South Sister via South Ridge

South Sister is a classic, very popular hike in Oregon. In season, it requires permits to even day-hike it. And when one does so, it’s Disneyland.

But, in the early season, it’s covered with a spring snowpack. Then, it’s an easy snow climb or ski tour. The Cascade Lakes Road — the road that accesses the trailhead — had just opened for the summer. I figured I’d hike up it on a Friday, and have a good time in the snow.

I pulled into the trailhead Thursday night. There were plenty of other cars and vans too — mostly skiers hoping to get some of the first turns on the peak. I packed my bag, and brought microspikes and an ice axe, along with hiking boots. I managed to make all my gear, including mittens, fit in a 15L running vest. Then, I prepared to sleep.

Since I’d be on foot, I set my alarm for a 4:30 a.m. start. I’d want hard, icy snow to ascend on — not softer snow to wallow through.

I woke up, and I started to ascend.

The first 1,000 feet of gain or so is in the trees. Since this was snow-covered, route-finding was a little difficult. I eventually broke treeline, and was treated to my first views of South Sister.

After the trees, the route continues on flat terrain for about a mile, before ascending straight up the volcano.

Flat terrain on the lower slopes of the volcano, soon after breaking through the trees.

After this, it’s a straightforward hike up the South Ridge on the path of least resistance. The entire route was in front of me. Also, you aren’t following the ridge direct. You stay on the ridge crest where it makes sense, and on snow slopes off to either side when that makes sense. If you’re a skier, you’ll want to stay on snow slopes the entire way.

My route of ascent.

The going was fast. I’d either be on ice-encrusted scree with my boots or moderate snow slopes with my microspikes. The conditions were just right to enable quick travel.

The last 1,000 feet of gain is steeper, on roughly a 30-degree snow slope. I had to bring out my ice axe here and self-belay my way up. The microspikes were at their limit. But, if I had waited an hour or two, the spikes would’ve been perfect.

Taken partway up during the ascent. About 2,000 feet from the summit. All mellow until the last 1,000 feet, which is a tad steeper.

I reached the summit in near-solitude. There was just a single skier. For some reason, he started as early as me. He skied down the mountain on ice-crusted snow.

Summit plateau.

The views of Middle Sister and North Sister, encased in their spring snowpack, were incredible. I see why the Sisters Range is so magical. I could see beyond the Sisters to many other Cascade Volcanoes as well. It was a perfect line, going Middle Sister; North Sister; Mt. Washington; Three-Fingered Jack; Mt. Jefferson; Mt. Hood; and finally, Mt. Adams. That’s 145 miles of visibility.

I started descending, on quite icy snow. I tried to glissade a few times, but it was painful since I was wearing shorts. I resigned myself to stay on foot.

Taken on the descent, the slightly steeper part of the South Ridge. Very glissade-able, just too icy this early in the day.

After 2,000 or 3,000 feet of descent, I ran into backcountry skiers making their way up — a lot of them. There were at least three dozen skiers, if not more. It seems like it’s a Bend tradition to call in “sick” and ski up South Sister when the road opens.

Picture of Broken Top, taken during the descent.

After treeline, it was a mess of footsteps and ski tracks. I left the trees a quarter-mile from my car and had a quick but annoying road walk to end the day.

Then, I drove back to Bend for a shower and some delicious Mexican food.

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