to sleep in our cars at the Trailhead. This was advertised as a way to salvage an extra hour of sleep...but I, naturally, was won over by the added adventure factor. We arrived at the Trailhead late that night to hushed voices emanating from cars parked in every possible nook and headlamps dancing in the night like fireflies.
An abrupt knock on the window startled us from our sleep. Duffin, Luke's rugby coach from Oregon State University, was joining us for the hike and he was already up and ready to go. By the light of our headlamps, we gathered our water, snacks and extra clothing, guzzled up a Clif Granola Bar each and hit the trail. There are few things that are as thrilling as starting a hike in the dark when so many are still sound asleep...
The hike was a very effective heart starter, even more so than caffeine, as we were almost immediately greeted with switchbacks. For almost two miles, we slogged up these switchbacks that snaked through a thick, dark green hemlock forest. I noticed a curious fuzzy light green moss delicately draping over the tree branches and carpeting the forest floor. Under a steadily lightening sky, the forest seemed to stir to life and I felt an eerie but enchanting energy around me - at least I did when I wasn't trying to slow down my heart rate and breathing! Oregonian forests are truly special - I've seen some that can compare, such as in Switzerland, but I've never felt any quite like them.
THE FOREST eventually opened up to a peaceful meadow of rolling hills, with South Sister up front looking regal. South Sister is Oregon's third highest mountain and is one of only a handful of peaks in the Cascade Range that can be summited without technical ability and climbing gear. Also named "Charity", South Sister is a volcano that last erupted 2,000 years ago. In 2001, scientists discovered an uplift in the surrounding area but apparently, the growth has since slowed. Some reports do say that eruption is inevitable, but we just do not know when.
AS WE MEANDERED through the fields, the sun rose over Broken Top, an extinct volcano that was to our right that stopped erupting 100,000 years ago. The ancient peak of Broken Top has been eroded over the years, giving it a rugged and slightly ominous appearance. We stopped to watch the sun stream through the volcano, through the trees and reflect off Moraine Lake; it was extraordinary.
All too soon, we were at the base of South Sister, beginning a one-mile ascent to Lewis Glacier. The average walking pace is approximately 3 miles or 4 to 5 kilometres an hour so technically, one mile should take only twenty minutes. However, this wasn't your average bush walk, this was a non-technical ascent of a mountain with an elevation gain of 4,900 feet or 1,494 metres! This steep incline took us an hour and had me seriously question my fitness levels. A flash of doubt even skirted through my mind - do I want to top out that badly?
The views, though, were increasingly stunning as we trudged higher and higher, and as we approached Lewis Glacier, I felt a surge of motivation and could hardly wait to take a seat, catch my breath and revel at the surrounding wilderness. I could see that the gradient was levelling out to a crest, but I had no idea what lay ahead beyond that. There was a guy sitting on a pile of rocks, overlooking the slope, grinning from ear to ear as we slowly drew closer. I asked him wearily, half-amused, "how long do we have left?", a question that is asked innumerable times on a mountain. He answered, "you still have awhile to go...but there's a nice surprise up here for you".
WE REACHED THE crest at 2,743 metres with the sizeable remainder of South Sister looming ahead. A tent was pitched on the ridge (you can see it in the photo above!) and I can only imagine how surreal it must have been to wake up there. But what got my attention was one of the most gorgeous lakes that I have ever seen - and I have seen many! What made this lake distinctive was its colour. It wasn't that bright azure blue of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown or that emerald green of Switzerland's rivers and lakes; it was the milkiest and purest turquoise, nestled amongst volcanic red rock and old but still bright white snow. Even as continued our ascent, I would look back numerous times at this pristine lake that would glisten like a precious gem.
THE NEXT HOUR involved the most arduous hiking I have ever done in my life. The ridge was precariously slippery with pesky, loose cinder that sunk and slithered under weight. With every step forward, we would slide at least half a step back. The terrain was so taxing and by this point, clouds were intermittently rolling in amongst us and a blustery wind was whipping through, causing me to draw my hood close and tight around my face.
ONLY AFTER AN hour of moving at a glacial pace did we finally scramble up on the false summit. There is another glacier here that can be crossed to reach the true summit. Apparently, in summer, part of the glacier melts to become Oregon's highest lake, magically named TeardropPool. We chose to follow the rocky ridge that hemmed the glacier. Along the way, we saw a handful of manmade windbreaks, constructed of volcanic rock, that would make for amazing campsites. It would be worth it, to go through all the efforts of hiking up South Sister again, just to be able to camp on her summit and witness the sunset and sunrise from 3,157 metres...
But only in the absence of gusty winds and bitterly cold temperatures - which, unfortunately though not unexpectedly, were the conditions for us this day. I believe it would have been quite close to zero with the wind chill factor. I felt as though the cold resolutely settled in my bones only mere moments after reaching the summit. I was so cold that I truly struggled to appreciate standing atop this mountain that I had dreamed for so long of topping out on.
LUCKILY, we found a rock outcrop that blocked most of the wind, and we all more or less snuggled against this rock, lapping up the sunshine and toasting with our hard-earned "summit beers". We were levelled with the clouds and that is something that everyone should experience at least once. It is both empowering and grounding to find yourself amongst the elements like that. For this reason, although the clouds shrouded North Sister and Middle Sister from our view, I didn't mind. Being on top of a mountain is sacred.
As they say, though, the summit is only the halfway point; you still need to get down. The descent from South Sister's peak was debilitating and was more of a fumbling skate than a hike down the mountainside. I accepted that it was inevitable that I would land on my bottom more than once and resorted to simply moving as fast as I possibly could, to get it over and done with. Descending back through the forest filled with switchbacks was almost equally as exhausting as the path seemed to wind on endlessly. When we finally reached our car, it had been a long but exhilirating eight hours since we had left that morning. The carpark was still full but there were some new arrivals who were just about to set out for their own South Sister adventure. As we drove away, past shimmering DevilsLake, I was filled with both pride and fatigue.
Given the chance, I would return to South Sister in a heartbeat. She is a remarkably beautiful and testing mountain. I see so many opportunities for more adventures to be had here. For example, it would have been incredible to explore entire summit to see Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, and Mount St Helens (which is quite possibly the most intriguing mountain I have ever seen with its top blown off). I also think it would be the ultimate experience to be able to camp on South Sister's summit. And this is not to mention the surrounding area including Diamond Peak and Broken Top!
Well, it just means that we will have to return to the Pacific Northwest again and soon...