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Middle Sister 6/6-6/7/2015

This trip started off lazy and got better…. Although, we still felt a little lazy at the end. Leaving Portland was the first “lazy” point in the trip- our “9am departure” quickly turned into “nearly 11am” and we basically decided to roll with the lazy attitude and call it preparation for the next day’s planned Alpine Start. The drive to Middle Sister is simply beautiful. When we turned off of I-5 and hit the Cascade Lakes Highway, we were happily admiring beautiful fields, epic skylines punctuated by (somehow still) snowcapped mountains, and blossoming wildflowers. It was glorious. I was once again shocked at how beautiful the world is east of the Cascades and no longer cared that we would be hiking into the Three Sisters Wilderness during peak heat.

That was my first mistake. The hike in was relatively flat with limited elevation gain but it was blindingly hot and in full sun since the Pole Creek fire had burned out all of the natural protection years before our arrival. But, once again, the Cascades are so beautiful and Jefferson, the Sisters, and Broken Top taunted us around each turn and kept us heading up and up, further into the wilderness.

And then… we hit the trees. Before leaving, Andy had inquired openly, “I wonder if there will be any bugs out this weekend?,” and I had agreed that there probably would but that we would likely avoid them between the elevation and the heat. I was so, so, so wrong. We spent over a mile hiking through mosquito-infested vegetation, scared to stop long enough to pee and darting into patches of sunlight (heat versus blood suckers was a pretty easy match to call), trying to avoid the little devils. I had (intelligently) decided to hike in wearing spandex shorts and a sports bra and I was eaten alive. I am currently covered in large, swollen insect bites and I feel like I’m back in Greece. Anyway, I digress…

We eventually crossed the two creeks that framed the death trap the mosquitos had created and made it into the safe zone. We drank water freshly melted out from the Hayden Glacier and relished in its freshness; never have I tasted water so pure and revitalizing.

We decided to camp higher up than the few other parties we saw, partially due to having left the ground cloth at home to save space/weight in our packs, partially due to wanting to camp away from other humans (who could be loud and obnoxious), and partially due to feeling a little lazy about the next morning’s wake up call and wanting to have to climb the shortest distance we could arrange. We pitched the tent, organized our gear, ate breakfast, and thought about putting on additional layers (I eventually put on my base layers and my puffy but they were barely warranted). Before going to sleep, we set up our harness and rope and practiced rope travel for a few minutes. This was the first peak we brought the rope on that did not include any actual Alpine Climbing but after reading multiple trip reports and seeing photos of the crevasses that open on the Hayden Glacier later in the season, we took this trip as an opportunity to practice roped, glacier travel and crevasse rescue (in preparation for bigger objectives, including a more technical route choice up Baker in August). We were unsure of how avoidable the crevasses would be (if they had formed yet) and decided to be prepared for the worst case scenario (aka, unavoidable, massive, gaping crevasses).

The next morning, the alarm sounded at 3:30am and we got busy; the gear was ready for the climb so we quickly boiled water, ate breakfast and chugged instant coffee- which we need to find a “bulk” alternative for since I LOATHE the idea of wasting all that packaging material from the individual packets during these trips… We roped up and began the climb- Andy in front this time since, being the heavier of us, if he were to fall in while going uphill, I would be at a great advantage to arrest his fall and stop his plunge since I would be downhill and, well, gravity is helpful sometimes.

The morning was beautiful and the snow, despite still being relatively soft, was in good climbing condition. We were also the first ones up and made good time up to the glacier where we saw, forming in incredible patterns, crevasses. The lack of snowpack coupled with the well-above-freezing temperatures had stitched many of them across the landscape but we were able to easily avoid them by sticking to the still-prominent ridgeline that led up to the col between North Sister and Middle Sister. The sun rose throughout this stretch of climbing and we were very, very happy about our decision to wake up at a proper climbing hour since the heat was becoming intense (we were both sweating mostly from the heat and less from the exertion of the climb).

Streaks of pink slipped across the mountains in the distance and suddenly every aspect of the mountain-framed world we were living in was beyond recognition, its breathtaking transformation causing us to stare around us, mouths agape, while searching for cell phones to take photos with and momentarily abandoning the climb at frequent intervals.

By the time we hit the final push to the summit, the sun was fully up. We packed away the rope and our harnesses and headed up an intermittently steep section of mixed terrain- snow, ice, and melting-out rock. Andy was psyched to “test his skills” since this was one of the few mountains we’ve done where he didn’t bring skis, and I decided to join him, sticking to what we deemed to be ‘trickier’ sections of the climb and honing our climbing technique. For the first time, I didn’t lose my shit and have a five minute breakdown. I hypothesize that this was due to the fact that the last time we were on such melted out, icy terrain, I was wearing strap-on crampons and wasn’t in anything close to as stable as my current mountaineering boots (thank you, once again, Scarpa, for making such fantastically pink and wonderfully structured boots!). My skills on questionable terrain have exponentially increased as well, and the 40-45* stretches of climbing felt like nothing- especially in comparison with what we encountered on Shastina and Shasta just two weeks prior to this trip.

I actually found myself joking that I wanted to find a way to make it harder… and both Andy and I discussed how casual the climb had been as we sat on the summit, 10,000’ above sea level, eating KIND bars and soaking in the sunshine.

We had the summit to ourselves and the two parties coming up behind us were moving quite slowly so we took our time enjoying the view. I had recently read a forum that was discussing the differences between Alpinists and Mountaineers. Someone had suggested, in jest, that it was the number of remaining fingers and toes that separated the two. I think, in part, I agree but hope I never fall into the sub-10 digit population of Alpinists (Alpinists climb mountains; Mountaineers walk up them) and live well into old age typing my colorful trip reports in the same, slightly chaotic manner that I currently do.

As a jumping off point to the one made in the forum, however, Andy and I decided that you know you’re really hooked on climbing Mountains when you go out of your way to make things harder. A casual climb up to the summit of Middle Sister, with good weather, no climbs requiring more than our fairly solid level of technique, and a relatively mild increase in elevation when compared to some of our previous objectives, did not fall into the “hard” category; it seemed like more of a hike that required some preparation to complete. We were honestly both kind of hoping that those baby crevasses would have been glaringly unavoidable so that the “spiciness” level was increased. I’m a little scared that I’m tempting the fates with my desire to find a challenge in the next mountain but I am genuinely focused on really experiencing the mountains in their rawest form, and as breathtaking and inspiring as Middle Sister was, and as psyched as we both are to come back in the Winter to climb her again, I was left with a lingering itch as we packed up camp and headed out, less than 24 hours after we’d left the trail head.

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