Kels and I wanted to have a memorable 4th of July, and when it comes to memories, there’s not a lot that beats heading out into the wilderness and climbing a big ass mountain. So I began doing research on nearby mountains that I could convince the little lady to take on with me, and without fully exposing the details of the climb, I had her on board for South Sister.
South Sister is Oregon’s third highest peak, standing at 10,358 ft (3157m.) It’s a part of a small range known as The Three Sisters. South Sister is the youngest, tallest, and most approachable of the three peaks, requiring no technical climbing skills. That said, with a vertical mile of elevation gain, it is a substantial climb and a great workout even for a seasoned climber. Additionally, in early July, nearly the entire climb was snow covered. The more Kels learned about the mountain on the drive in, the more she shot me the all too familiar “What the hell have you gotten me into” face.
To add to her fears, as we parked at the South Sister campground lot to begin the climb, a man who looked like a model from an REI catalog (rugged chiseled face, bushy beard, quality trekking gear head to toe, hiking poles in hand) was returning to his Jeep. Climbers are typically an open group; ready to give advice when asked and always excited to talk about a climb, so I struck up a conversation.
“How was the climb mate? Did you summit?”
He smiled and sighed. “Nope. I made it nearly to the top, but there was so much snow, and it is tough to navigate the trail. I had my climbing boots equipped with strap on spikes (essentially baby crampons), but I decided to turn around.”
Fuck. I wasn’t upset at what I’d heard, I was upset KELS had heard it. I turned to see her looking at this Bear Grylls looking man with eyes wide and full of fear. Well, I immediately regret asking this guy about his climb.
Trying to keep the atmosphere positive and bounce Kels back from the devastating blow Davy Crocket just laid on us, I promptly responded, “Well, we’re in tennis shoes… so I guess we’ll give it our best shot!”
For the record, I am not a proponent of ever heading into a climb unprepared, but I truly believed with the weather conditions we’d be fine. After all it was July. The forecast was phenomenal. We had lots of food, water, camping gear; the works. I will admit, the one area we were lacking was footwear, but I assumed all that meant was we’d have wet feet- not the end of the world. And in my mind, I was thinking this guy was crazy for strapping spikes on his boots anyway, because the snow was way too soft and slushy for them to have any affect (I was right.) Plus, the biggest thing we had going for us is that we weren’t doing it in a single day. Most make the climb in a straight 8-10 hour window, but we wanted to camp so we’d hike a few hours today, camp at the base of the mountain neighboring beautiful alpine lakes, and make the summit push in the morning. This allowed us to take our time, and enjoy the climb.
Nonetheless, as we began, Kelsey had little expectations for actually summiting, and letting the man’s words sink into my head, I was wondering if she would as well. This worry only grew when we hit snow about 10 minutes into the trek. I knew unless an unforeseen obstacle arose that I would push to the top, but with less mountaineering experience, I would not push Kels to go past her comfort zone.
Her initial worries began to fade as we wound along a phenomenally beautiful trail and up through a small gorge. The thick hemlock forest the trail began on felt reminiscent of a Dr Suess book. The trees had an odd bend in them as though they were perpetually locked in a funky dance move, and to add to their bizarre look was a wispy covering of light green moss that looked like fur.
After climbing out of this initial gorge, you immediately enter what I referred to as, “post card territory.” As you may have guessed, the fitting name was due to the fact that every direction you looked was worthy of being on the front of a post card. The sharp peaks of Broken Top Mountain rose on our right. Behind us, like a wise looming giant sat Mt Bachelor, striped with snow. Directly in front of us, blanketed in snow and in perfect view awaited South Sister. Rising above all the surrounding peaks, she was the unmatched queen bee. The boss. And she looked fucking huge.
Now I didn’t see Kelsey’s, “What the hell have you gotten me into face,” I felt it burning into my soul.
“There’s no way I can do that,” she whispered.
“You can and you will little lady,” I said with a smirk, trying to get a laugh out of her.
We camped another mile up near the base of the mountain. Her fears of the following day’s climb began to fade as she was consumed by the sheer beauty of our current setting. I’ve camped all around the globe, and few sites were as astonishingly picturesque. I hiked down to a nearby lake to fill our bottles, which I was lucky to be able to do as I was packing my very cool new water filter product, Purinize.
After treating my water, we made a fire, had a great dinner of pb&j’s, cheese & crackers, and hotdogs roasted over the fire. Delicious. As the sun went down we were treated to a truly breathtaking sunset. The sky suddenly was lit aflame, burning orange and red till the colors faded to a dark violet, and finally, a deep dark blue that welcomed the stars. It’s an evening I’ll never forget. That night we were treated to clear skies and an unimaginable blanket of stars. Kelsey squeaked like a little girl as she spotted shooting stars, as I took time exposure after time exposure of the gorgeous night sky.
Falling asleep in the tent, Kels gave me a kiss and quietly said, “I may let you take the climb tomorrow Joey. I may relax and read down here. I can explore the lake nearby.”
I wasn’t going to make her go in the morning, but I hoped she’d have a change of heart.
I woke to clear skies and a warm sun. Kels came out of the tent, took a look around, and it’s as though the sunshine and blue skies revitalized her.
“I’m climbing that mountain,” she proclaimed, without a note of hesitation.
I was so proud. She knew she’d regret having not tried, and Kels was not one to turn down a challenge, even if slightly outmatched.
We made our way through the relatively flat snowfields at the base of the mountain. Due to wind, the ground had turned into field of moguls, making us feel extraordinarily clumsy as you tripped over them again and again. This affect was only heightened by the weight of my pack pulling me side to side. I assume we looked like a couple of drunks walking clumsily to the base of a giant.
As the slope continued to get steeper and steeper, I was happy to discover I was right in thinking the snow would be soft enough to kick our shoes into and gain footing. It was fairly steep, but in the snow we had little problems with traction, leaving all effort to focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other.
Next came the rock and dirt screes nearer the summit. This portion was a bitch. It is loose rock, sediment, and dirt, and every step you take up you seem to lose a half step. Not to mention your shoes fill with pebbles and grime. Oh the joys of climbing. This section didn’t last all that long, and we’d made it to the final push.
Here before the last steep grind up a loose rock section, rest an impossibly blue glacial lake. The glacier is very large, and you can even spot a few crevasses a ways up the icy slope. But at the base just below our trail waited this small piece of heaven. I was not going to pass it up. I slid down through the snow and hopped from rock to rock at the edge of the lake, till finally I found the perfect resting point. I kicked back on a sun soaked rock, and took in my surroundings.
This is why I climb.
As I thought to myself, I felt an immense sense of gratitude to be able to take these adventures, and to have a partner who was equally thrilled to take them with me. It’s moments like these, being apart of truly magnificent natural settings that most will never dare to push themselves to reach that keep me coming back.
After drinking straight from the lake and taking a myriad of photos, we were off again. Time for the final push! To be blunt, this last portion was a bitch. It was steep, the altitude was rising and the air becoming thinner, and Kels was near her breaking point. Near it, but not crossing it. She kept pushing, and after a number of false summits, we came over a ridge and looked down on a snow filled crater- the result of a volcanic eruption nearly 2,000 years ago. All that was left was to cross the crater, and look over the backside of the mountain of the mountain for the first time.
Waiting behind the South Sister were her siblings, Middle Sister and North Sister, along with peaks trailing off in the distance. It was unimaginably beautiful, and we couldn’t have had a clearer day. We again snapped photos, hugged each other, and were off. The views were phenomenal, but the 40-50 mph wind gusts were enough to rush us.
We cruised down, and before we knew it we were back at the tent victoriously eating Kelsey’s well earned treat of champions: gummy bears.
Through it all, I came away with a new appreciation for Kelsey’s grit. The entire climb her feet were soaked, her legs on fire, but she just kept pushing. I’m a lucky guy to have such an enthusiastic and game partner in adventure, and this proved to be one for the books.
Below I’ve posted a picture with a rough guide of how we climbed South Sister. It was tough for me to find a diagram or image of where to climb online, so hopefully this helps!