Ski Mountaineering

Three Sisters Wilderness Ski

(Private Trip)

July 4-7, 2002

Tom Marsh

Similar to the building of the Sierras, the Cascades were formed by the collision of Ocean and continental plates. Although, the existence of molten magna and volcanic activity is not near as evident in the Sierras. You can see some similarities in the Mammoth Lakes area South of Mono Lake. On the other hand, the Cascades are still quite active. As the rest of the land settled, the volcanic hot points continued to blow, venting magna from below and building new formations above. You see these long lines of spouts jetting out of more settled land. The land is a long way from complete, as was evident in 1980, when Mount Saint Helens blew its top. Since that time, the dome within the crater has risen over one thousand feet. Sometime in the next two hundred years, Mount St. Helens will have regained what it lost in that explosion.

Our destination, The Three Sisters, are three closely aligned volcanic mountains that form the middle of the line of fire stretching from Mount Lassen in California to Mount Rainer in Washington. The Sisters range is particularly interesting in that you can see the line of White peaks from Mount Jefferson to Mount Baker going north. In addition, it contains some unusual topography as it forms the point where the Cascades meet the high desert. It was also (Southeast ridge) one of the few summer ascents that had a 5 ripper rating (scale of 1-5, 5 being highest) that did not involve glacier crevasses.

Mike Rector and I met up with Joe McGuire, Ruth von Rotz and Eric on Wednesday evening at my 91 year old Grandmother's place in Albany, Oregon. Grandma had two large bowls of popcorn waiting for us. After greetings and good conversation, Mike, Eric, Joe and I laid out sleeping bags on the living room floor, while Ruth (on Grandma's insistence) got the bedroom. We gave grandma a wake up time of 8:00 am. Sure enough, the sounds of pots and pans clattering could be heard from the kitchen at 7:45. Grandma was insistent about making the gang breakfast. At 1st the enormity of the portions of eggs, bacon, ham, potatoes and biscuits were quite daunting, although bit by bit the crew made their way through the entire spread, except one egg. Grandma seemed quite happy with the completeness of our meal, the one egg left signifying that we had enough. By 10am, we were on our way driving east along HY 20 over Santiam Pass to the town of Sisters. The friendly nature of Oregonians came out when the gas attendant eagerly volunteered to assist us in finding our way.

After a short drive from Sisters, we arrived at the Pole Creek trailhead. Smiles were all around as we were finally starting our backcountry adventure. It was 6:00 PM by the time we arrived at camp. Snowfields were within reach of camp, so Mike and I decided to be the first to make use of those heavy boards that we've been carrying for 6 miles. Easy gliding in the twilight was the rule, although attention to dinner may have been a better use of time. Much to our surprise, we were faced with an unpopular possibility, no dinner. One stove had the wrong canister and the other stove was not working. Harking back to Boy Scout days, we built a fire and cooked over warm coals. The day dawned sunny and calm for our first day on the skis. The approach to Middle Sister was on intermittent snow, with small patches of dry earth that required ski carrying. The real climbing began upon attaining the saddle between South Sister and Middle Sister (our goal for the day). At that point, the route up was obvious. Climb up the South East facing snowfield and than traverse left on the narrow ridge to the summit. A couple steep pitches of snow convinced Eric to don crampons. The rest of us either booted up or applied skins and ski crampons. Eric seems to have the correct idea making quick work of the snowfield. Ruth and I struggled with the ski crampons.

The Irving Glacier had some uneven surfaces making it difficult to get skin purchase. In addition, there were spots that were too hard to get the ski crampons in at all. At about 9,300 ft., we all made our way off the snow to the tulas. It was two steps forward, one step back up to the ridge in volcanic pumice, obsidian and granite. We all made the summit after a boulder hop along the ridge. The summit views were spectacular on this clear calm sunny day. To the North, you could see the long line of volcano peaks starting with Mt. Washington to Mt. Baker, Mt. Jefferson and Hood being the most dramatic. To the south are Mt Bachelor and Three-Finger Jack. Of course the giant megaliths of North and South Sister looming on both sides with eerily equal height.

South Sister's North Facing Glacier fields caked in volcanic dusk making it look like the dirtiest of the Sisters. After a long lounge at the top, obligatory photos and many sips on Eric's Murphy Beer, we started the long ramble down to the snowline for our 1st skiing.

We decided to do the descent about 13 down the upper snowfield because of the steep pitch and long distance to the bottom. Joe started with a couple good turns before taking about a 40-foot tumble down the slope. That made both Eric and I a bit reserved, at first. It only took two to three turns to gain confidence on this excellent snow. There was a surprising lack of snowcups on this the 5th of July. The underlayer was still firm despite the fact that it was near 3:30 in the afternoon. It was superb all the way down with surprising consistency. The southeast facing slope above Camp Lake were the best with hero snow for 500 feet to the Lake.

The sun was still high in the sky at 6:00 PM as we arrived in camp. Mike decided to take an evening ski until 8:00 PM under the extended daylight. We had good light from 4:30 am to lOpm. A warm fire, good conversation and sips off of Eric's beverage made for a pleasant evening. Another beautiful Oregon day dawned on our final day in Sisters. Everyone seemed to be settling into the volcanic landscape of the cascades. Quite different than the Sierras where granite is the rule. Fine reddish black ash, pumice and obsidian abound. Smooth metallic-like material plastered on porous rock from a violent event some eons ago. Remembering the great slopes above Camp Lake, we decided to go yoyoing in that area. The velvety snow was wonderful as some of us napped and some of us laid] st tracks on several Southeastfacing slopes. Ruth had .an opportunity to swim in Camp Lake as Eric went to retrieve his hat from the day before. All and all a wonderful ski day with many possibilities in this vast area.

By 4pm, we were packed and made ready for our long 6-mile trek to the cars at Pole Creek. In an effort to get in as much skiing as possible, we decided to ski Timberline on Sunday. So after an obligatory Guinness beer, we packed up and headed towards another great Oregon Volcano, Mount Hood. We awoke on an abandoned forest service road near Government Camp to the smell of Jeffrey pine forest, pesky mosquitoes and gray skis. The huge megalith of Mt. Hood loomed in the foreground on the morning drive to the base of this great volcano. The ski area looking like a tiny soccer field surrounded by crevasses. The climbing route that killed three climbers and resulted in a helicopter crash just three weeks prior was quite visible. Even with this tragedy, you could still see a steady line of adventure seekers booting up the final snowfield to the top. Ruth, Joe and I bought a summer ski ticket, while Eric caught an early flight and Mike visited his sister near Portland.

The lift skiing was fabulous on the long, uniform slopes of Hood with the warm sunny desert plain to the East and cool cloudy coastal forest to the west. Mt. Jefferson looms large to the South between these two extreme climate zones. The summer sun did its work on the slopes of Hood. By 12 noon the snow was mushy and sticky, so much so that it caught on edge of Ruth's ski and caused her to have a bad fall. Unfortunately her bindings did not release and caused her injury to her knee. She managed to painfully ski down to mid mountain. Within 1/2 hour a large contingent of ski patrol and ski patrol trainees descended on Ruth like moths around a candIe taking pulse, checking alertness and strapping her to a slide. The friendly nature of Oregonians again manifested itself with the overwhelming sensitivity to Ruth's injury. We even got five paramedics to help rearrange Joe's car for Ruth's ride back. A timely rainstorm on the trip back to Mike's Sisters house cooled temps. Ruth, again, was taken care of over at Sister Terry's house with Mike fashioning crutches and a new brace for Ruth's leg.

All and all, a fun trip with great friends and superb surroundings.

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