Feb. 17 1999
When my uncle invited me to climb South Sister with him in the summer of 1996 I was ecstatic. It had always been a dream of mine and now I would get a chance to achieve it.
We left Corvallis at around 9 am August 23 morning and traveled to Sisters for lunch. From Sisters, we drove to Devil’s Lake Trailhead and left our truck there. Next, we hiked to Moraine Lake for an overnight camp. That night my uncle went over things that I could expect on the mountain. The trail to the summit is a little over six miles long with an elevation gain of over 5000 feet. The climb doesn’t require any technical climbing (requiring ropes), but it is an exhausting climb with steep patches of volcanic scree and occasional snowfields. Because of the altitude, you should be prepared for weather that could vary from 80 F and sunny to 20 F and whiteout conditions. With this in mind I went back to my tent to pack my bag for the next days trip. In my backpack I included my ten essentials (a knife, map, compass, sun block, flashlight, matches and toilet paper), 2-3 liters of water, lunch and a couple snacks, my waterproof clothing, an extra fleece pullover and extra socks. We would leave to hike to the summit at 6:00 am the next morning.
The next morning my uncle woke me up at 5:00 am. I got dressed then went out to have breakfast. As we were finishing eating the sun was starting to rise in the east. We washed out our dishes, grabbed our gear and hit the trail. The first 1000 feet of elevation gain passes through deep green pine forests as you ascend “the draw”. This narrow drainage eventually places you at the top of a plateau where for the first time you witness the massive southern face of South Sister towering another 4000 feet above you!
Crossing another mile and a half of this plain, you begin the push up the steeper slopes that lead to a point from which you can make the final attempt at the summit. The volcanic skree soil begins to change from slate gray to cinder red the higher you climb, and at about the 8,800 foot level, you arrive at the terminus moraine lacerated off the mountain by the Lewis glacier. From there you can see the 1500-foot south ridge that leads to the top of Oregon’s third highest volcanic peak.
The south ridge climb goes slowly, as you sometimes pass other climbers resting along the way, sometimes we are passed, or meet those descending with supreme satisfaction on their faces. Our climbing was at a slow pace that you can maintain for long pitches on an ascent, and slow this one was. But as just over an hour of steady climbing came to an end, I arrived at the summit with my uncle. Exaltation flooded my heart when I attained my climbing goal, but this joy was short lived.
As we crested the edge of the summit rim onto South Sister’s broad caldera crater which towers above 10,000 feet, a boiling cloud of dark smoke came into sight beyond the north side of the crater wall. “Forest fire,” was all I could say. Crossing the crater’s snow packed surface we looked down upon a scene of hell fire in the Three Sisters wilderness four thousand feet below. Helicopters buzzed like tiny insects above the thrashing flames that leaped hundreds of feet above the forest.
For some time we sat with other climbers on that north rim looking down at the beauty of the Chambers Lakes, threatened now by destruction. However, at last persuaded me that we had to depart the summit as the early afternoon wore on. We were still six miles and almost 5,000 feet above the parking area, and the afternoon heat from the fires was rising above the central Oregon desert promising more thunder storms and lightening over the Cascades.
The slippery, sliding descent down thousands of feet of skree slopes keeps you constantly on your guard to avoid falls. With already fatigued legs this can be quite an accomplishment. We moved slowly but deliberately along the south ridge. Then the swirling winds above the mountain changed and the towering smoke clouds from what now appeared to be three dispersed conflagrations in the Sisters and neighboring wilderness areas spread a dark smear across the sky. The bright sun quickly faded to yellow and then ruddy red, as the smoke cloud grew thicker. The fires were blanketing thousands of square miles with their smokey shadow. I made the long hike off the mountain with my muscles exhausted but I was still beaming from the goal I had just accomplished.