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Three Sisters Wilderness: August 2008

This year I was very fortunate to join my hiking buddies (David, Dave and Brad) for another amazing trip out west. We would do the Three Sisters Wilderness near Bend, Oregon. For those who do not know Oregon, the Sisters are three volcanos, each over 10,000 feet. In addition to the Sisters, there are numerous other peaks in the wilderness area named similarly…the Husband, Wife, Mt Bachelor (also a ski resort) and so forth. The Sisters are part of the long chain of volcanos stretching from CA to WA and beyond including Mt Hood, Rainier, St. Helens, Adams, and more.

As an added bonus, Rich Ayers, an old friend from High School first grade! contacted me just before the hike and let me know he lived in Portland  (I went to a twelve year all boy private school…that likely explains a lot). So I made arrangements to fly into Portland (instead of SLC as I normally would) and hang out before the hike with Rich and his wife Gina.


See if you can find me in this picture, circa 1977, maybe 3rd grade or 4th?
(first row, far right)

Rich and Gina were great guests. Rich picked me up at the airport and took me back to his amazing house way up on a hill (Mt. Tabor area) which overlooked the city, Mt. Hood, St. Helens and more. He has a fabulous outdoor garden and patio area. We did not stay long at the house as the adult soap box derby was underway. So up Mt Tabor we hiked.

We were greeted by Gina and their friends Dave and Heather. They had munchies and beer waiting. We stayed for a few hours watching the wacky cars and people and then headed back for dinner. It ended up being quite a late night for an East Coast person, but what better way to adjust to the time change.

The next day Rich and Gina showed me around Portland which I really loved. It is certainly a small town, but it is plenty big to have every kind of thing going on. But the nice thing is that it has lots of small neighborhoods with character. No big chain stores. I appreciated that. We saw the Japanese Rose Gardens and picked up some souvenirs at the Saturday Market where we also got some middle eastern lunch.

Back to the house for a little relaxation, etc. Rich prepared salmon on a cedar plank for dinner. They don’t ship the good salmon to the east coast. They keep it out here. Bastards. That was some good stuff. Rich is a great cook. And Gina made a fresh cherry pie for desert. It was amazing. We all cried when we ate it. I even got up early the next day to inhale the rest of it before Rich beat me to it.

On Monday we left for the airport to pick up Dave Crockett around noon. He had just run the Leadville 100 RATS again (why?) and then flown out from Denver to Portland. He looked in good shape and got in the car. I could tell he was pretty worn out from the run, but he was better than the day before when he did not think he could even go on our hike.

We drove 4 hours to Bend, OR and met up with David Hansen and Brad Clements who had driven from SLC earlier that day (11 hours!). It was amazing that we got to Bend within 5 minutes of their arrival. Of course we had 15 electronic gadgets to communicate with each other to track progress…but still 🙂 We had lunch at a mexican joint and headed to the camp ground at the Devils Lake Trailhead (5,400 ft).

The campground was very nice except for the mosquitoes. Thankfully we had the nasty juice (Deet) which worked well…had to re-apply every 3-4 hours…they were hungry critters. Anyway, we made dinner and wondered around at sunset exploring the volcanic rock all around us. We got in a game of Settlers (I won!) and “hit the Thermarest”.

We started hiking on Tuesday morning and it was a bright beautiful sunny day. But we knew weather was coming. We could see the S. Sister but it soon clouded over on top. We enjoyed a nice, fairly flat, hike from Devil’s lake up to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and then went North on the PCT. Our plan was to camp at Separation Creek (10 miles) which was about halfway between the South and Middle Sisters. We would then hike up between the peaks and camp again and attempt a summit of the Middle Sister. All of this would never come to fruition, though.

As we made camp at Separation Creek (6,400 ft) and had dinner, a thick fog rolled in. Then just about at sunset, the rain started. A light mist. It would increase in intensity during the night. But we hoped it would start to let up on Wednesday.

Wednesday came and we were in a storm. The rain did not stop for more than 20 seconds at a time. It was kind of funny as we would be in our tents and need to step outside “for a break”. So we would listen for the rain to stop and then get our shoes on quickly. You had literally 20-30 seconds to get out, do your thing and get back in before it would start up again. I have been in heavier rains, but not in anything more consistent. I guess that is what you get for being at 6,400 feet on the west side of a 10,000 foot volcano in the Northwest US.

So we settled in for some Settlers (of Catan). We stayed in our tents all day and got in about 27 games. I won 5 or 6 which was a good showing against the competition. I can’t believe I ever want to play again, but I do. Sad.

No one enjoyed our stay in the rain. Rich and Gina were getting cabin fever and went out for a 2 mile walk down the trail. Crockett got up and ran somewhere I think. Eventually he came back. Gina and Rich came back and said the trail was washed out for 50 yards. No surprise there. Thankfully our campsite was on some sandy volcanic soil which drained very well. We got dinner made and went to bed after another 5 games of Catan. We wanted to continue up the hill, but it was just too foggy and miserable to do it. And without a real trail, it might have been dangerous as well.

The next day (Thursday) it was still raining, but it was more of a mist and a lot colder. The front had pushed through we gathered. But no let-up in the rain/fog. Rich said he and Gina were getting out of there and we all agreed. This stunk! So we hiked back out the 10 miles we had come in. It was kind of a nice hike in the rain/mist, but definitely not what we had come for. Our plan would be to try and dry out in Bend and have dinner and hope for better weather for the next day, perhaps for a summit of the S. Sister.

When we got out of the back country around 2pm and back on the road to Bend, the sky opened up and it was beautiful again. Damn. In bend, we took all of our wet junk over to the city park by the river and let everything dry. We looked like a bunch of homeless people. It took just 2 minutes to dry things that were soaking wet. That’s what high desert will do for you! We played some more Catan before dinner at the pizza joint.

Rich and Gina decided to get a hotel room for the night (good choice) and the rest of us went back to the Mosquito 8 for the night. After all, we wanted to get an early start for our climb of the South Sister the next day. Yeah 🙂

On Friday we left the trail head at Devils Lake around 8am for our 6.25 mile (5,000 vertical foot) climb of the South Sister. Yup, the math is kind of scary…16% grade. And the trail did not let us down (literally) as it went up, up, up, up. We started in a thick forest and ascended 1,200 ft in about an hour (nice pace!). Then we were above treeline and had a flat section for about a mile. Then it was just a relentless climb to the summit. The trail was steep and in the higher sections it was very loose gravel which made footing difficult. I took my time and was able to keep up with David H and Brad for the most part. But Dave Crockett was WAY ahead, running right up the darn thing. I overhead people that were having lunch talking about that crazy guy “running up the trail”. Yup, I know him. Turns out Davy hit the summit and started back down by the time we saw him around the 9,000 ft mark (the summit is 10,300).

Suddenly I saw something up ahead on the trail that was very unusual looking. On a landscape that was mostly black and red volcanic rock, there was something glistening in the light. I continued at a faster pace and got closer. It looked like a diamond! There were a few of them and as I got closer I could see it was actually ice. But not ice like we get back east from a freezing rain storm, it was an ice crystal like you would see in Superman’s palace. As I got higher (around 9,500 ft) there were more and more of these things…each with very cool shapes. As you can expect, I shot 200 pictures of these things and wondered what they were and how they got there.

A few minutes later I reached the crater rim at 10,000 feet (the 10,358 ft summit was around the other side of the crater). The ice crystals were everywhere. But the rock was not coated with ice all over….just crystals in certain places. Weird!

I hiked around the crater rim and met up with David and Brad. They could not explain the ice either. Finally we found someone who told us they were a form of Rime Ice. Rime ice is common on ships in the winter and formed when a very cold mist/fog (below freezing) comes into contact with something it can freeze on. The water droplets start freezing on a surface and then continue to freeze on that surface as it is easier than the other surfaces. And it freezes in a crystal structure which is what made these things look so cool. The ice crystal grows into the wind as more and more water freezes onto it on contact. Like a stalagmight in a way. You need a wet, very cold (below freezing by a degree) rain/fog and a driving wind. All of which we had the day before. I was very happy to have seen this marvelous wonder! I bet it does not happen all the time…in the winter I bet it just snows.

We had some lunch near the summit and enjoyed crystal clear views of every peak in Oregon and Washington to the north. We could see for over 200 miles from up there!

We hiked the rest of the rim and slid down the snow field/glacier in the crater for some fun. Brad build a small snowman and took a picture for his neighbor who collects pictures of snowmen in weird places.

When we got back on the trail, we started down the 5000 ft descent. I began running down with David Hansen. Eventually we met up with Crockett coming UP the mountain for his second summit. He was about 2/3rd’s of the way back up when we met him. He decided to turn back instead of going the rest of the way. Funny thing was that people were doing double takes as he passed them a second time! He loves that stuff.

It took me 4 hours to get up the hill and just 90 minutes to get back to the parking lot. That was a tremendous amount of running on some VERY steep slopes. My quads were so thrashed, I could barely walk up or down a flight of stairs for nearly a week now. And to think Crockett does this 4x in a race! Yikes.

We got back to Bend and bid our goodbyes to the gang as Rich and Gina and I headed back to Portland.

All in all, it was memorable trip. I think the South Sister is one of my favorite climbs ever. Maybe second to Mt. Rainier. It was just so strange up there with the ice crystals, snow, glacier, red rock, and more. And the views were incredible. What a great climb. I will return in a few years with Jake and anyone else who would like to join us, for sure.

View Three Sisters Wilderness in a larger map

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