South and Middle Sisters

Middle and North from South

The Sisters are Bend’s iconic peaks, the three highest of a field of volcanoes west of town supporting a surprising number of large, low-lying glaciers. Being on the Cascade crest, they accumulate a huge winter snowpack that lingers well into Spring. The main access road at the southern end, the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, is plowed only as far as the Mount Bachelor ski area in winter, making access to South Sister, the highest peak, longer and more difficult. I had thought to do the peak as a bike-and-ski, but learned to my surprise that the road had just opened to cars the day before my planned outing. This gave me time and energy to do more skiing, continuing to Middle Sister and reascending the South on the return. The outing was about twenty miles with a bit over 11,000′ of elevation gain and loss, with every bit of the descent done sliding on skis.

First view of South Sister

I slept in the small plowed pullout by the sort-of trailhead, then got up early for a reasonable start around 6:00 AM. I had no idea how long South Sister would take, or how soon the snow would soften, so I packed plenty of food but headed out with no particular plan. Starting through the woods, I found myself on the wrong side of a creek, and had to squelch across a bit of wet moss to get back on-route. I then followed a well-established ski- and snowshoe-track toward the mountain, passing a tent down in the forest, and another on the long plateau where the peak first comes into view. It was looking much snowier than when I was here last year, and the line to the summit seemed obvious.

Upper ridge

The snow was hard and crunchy, sticking like Velcro and making it possible to skin directly up remarkably steep slopes. The skin-track looked like it had been made late the day before, so it was well-incised but icy. The final switchbacking climb to the south ridge was somewhat desperate skinning, and it probably would have been faster to take my skis off and kick steps. I met a group of four guys at the base of the final ridge who had done just that. I was still moving well, so I left them behind as I continued skinning up the ridge. I finally gave up this silly game near the top, kicking steps up the final, wind-carved slope to the summit crater. I had not brought crampons, but the snow was just crunchy enough to give me a bit of purchase in my ski boots. Falling might not have been a great idea, so I didn’t do that.

Broken Top, Bachelor, and a fire

From the summit I could see a wide panorama of volcanoes, with Jefferson and the other Sisters to the north, Broken Top and Bachelor nearby to the east and south, Diamond and possibly McLaughlin farther away, and a number of lesser ones like Washington. It had taken me something like 3-1/2 hours to skin up, and the snow was still obviously too hard for fun skiing, so I decided to continue to Middle Sister, whose south face looked like a good ski. I knew nothing about how to get down the north side of South Sister, but figured that it was a volcano, so how hard could it be?

Sketchy descent

I transitioned and tipped off the north side, making slow, chattering turns on the icy snow until I reached some rock outcrops. The northeast side, descending to the Prouty Glacier, looked way out of my league. Poking around a bit, I spotted a line left of the north ridge that would get me back to the ridge lower down if I wanted. The problem was that the top of this line was icy and steep, with a cliff band beneath it; being on skis always adds ten degrees, but CalTopo says the slope is 45-50 degrees. I dithered a bit, then slid through a gap and carefully side-slipped toward the ridge, then down along its base. I thought of crossing to the sunny side, but decided the open slope on the northwest side looked better. I side-slipped until I had a clear line, then made some inelegant, chattering turns into the bowl, my quads complaining at the effort.

North, Jefferson, and Hood from Middle

I started having more fun as the angle eased and the snow softened lower down, traversing back east toward the highest saddle between the two peaks. The terrain between the peaks is a torn-up wasteland, with surprising pockets and steep sections, but I managed to slide to near the point of inflection before switching back to skins. Unsurprisingly Middle Sister sees much less traffic than South, but the line was clear enough that I did not miss having a track to follow. I saw another person ahead of me on my way up, and made some effort to catch him but, perhaps seeing me, he kept his lead. I later learned that he was a skimo racer with ultralight gear, which made me feel better about my failure.

I switched to booting near the top of the face, then continued that way along the ridge toward the summit. The snow was still hard and wind-sculpted, and the ridge narrow enough that I was not looking forward to the descent. I saw tracks on a proud line on the steep east face, as well as the debris of a sizable wet slide from the day before, reminding me that I am only a middling backcountry skier. I met the skimo guy on his way down, then two taciturn, bearded bros doing the Sisters traverse from the north. Like most skiers, they had skipped North Sister’s true summit, a difficult mixed scramble this time of year. The peak’s south side looked like a miserable ski in any case, so I was glad to be doing an out-and-back instead.

I watched the bros side-slip the ridge as I transitioned, then headed for home myself. I managed a few turns on the ridge, but the top was mostly an unpleasant, chattery side-slip. Lower down I found softening snow and decent turns on the crest, then headed far left to the sunniest aspect in search of softening. While I found some fun parts, I had to contend with both wind-sculpting and rounder waves probably caused by uneven melting, making it a bit like a bump run in places. I returned to where I had transitioned on the way north, stopping to put skins back on to head back up the north ridge. The other two guys slid by to the west, toward some lower saddle; they probably knew the “right” path, but I knew the ridge would go.

South, Broken Top, and Bachelor from Middle

I skinned for awhile, then put my skis back on my back for 1500 feet or so of hiking and step-kicking. My boots were already well-used when I got them, and their liners are basically just thick socks at this point, so the plastic was starting to chew my ankles and shins from all the booting. As I had hoped, I found bits of a summer trail in the exposed volcanic rubble, reassuring me that the underlying terrain was no more than class 2. I finally rejoined my outward path where I had side-slipped to the ridge, with only a bit of very easy scrambling. Above, I stayed close to the ridge, kicking steps up the steep snow and experimentally wandering to find where it was softest. I traversed left at the top to get through the short cliffs, then plodded up the final slope to the crater rim.

After a final transition, I was ready for some good skiing. There were a half-dozen or so people loitering around the rim, with more still skinning up. I dropped in through the icy fins, still finding the snow surprisingly firm; apparently the wind and low air temperatures had delayed its softening. I traverse to the sunnier ascent route left of the ridge, where I finally found good snow and was able to make looping GS turns. Traversing again back into the bowl to the right, I found more fine skiing before finally reaching the plateau. From there on it was heavy, though not sticky, slush for the long pole and skate, then the slow tree-ski to the road. Reaching the car mid-afternoon, I ate lunch and dinner rolled into one, then sat dazed in the car while my stuff dried outside. Another storm was coming in the next day, but I had driven all the way from town, so I decided to stick around and try to do something short in the morning before retreating to the rain shadow.

2 responses to “South and Middle Sisters

  1. Dan says:

    I’m almost stupid enough to have followed you off the north side of S Sister. I would have enjoyed joining for this.

    BTW, a wide swath of that proud line east off the summit of M Sister abruptly ends in fatal cliffs. I recall looking down the entrance from the top with really, really good quality snow thinking, ‘I could do this’, but I didn’t know how the line went and wasn’t going to leave Sara. After skiing off the north side and hooking back east at the saddle w/ N Sister, I had new perspective on the east face and was somewhere between, ‘I’m f’n stupid,’ and ‘I’m glad I didn’t!!!!!’

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Hah! I was admiring that line from the south ridge, then saw the scary cliffs from the summit. Whoever did it traversed way south to get around them. I wish I could have been there to see it: perfect, fearless S-curves down a faint arete that would not have been out of place in a Warren Miller film.

      It looks like it might be another La NiƱa next winter, so maybe you can take another PNW ski trip next Spring?

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