North Sister

July 6, 2019


Bend, OR

North Sister is a rugged volcanic massif in central Oregon that has no “easy route” to the summit and is considered as one of the harder Cascade volcanoes. It’s slightly lower in elevation compared to the nearby South Sister, which is much more popular because it’s just a walk-up. The standard route is via South Ridge and involves some steep snow traverses and exposed class 3-4 scrambling on not-so-great rocks. For those into peak-bagging it makes sense to combine North Sister and Middle Sister into one long day or two shorter days, while leaving South Sister for a separate hike. The start of this July had seen some dreary weather in much of BC, Alberta and Washington and the closest sunny spots were in Oregon or Idaho. I did most of the weather check while killing days in Kuujjuaq and Montreal on my way back from Mt. Caubvick’s trip. After talking to a few friends I found Alex was also keen on driving south for some sunnier weather and our ambitious plan was to knock off all three sisters in a weekend trip.

After landing in Vancouver airport at 11:30 am I quickly made my way to my parents’ house in north Surrey and then went for a few shopping grabs (T&T supermarket, MEC Langley, etc.). I didn’t make to my home in White Rock until 4 pm which left me only one hour to scramble up things. Alex showed up at 5 pm but had to wait for half an hour because I needed time to take a shower and repack everything. By 6 pm we had crossed the border and long story short, Alex did an excellent job driving all the way to the trail-head by 1:30 am in the morning. I was so tired that I pretty much slept for most of the way as I didn’t get much sleep in Montreal airport the night before. Because of the late arrival time we set the alarms at 7 am. There’s no way could we make an alpine start on this one.

North and Middle Sisters from Pole Creek. GPX DL

The approach from Pole Creek trail-head was long and boring. We spent hours traversing (and descending at times) in a burnt forest. The burnt forest did offer better views than a coastal rainforest but it only took a short while to get bored on that. In about 3 hours we only managed to gain 300 m elevation gain and we weren’t even at treeline yet. The day had become hot too. Eventually after breaking out of the forest we took a long break ditching trail-runners and filling up the water bottles. The transition onto snow was abrupt and we soon followed some boot paths plodding onto Hayden Glacier. To ascend North Sister first we veered climber’s right aiming at the col between North Sister and “Prouty Point”. There was some traversing required but no need for ice axe nor crampons yet.

The start of the hike.

North Sister and Middle Sister from the burnt forest

Me hiking on the burnt forest. Photo by Alex R.

South Sister came into view

Me near the treeline. A lot of parties camp here. Photo by Alex R.

Me ascending onto Hayden Glacier. Photo by Alex R.

Alex ascending Hayden Glacier

We should have kept ascending farther to the west side of the col in order to use snow to gain the upper south ridge, but haven’t been there in the past we naturally went up the treadmill scree and rubble slopes immediately next to the col, which sucked a big time. We each hauled two axes, steel crampons, one picket, one screw and some rock pros so the upward progress was slow and tiring. Thankfully once the scrambling finally began our spirits were raised. There were still annoying scree here and there as well as constant route-finding. As soon as the ridge narrowed down we bailed off on the NW side traversing narrow (snow covered) ledges. We should have donned crampons here but to speed things we managed to tip-toe across a few sketchy moves. After that we found a loose scree chute (class 2+) to ascend back onto the S. Ridge crest. The next bits of the ridge crest was bypassed on the right (SE) side.

Me starting the volcanic choss ascent. Photo by Alex R.

Alex slogging up treadmill scree

Onto the ridge crest now. Looking down the Collier Glacier side

A zoomed-in view of Mt. Washington and Three Fingered Jack

Me ascending the lower south ridge. Photo by Alex R.

Alex plodding up volcanic choss with Middle Sister behind

The ridge starts to get more rugged now

This is looking at the north-eastern horizon.

Alex enjoying the sky walk

Me with the south summit tower ahead. Photo by Alex R.

Looking back at Middle and South Sisters

We traversed across this exposed ledge without donning crampons

Ahead is another chute to regain the ridge crest

At the base of the south summit tower we traversed climber’s left on ledges and soon there came the snow. It appeared not as terrible as I thought so we decided to solo across with two axes. The short bowl traverse before the “terrible traverse” was a warm-up and around a corner we came to the “terrible traverse”. The slope angle was about 40+ degrees on average, the exposure was real and the snow condition was very firm, but we were both competent on terrain like this. In a short time we had crossed the 50+ meters of this “terrible traverse”. A short but awkward mixed, class 4 step later we were at the base of that “bowling alley”.

Ahead would be the start of the steep snow traverses

Alex following me across the first (easier) traverse

Me starting the “terrible traverse”. Photo by Alex R.

Alex halfway across the “terrible traverse”.

We made a bad decision to ditch ice axes and crampons as the “bowling alley” appeared dry from bottom. Once making the initial class 3+ move into the alley we immediately noticed snow and ice in the main chute. I was lazy to descend and grab the gears so instead of taking the central chute we looked around and decided to tackle the ridge on climber’s right. This wasn’t the standard route and turned out a little bit harder than expected (exposed class 4), but such terrain wouldn’t impose much problem to us nonetheless. From the top of this ridge it’s an easy leftwards traverse and more class 3 scrambling to the summit of North Sister.

Alex scrambling a class step to get into the “bowling alley”

Me in the “bowling alley”. What you cannot see here is the snow and ice ahead

Looking down from inside the “bowling alley”

To bypass snow we scrambled exposed class 4 rock on climber’s right

More class 3 scrambling to gain the summit ridge

Alex traversing a ledge near the summit block

Fun scrambling on the summit block

A lower sub-summit from the true summit of North Sister

Alex on the summit of North Sister

This is the eastern side view. Not much to see as you can see…

Broken Top

A glimpse of South Sister from the intermittent clouds

This is the western side view.

Looking steeply down the NE Face.

Me on the summit of North Sister

We lingered there for no more than half an hour because we still had a long ways to go. After easily reversing the summit ridge traverse we came to the top of that “off route ridge”, which we decided to down-climb. We did bring two 30m ropes and there was a solid anchor but we figured it’d be faster to just down-climb. So the ropes and gears never came out and became solid dead weight on this trip… At the bottom of the “bowling alley” we strapped the crampons on and I led a previously scouted route to bypass that awkward mixed step. The trade off was an additional 10 m or so of 45+ degree snow traversing but such ordeal was easy. Another while later we were back across the “terrible traverse” and it’s then time for anther gear transition – crampons off and axes in the packs.

Alex down-climbing the summit block

Class 3 down-climbing to get back into the upper “bowling alley”:

As you can see there were snow and ice in the alley…

Down-climbing exposed class 4 to bypass snow and ice…

This is the bottom step to get out of “bowling alley”

Alex starting back across the “terrible traverse”

Partway back across the traverse. Soloing made this much faster

Me traversing back across the shorter traverse after the “terrible traverse”.

We had no issue tip-toeing across that aforementioned snow/ice ledge due to the softening snow and made no route-finding error on the descent off North Sister’s S/SW Ridge. We didn’t descend all the way back to the col and instead, we took a snowy line west of the ridge crest in order to save our knees.

Re-ascending a bit to where we took the crampons off

This part of snow was much softer on the way back.

Me heading back across a rugged portion of the ridge. Photo by Alex R.

Alex descending the typical volcanic red choss

More volcanic red choss

Onto the lower south ridge now.

Back to Middle/North Sister col. Looking back at North Sister

The day then continues with an ascent of Middle Sister. Speaking the objective we just did, I felt it’s not nearly as difficult as people make it sound. Mt. Jefferson is much harder from the snow/ice perspective and Three Fingered Jack and Mt. Washington are much harder from rock climbing perspective. However, this isn’t an objective to be treated lightly and certainly falls into the category of alpine climbing. There aren’t many volcanoes that require technical climbing so highly recommended. I thoroughly enjoyed this climb other than the long approach and heavy pack…