This year’s South Sister team experienced a very challenging day on the mountain. And in the fourth year of leading this program, I was proud to lead such a strong and well-prepared crew. All of my rants about carrying emergency supplies, having extra warm layers, watching the weather, and coming in with a positive mental attitude finally made sense. On a typical summer day, with bluebird skies, comfortable temperatures, and lots of daylight, hiking up South Sister is straightforward. It’s a long walk that requires physical and mental endurance. But this day, with a storm front moving in, winds blasting almost nonstop once we crossed the plateau, and temperatures steadily dropping as we gained elevation, the team was truly pulling from a broad range of skills to climb the mountain.
South Sister has established a reputation as being an “easy mountain,” whatever that means. I think that relates to a few things:
- You can do it in one day.
- The trailhead is easily accessible.
- No technical skills or equipment are needed.
- There’s a trail to the top.
But several factors can make South Sister not so easy:
- It’s exposed to the weather (good or bad).
- There’s 5000′ of elevation gain from bottom to top.
- There are miles of unstable footing on sand, scree and boulders.
Our team began the trek before sunrise, climbing up through the forest by headlamp, so we could make the most of the daylight we had. There were five this year: two climbers had taken this trip with me for the last four years. One climber had been on last year’s team, and one climber had never before been on South Sister. Each team member actively participated in the fitness classes, attended one or all of the skill workshops, and had been very engaged in the program from start to finish. One voiced her concerns about the wind forecast, and so we planned on encountering some potentially adverse conditions.
It took an hour to reach the first milestone: a view of South Sister. We marveled at the extraordinary clouds filling the sky with alien shapes. We’d watch the clouds shift and change form throughout the day, eagerly anticipating what the mountain weather would bring us. Since we knew we were heading into deteriorating weather, we’d constantly evaluate conditions and determine whether or not this would be our day to summit South Sister.
The plateau was a great place to recharge. Walking across the broad, rolling, sandy plain, we enjoyed the surrounding views and the moderately easy physical activity. From where we stood, we could see the clouds tearing across the top of South Sister, and knew it would be really breezy up there. We stopped for lots of photo breaks here. Mt. Bachelor put on a little cloud cap for us. Tiny alpine plants flashed their colorful leaves and flowers at us. And so far, we’d only seen a few other groups. This was surprising because this trail is generally pretty crowded, and the parking lot was nearly full when we left.
But soon we’d begin to see the crowds. They were on their way down the mountain. In the last couple of years, it has become popular to hike up at night, then descend after sunrise. Many of the people coming down were wearing cotton sweatshirts, had minimal packs on, and did not seem to be the hardy types who made that kind of journey by dark. It had trickled down from the regular hiking crowd to the mainstream. It was no wonder that SAR was keeping so busy this year.
We smiled and kept heading uphill. As we started the second ascent, the wind got windier and the cold got colder. We took a rest break in one of the last stands of trees and put on our wind-protective layers. Everyone got hats, gloves, and buffs out as additional protective barriers. Again we charged on, with our next stop at the lake.
The group made it up to the lake in a solid push. Along the way, we started to see more and more hikers, some on their way up and others on their way down. We ran into one of our teammates from two years ago, who had summitted last night with his crew. They were taking layers off and commenting on how pleasant it was. We knew we were really in for it then.
Near gale force winds were blowing at the lake. We huddled behind a large rock to eat some food, rehydrate, and plan ahead. We put on sunglasses to keep the dust our of our eyes. I put on the last layer in my pack: a down jacket, tucking it underneath my rainshell. We put handwarmers in our gloves. It was time to pull out the big guns. From the lake, it’s just about a mile and over a thousand feet of climbing to get to the crater rim. It was totally exposed to the wind. No trees, no rocks, no nothing until you get to the top.
Aaron led the charge up the scree. The wind pushed us off balance. We fought back with strong legs and a stronger mental reserve. Pole straps came in handy so our poles didn’t fly out of our hands. It was just one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Looking at what we had ahead was too daunting. Some people were turning back, but many pressed on, wearing little more than shorts and tennis shoes. Incredibly…something? This was uncomfortable, but we were not in danger. The wind felt a lot scarier than it was. No one was in a position to get blown off a cliff, even if it sometimes felt that way. We checked in with each other when we could, but it was nearly impossible to chat in winds that strong. Amy fell in behind Aaron, then Tracy, and Jan. I settled into the back, keeping an eye on everyone.
It had been a while since I’d hiked in winds like that. For the rest of my team, I’m pretty sure this was a totally new experience. There were moments where someone said “I think I’m done. I can’t do this.” Then we took a few breaths, rested up for a minute, and kept going. I watched as Tracy, hiking alone, sat down on the rocks. Then she got back up again and started moving. Jan struggled to breathe. We stopped, took her pack off, and rested for a moment. “I’m fine now, I can go on.” And so we did.
Taking those last few steps over the crumbling cinder onto the crater rim felt immensely rewarding. I was so proud of my team. One by one, we filed into the closest windbreak. Another couple hunkered down next to us and the girl looked nearly hypothermic. Her partner praised us, in a surprising voice, on our level of preparedness. It was as if it didn’t even occur to him that you would have to prepare for this hike. South Sister is easy.
It took nearly everything we had to make it to this point. Even in my down jacket and windbreaker I was fighting off the shivers. Although the official summit benchmark was still a short walk across the crater, I knew this would be our summit today. The wind was ripping now. The walk to the summit, while technically pretty easy, would be a real challenge in these conditions, in low visibility and driving wind. The forecast predicted rain after 11 am and I was not interested in pushing our luck. There were no views to be had over there, so I urged everyone to get some calories down and then get moving back down the mountain. No one argued 🙂
We took a summit photo and scrambled back down the scree. The clouds immersed us in swirling moisture. Then it started to drizzle. I could feel the raindrops pelting the sides of my legs. The wind kicked up the red cinder and mixed it with rain into a thick mud that slathered us all on the windward sides of our bodies. Everyone was moving as quickly as they could given the conditions. There were some slips and slides; I think we all fell down at least once. But falling on your backside or on your backpack isn’t so bad. Learning to fall safely was all part of the experience.
It had been so cold on the way up I hadn’t taken a picture in what felt like ages. I didn’t want to take my gloves off or drop my phone. But I had to capture some of these incredible moments. We all knew that retelling our story would be met with a lot of eyerolls, like “yeah sure it was that windy.”
So here it is:
We descended through the clouds, made it back to the lake, and had a group check-in. No one felt like stopping here, exposed to the intense wind. We kept walking until we found a better spot to relax, eat and debrief a bit.
That turned out to be miles away. We dropped down the boulder field, skirted around the pointy bit south of the lake, and traveled nearly back to the rolling plateau. Here we wandered into a favorite rest spot just off the main trail. Trees provided some shelter, and we had some good sitting rocks. We all dumped our packs, spread out all the summit treats we’d been carrying, and took a well-deserved intermission.
The team was in good spirits. Everyone was feeling strong, both physically and mentally, probably a bit in awe of what they had just done. We scarfed down lots of food and took care of all the needs we’d been neglecting or waiting to address. That meant bathroom breaks, layer changes, sunscreen re-applications, Gatorade swigs, and conversation. We’d barely said two words to each other over the last several miles, because it was too loud to talk.
We got up the mountain just in time. If it had been raining on our way up, I more than likely would have turned our team around. As we reminisced about the journey so far, we were shocked at how many people were heading up, presumably to climb the mountain, and hoped that most would come to their senses before they ventured too far. With the changing weather and fading daylight, it seemed a bit insane to be heading up, still halfway to the summit, in the early afternoon.
The remainder of the hike was a breeze. We had time to talk and reflect, chit chat about whatever came to mind, and soak in the beauty of the surrounding landscape. With the tough stuff behind us, we could thoroughly enjoy the wilderness.
We hit the parking lot at 3:30 pm, nine and a half hours after our trek began. We beat our goal time of 10 hours. And in inclement weather, even! We had time to get back to town and clean up before dinner. It felt so civilized.
So when people ask me, “do I really need to train for South Sister?” I always say, “no, but you’ll be better prepared for the mountains if you do.” Your likelihood of achieving your goal increases, and you are probably going to enjoy the experience more. You won’t be hobbled for the next few days. You will probably want to keep doing it. And if you run into obstacles, whether they’re weather related or otherwise, you’ll have the problem-solving skills and resilience to roll with it and make good decisions.
The mountains will always be there for us and they’ll always be beckoning us. We choose to enter those mountains with humility and respect. The mountains challenge every fiber of our being, and leave us stronger with each visit. Every time I visit South Sister, I learn something new. This year, I bring away a real understanding of the value of teamwork. When a group comes together under difficult conditions, everyone emerges a better person.
Here’s the full photo album from our journey. Team members: add your comments to the story! And, prospective South Sister climbers, always respect the mountain, and be prepared for what the mountain may bring you.