8/1/2015: North Sister
As my experience and knowledge base has built, North Sister seemed more and more to be the true “test piece” for mountaineering in the Cascades. Mount Hood was definitely a ‘no mistakes’ allowed climb, but North Sister, with her famous, crumbling terrain and “bad sister” silhouette (when compared with Hope and Charity), would be more of a technical climb than anything I’d encountered so far (based solely on the fact that I assumed she would be crumbling the entire time we were climbing her). That being said, people literally RUN up her in trail shoes during the Three Sisters Traverse so, she couldn’t be that bad, right? Well…
This trip was a series of… unplanned… experiences. First of all, we rolled into the TH after midnight and were so tired from the week that our desire to beat the heat with a proper “alpine start” was immediately nixed. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it but, we didn’t even hit the trail until 7am. Whoops. I was literally jumping up and down, dancing my way around the truck in anticipation.
Carrying our 18L packs up the trail was incredible- a vast contrast to packing overnight gear up to the Hayden Glacier when we did Middle Sister in June- and we made good time. We took a break near the edge of the Hayden and stared in alarm at how little of it remained; we were examining beautiful dregs of glacial ice and crevasses were etched in crazy formations on nearly every aspect of it. Nuts. We hadn’t even seen a tent pitched on our way up but by the time we hit the South Ridge, we saw a pair of climbers descending from near the summit pinnacle. When we eventually ran into them, they told us that they had opted out of the Terrible Traverse after encountering a series of hanging snowfields and were unwilling to push through it. They also informed us that they were planning on doing the Traverse that day and since it was already 12noon, I silently expressed my sympathies as I asked, “oh, so are you guys going to bivy?” They were optimistic that they wouldn’t have to but since the crux of the Traverse is coming up South Sister, I had concerns for their success and safety. Thinking back to myself, I swallowed slowly and prepared myself for the idea of not actually making it to the summit on this trip. The guys didn’t look super prepared for the climb- they did have ice axes though…
We gained the ridge proper and began traversing around, between, and beneath gendarmes and crazy piles of ALARMINGLY loose rock- which was an excellent break from the choss and scree that we’d been climbing up until that point and my commentary changed from “agh choss!” to “oh my god, this is just so much fun!” *insert sarcastic tone of voice here*. It actually was fun, but only in the “well this is new and different and also pretty much everything I touch is disintegrating beneath me” sense of things. I was still relatively sarcastic and light hearted when we hit the “Terrible Traverse”
Little did I know that the Terrible part hadn’t even began. We surveyed the looming landscape with temporarily dry mouths before deciding that it was do-able and we moved forward, gingerly “not pulling” on anything and moving quickly and carefully across the disintegrating terrain.
Neither of us thought this mountain was be much of a challenge so when we finally made our way across the spicy, loose, wet, sharp, melting, and just plain shitty traverse to what we thought was the Bowling Alley, I breathed a sigh of relief, turned around, and quickly sucked that breath back in. We stared into the face of a gully full of the things alpine rock nightmares are made from- just… look at the photos. But, we’d made it that far and the summit pinnacle looked close enough to keep moving toward. That being said, we were still cautiously optimistic as we started up the loose gully- people do run up this thing… right? RIGHT?! The biggest issue made itself present when we began climbing the gully and entered “no mistakes allowed” 3rd/4th class terrain. As we sent massive blocks cascading down the face, blocks that never stopped moving, we realized that we were pretty much in it to win it and continued our VERY CAREFUL route finding.
After a hundred yards of “climbing” the gully, we encountered a rap station and some solid rock- rock that needed to be climbed. Shocking… people really run up this thing? Well, three pitches of run out climbing on the worst rock in the Cascades, and some creative route finding (note: rap stations DO NOT indicate the correct route on the mountain), we reached the summit and realized that we’d probably done it wrong.
There was no way that people ran up the route we’d just done- the 5.8 ish climbing on this mountain would be absolutely deadly if you were to fall. No jokes. No laughter there.
We rapped down the spicy bits and began our descent, taking a new line down the mountain in an effort to make up for lost time and get hydrated via Hayden runoff ASAP since neither of us had planned for the long day we’d committed to.
This climb was a mental limit-pusher for sure but I am excited to go back and “do it right” next time. I learned so much about myself during this trip and made the VERY pleasant discovery that I am continually becoming comfortable on risky terrain. I even entered a pseudo-flow state during our climb up the gully. Maybe it was fear induced? I’d like to think it was skill-induced and that after standing on the highest points of 14 unique mountains, I am finally finding my way through limiting-fear and into excitement over the new challenges each new experience presents to me.