Climbing Middle Sister

On the seventh day of the Cascade Expedition, I wake up in Bend, Oregon and hit the road at 6am. By 7:30 I have driven all the way around the north side of the Three Sisters Wilderness and am at the Obsidian Trailhead on the East side of the wilderness. I obtained a permit to camp in this limited access area last night, but didn't get back from my Broken Top climb early enough to make the drive. Plus, the temperature has been hovering around freezing at night, making it difficult to get excited about camping here.

Because of it's regulated access, the Obsidian trail feels quite remote. I begin the long approach hike through four miles of dense forest toward timberline as the morning sun slowly starts to creep over the high peeks to the east. About one mile into the hike, I hear a grunt and the snapping of twigs. I look over and see a full grown black bear galloping about thirty feet from my trail! It's running parallel with me but in the opposite direction. It seems we have startled each other. I have an excellent profile view of this bear running, and at full stride, I'm impressed by its size. It stops about fifty feet downhill from me. I am both exhilarated and terrified. I've never encountered a bear in Oregon. I was beginning to wander if they even inhabited these parts. My initial impulse is to abort the climb and call it a day. With large beasts roaming around, I feel like I have no control over this situation anymore. But the bear is between me and the way down now. The only logical solution is to keep going up.

I spend the next hour hiking with a white knuckled grip on my ice axe, and I bang my car keys against the axe shaft every few seconds to let the forest know I'm coming. I finally reach tree break and lava fields. I scurry along this terrain for another thirty minutes, passing a creek, one tent, and two hikers. As I tell them of my bear encounter, they seem a little aloof, and I realize that I should probably put my ice axe away now. They begin to warm up and we discuss a couple of trail junctions and our respective destinations. I continue onward. The trail I'm on eventually ends at a T junction with the north/south Pacific Crest Trail. I study my topo map for a solid ten minutes, trying to figure out the best way to go, then realize that I just need to keep heading east over the open grassland. There is a small narrow unmarked trail leading off through a meadow. I deduce that this is the climber's trail. I've realized on this expedition that climbing trails are rarely marked or represented on topo maps on less popular mountains, but I'm getting better at finding them as I search for ways to get up the mountains instead of circumnavigating them like most trails do.

I follow a small footpath through fields of wildflowers and along a glacier fed creek for a while, and the summits of North Sister and Middle Sister reveal themselves. They still look so far away. I have a lot of work ahead of me. My first goal is to reach the saddle between the two 10,000 foot peaks. I could travel up one of the glaciers, but they seem atrophied and fragmented by the summer heat. It's not clear to me which glacier to take. I decide to climb on a rock ridge between two glaciers all the way to the saddle, to keep from having to mess with crampons.

The ridge route is tedious. It consists of large piles of volcanic rock, each about two to four feet in diameter, precariously stacked. These rock piles are hundreds of feet tall. Each time I summit a pile, another larger and steeper pile is revealed that I must climb. The volcanic rock is razor sharp. I barely brush my knee against one, and it draws blood. I spend a solid hour negotiating this ridge, stopping to catch my breath, and kicking myself for not choosing a snow ascent. But I've committed to this route and will see it through.

Finally, I reach the saddle. It consists of more large piles of volcanic rock. To the left looms the summit of North Sister, and to the right, Middle Sister. I work my way right along the saddle. I begin climbing the ridge that leads to Middle's summit. To the left is a sheer drop off of over a thousand of feet. To the right is a steep scree slope that plunges into Renfrew Glacier. This ridge is slow going. It's hard to see the best route from below. I'm trying to keep a safe distance from the left edge, but this pushes me into the steep scree, which is difficult to maintain traction on. I use my ice axe, plunging the handle into the scree, and it it sinks all the way to the axe head. I can't find a single solid rock to grab onto. I keep scrambling upward until I finally get a solid grip on the ridge line. Once on top of the ridge, I carefully make my way up, adjacent to the western headwall, and the abyss below. It takes a little less than an hour at this pace to reach summit at high noon.

The views at the summit are amazing. North Sister is in my face. I can see the route to it's summit, and it looks menacing. Beyond that, I can see Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, and Even Mt Hood. South Sister, Broken Top, Chamber Lakes, and Mt Bachelor are all visible to the South. Middle Sister truly is smack dab in the middle of it all. I am alone up here. I seem to be the only human above timberline on Middle Sister today! It's such a different feeling than the popular South Sister climb I did last year. My stay at the summit is brief. I chug some water and eat some carb gels, photograph the views, and scout a good snow route to descend. From up here I can see the correct ridge route down to the saddle, and Renfrew Glacier looks like the perfect super highway to timberline.

After many questionable route finding decisions on the ascent, I now have a clear view from above of the best route down. I descend the summit ridge, then strap on my crampons and fly down Renfrew Glacier in giant strides, plunging my ice axe handle as I go for extra support. The descent goes very quickly. I am able to stay on snow most of the way. Only one section of the glacier is steep enough to require extreme caution. Once I reach the bottom of the glacier, I pop off my crampons and head toward the main trail. I complete the final four miles back to the car on the Obsidian trail. Along the way I pass four rangers that are coming up with large hand saws. They are clearing the trail of fallen trees. I tell them about my bear encounter. They are excited, and tell me that I'm lucky. Sighting a bear is very rare, and usually even then, they are running away as fast as possible. It sounds like my encounter was a rare and positive event, not a negative or dangerous one. I feel good about traversing this forest alone now, and I see my bear encounter in a totally different light.

I reach my car nine hours after starting the climb. I realize that I'm totally spent, not just for the day, but for the week. I feel my expedition coming to an end. I can't think of a better way to wrap up this adventure than by climbing Middle Sister and experiencing all that I did on this beautiful summer day in the Cascade Mountains. Tomorrow I will head back to Portland and I will try to bring some of this exceptional place back with me. But more than likely, some of me will forever remain behind, waiting...

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