An October Weekend: Bachelor and South Sister

Two days in Bend: Bachelor and South Sister


I drive to Bend and try to meet up with a woman of interest. It's a bust, so I head to Mt Bachelor (ironically). My goal is to run it round trip. It's a warm day so I'm in shorts and my new Solomon trail runners. I start at the Sunrise? Lodge at 6500 feet. My goal is to Summit at 9000 feet in 45 minutes, then return in 30. I start fast, and soon realize that this hill is going to kick my ass. After gaining about 1000 feet, I really start to struggle with altitude issues. By time I reach 8000 feet, I'm slowing to a hike about 50 percent of the time. I'm not measuring my heart rate, but it's through the roof. The top 500 feet of the trail has quite a few patches of snow. Several times, my foot punches through up to my upper shin, a very cold and shocking sensation on my bare legs and ankles. The last 500 feet are grueling. There is a cold wind whipping across the slope, giving me brain freeze and incubating a headache. I finally make summit in exactly one hour, which incidentally is exactly how long it took me to hike it in August. I'm either a fast hiker or a slow runner.

I think there are a few reasons that I hiked Bachelor in August as fast as I ran it in October. In August, I had just climbed three mountains in the days prior to Bachelor, and I was well acclimated to the altitude. In October, I came from sea level in Portland and was trying to run at 9000 feet by late afternoon of the same day. In August there was no snow on the trail. In October, I was sometimes in snow up to my mid shin, which makes the hike very slow going. When hiking, I can find a high end target heart rate without maxing out, and sustain it indefinitely. When running up high on big hills, I seem to max out then crash, recover, then max out again.

The return goes quickly, taking about 30 minutes. Total time was about 1:30. Bachelor is a good training hike. It'll be interesting to see if I can shave anything off that time next time around. With some acclimation time I think I could do much better.


I wake up in Bend and drive to Devil's Lake Trailhead in Three Sisters Wilderness. Today I am climbing South Sister, Oregon's third tallest volcano. The hike is non-technical, about 12 miles round trip with about 5000 foot elevation gain, to the summit at 10358 feet. I'm a bit sore from running Bachelor yesterday, but get a good start and charge up the forest trail, and across the plateau toward the volcano's base. I have decided to wear my mountaineering boots today and bring my crampons and ice axe in case I run into some snow. About an hour into the climb, I've developed blisters on my feet, even though I taped them up before I started. I'm surprised by this. I've done many climbs this summer in these boots and have not had any problems. I stop to put on an extra pair of running socks beneath my thick wool socks and add more tape to my heels, but I think it's too late, the damage has been done. The upside to blisters is that it takes my attention away from my sore quads and nagging knee problems. So that's good.

I did this climb about a year ago. This time it seems much friendlier. The portions that I considered steep and dangerous last year, now feel more like fun sections that break the monotony of the hike. The altitude is hitting me though. I feel out of breath, and my heart rate is way up. It could either be more acclimation issues, or I'm pushing too hard too fast, or I'm just fatigued from yesterday. It's probably a combination of all three. But I find a pace that doesn't kill me and try to keep to it.

There is considerably more snow on Lewis Glacier than last time, and the green cirque lake in the moraine at the bottom of the glacier is frozen solid now. I am able to skirt the glacier all the way up the final ridge to the summit. Looking down, I see another climber, and he's gaining on me. He catches me about 100 feet below the summit. He's a young guy from Salt Lake City, doing a rotation in Warm Springs Reservation for six weeks and trying to climb some volcanos whiles he's here. He's got a really strong pace. We reach the summit crater rim and hike north across the quarter mile diameter crater which is filled to the rim with hard, crunchy, frozen snow. I traverse the frozen crater with the guy from Salt Lake City, and we chat about climbing, climbers, and good routes on other volcanos he's considering while in the area. We reach the north side of the crater. Middle Sister and North sister loom large, Jefferson beyond them, and Mt Hood beyond it. The sun is out, the sky is blue. It's a beautiful day.

The north face of South Sister consists of a short vertical wall, below which is a steep icy pitch that plunges for a long long way. As we peer down the staggeringly steep north flank, we see a man slowly making his way up it! He has about 50 feet left to climb. He doesn't have crampons or an ice axe. He is using only a sharp rock as a hand axe, and is kicking steps into the icy face with his boots. I watch him in amazement for about fifteen minutes as he makes the final push to the summit. I really can't believe what I'm witnessing. He finally reaches the short vertical rock wall and scrambles up over it to where we are. I greet him, shake his hand, and try to figure out if he's insane, or just the most hardcore climber I've ever met. I'm still not sure. He seemed very composed, confident, mild mannered and casual about what he's just done. It is definitely the most bizarre thing I've seen a human do on my climbs.

After a short chat, I head back down the mountain. The descent is uneventful but long and tedious. My boots have chewed up my feet and I'm ready to be done. During the last couple miles, I find myself stopping frequently which is unusual for me, especially on a descent. In 24 hours of climbing almost 8000 vertical feet, I'm feeling totally spent. Finally, I'm back at the car, but still have a three hour drive back to Portland before I can rest. All in all, it was a great late season weekend up high in my favorite Oregon wilderness.

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