Planning an Epic, Dream Adventure

I have some time on my hands today.  Basically, I’m doing odd jobs, and if they don’t have any odd jobs for me, I wait.  While I’ve been waiting, I’ve been trip planning.

My high school sent us on trips every other year, called Mini-Term.  Basically, it was a week in a small-group environment, led by a teacher, doing something educational outside of school.  Some groups put their study of French and Spanish to use, others focused on the history of tidewater Virginia, some groups dug deeper into choral music, and other groups focused on short-term mission trips.  When I was in 11th grade, I signed up for the mini-term which flew to Oregon, and spent the week learning some basic mountaineering skills.  We spent the first day climbing South Sister, a 10,358′ tall extinct volcano.  I had an amazing time, I learned a lot, and I gained a huge appreciation for big, western mountains.  Now don’t get me wrong; I love the mountains here on the east.  But the scale out west is on a different level.  I’ve dropped some pictures into this post.  Bear in mind; these photos were taken in 2004, digital cameras were not as good as they are now, and I was a dorky (no, seriously, very dorky), 135 pound, pimply 17-year-old.  Be kind.

These are the Three Sisters from a nearby highway.  I took these photo after we finished climbing.  From left to right, South, Middle, and North.

These are the Three Sisters from a nearby highway. I took this photo after we finished climbing. From left to right, South, Middle, and North.

A group photo on summit day.  That's me, last in the line, on the right.

A group photo on summit day. That’s me, last in the line, on the right.

Summit!  I'm down far left, in the maroon fleece jacket and the green/black cap, with the sunglasses.

Summit! I’m down far left, in the maroon fleece jacket and the green/black cap, with the sunglasses.  Middle and North Sisters are behind us.

Ever since that trip I’ve been fascinated by Oregon.  I swore I would make it back out west someday.  I actually went through a period last year where I basically spent my evenings ogling northwestern mountains on Google Earth.  While looking at the Sister’s range, I saw a possibility.  Today, I’ve had a chance to actually consider what it would look like.

It appears that a traverse of all three Sisters is possible; there is even a pretty logical route.  In fact, there is an established trail for most of it.  It doesn’t appear to be “hard-core” mountaineering, though knowledge of moving through glaciated terrain would be needed (there are some crevasses in the area).  I’m positive it’s been done before, but I haven’t found any reports or documentation of it (granted, I haven’t really looked hard).  Still, it would feel pretty epic for me.

I’ve found all my resources online.  In their own words, the Mazamas “[were] founded in 1894 on the summit of Mt. Hood, [and are] a nonprofit mountaineering education organization located in Portland, Oregon.  Mazamas offers over 900 hikes and 350 climbs annually for over 13,000 participants.”  Their website is invaluable, and includes topo maps of many classic climbs in Oregon, Washington, and California.  I’ve been poring over the maps of the Sisters.  I’ve also been using good ol’ GoogleMaps and GoogleEarth.

So, what follows is “Ethan’s Contemplative Three Sister’s Traverse.”  We begin at the beginning.

Day 1:  We’ll start at the red square.  I had to zoom way out so that the entire first bit would be visible, so the resolution is not great (sorry), but the road there is called the Cascade Lakes Highway.  The trail begins at the Devil’s Lake Trailhead, right at Devil’s Lake, at an elevation of around 5,600 feet.  We then climb (my route is the red arrows) up through a ravine, following a stream, to a trail junction at 6,680 feet.  That’s an elevation gain of 1,200 feet over around 1.4 miles.  Steepish, but not impossible.  At the trail junction, we take the right and ascend to 7,120′, camping at the moraine lake (for an early morning start the next day).


Day 2, Part 1:  Wakey Wakey!  Bright and early alpine start!  The second day has some serious elevation to tackle.  Starting from Camp 1 at 7,120′, we climb steadily 1,320′ up the flank of South Sister to the 8,440′, in a small saddle.  We then climb the ridge above the Lewis Glacier onto the summit ridge around the volcanic crater.  The summit is at 10,358′.  Time to celebrate the first summit!


Day 2, Part 2:  Enjoy the summit for a bit, then off towards the second summit.  Heading north, we follow the North Ridge Route and drop into the gap filled with rolling hills between South and Middle Sisters.  The route loses about 3,000′, coming to a natural camp/rest spot at Camp Lake.  For argument’s sake, we’ll say we aren’t trying to do this in a day, and we’ll make camp for the night at Camp Lake, at around 6,920′ elevation.




Day 3, Part 1:  Day three will be a loooonnnnggg day.  There aren’t too many good spots to camp between Middle and North Sisters, so both can be done in one push.  So it’s another alpine start, this time for the summit of Middle Sister.  The route ascends 3,000′ to the summit of Middle Sister (at 10,047′) following the Southeast Ridge.


Day 3, Part 2:  Descend Middle Sister via the North Ridge to the Hayden Glacier, a drop of around 800-1000′.  Now, there is a choice to make.  We could follow the blue arrows (and the trail), and head east down the Hayden Glacier, only to catch another trail headed back in the other direction (uphill, making up the pretty much 1000′ we lost while following the Hayden Glacier).  Have you ever noticed how, if you misspell “trail” it becomes “trial,” as in “trial by fire?”  That’s what this option would amount to.  The second (far more appealing) option, in my opinion, is to continue north (following the red arrows) along the source of the glacier, and connecting to the main trail on the other side.    Then, it’s 1,000′ up the southwest ridge of North Sister onto the summit ridge, with the summit (at 10,000′) located nearby.


Day 3, Part 3:  The climb isn’t over until you’re down.  We’ll follow the north ridge of North Sister, descending quickly on exhausted legs.  About halfway down the ride, we’ll face a choice.  We could continue on the North Ridge proper (blue arrows), which would take us around the north edge of smaller peak called Little Brother.  Or, we could follow the Northwest Ridge, which would take us on the south side of Little Brother.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter; both trails converge.  Camp 3 would be somewhere below the tree-line.



Day 4:  Easy, downhill cruise out to Old McKenzie Highway, for the pickup.  I should note, it’s possible to make this a loop, but it would take us way down the east side of the maps.

I’m not going to attempt to quantify the elevation gain vs. elevation loss.  Ending elevation is 4,600′, so net elevation would be a 1,000′ loss.  My feeling is that during the summer/”otherwise warm season,” this would be a fairly high elevation, steep, but easy backpacking trip.  During the winter, it looks like it would be a moderately technical mountaineering trip.

So, who would be interested in this?  Anyone wanna go as a partner?  Anyone want to pay a large amount for me to guide them on it (kidding…sort of…)?   I’m going to try to set up a Google Earth flying tour of the route at some point.  Stay tuned for that!



About Ethan Zook

I'm 27, and happily married to a pretty girl named Melissa with a little boy named Elijah. From the Shenandoah Valley, currently hanging out in Richmond, VA. I love exploring the wild places around the area. I write two blogs; Mountain Ramblings is about my personal explorations in the mountains and valleys that I live around. In Mountain Rescue Blog, I write about issues faced by rescuers in mountain environments both locally and around the world.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Planning an Epic, Dream Adventure

  1. I love that area. We lived in Oregon for two years and, although we only did it once, South Sister was one of my favorite hikes out there.

    • Ethan Zook says:

      I have very find memories as well, as you could probably tell! I’m not sure I would have been able to leave Oregon after two years! That’s some willpower!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s