Our summer trip plans took an unexpected turn this spring when Mike got a new job. We had originally wanted to take a week off in July or August for some North Cascades backpacking and scrambling, but now our outdoor excursion time was suddenly moved up to late May. Many of the places we had considered going to later in the summer were still inaccessible, and worse yet, the weather forecast around Western Washington was looking iffy.
So where to? We tossed out a lot of different ideas, from Vancouver Island to the Olympic Coast to climbing in Utah, before settling on a Cascade volcano extravaganza roadtrip through Oregon and northern California. With the weather looking slightly better to the south, and a promise of tasty beer even if all else failed, we set off.
Day 1: Lucky for us, the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway into the Three Sisters Wilderness had opened the day before the start of our trip, making the approach to the Green Lakes area manageable (4 miles of road walking would have been very no bueno). After waiting out a rain squall in the car, we packed up and had one of those no-seriously-how-is-my-bag-possibly-this-heavy moments, with skis, crampons, warm clothes and three days of food all factored in.
The skinning started within a mile and was mostly easy, with the exception of a couple of melted-out footbridges that required some shuffling. We made it to the lakes around 7 p.m. and quickly set up camp with a plan to get up early and ski toward Middle Sister.
Day 2: We woke to mostly cloudy skies, knowing that the summit of Middle was likely too far away and too obscured for us to safely make it there and back in a day. But with nothing else better to do, we decided to climb north away from the lakes and see how far we got. We didn’t see another person all day.
The weather rolled in and out between South and Middle all morning, with the peaks completely socked in for a good chunk of it. Around noon, we got to a saddle close to north and could see a clear path up with some nice tracks coming down the ridge. But as we started to climb, we realized the snow was already too manky to make a lot of progress. After a lot of hesitation, we ended up calling it due to the late hour, soft snow, and lack of visibility.
We got back to camp early and, with the skies clearing, vowed to get an alpine start to tackle South Sister the next day.
The only remaining question for me was to ski or not to ski? I was really torn. In the end, though, I realized the idea of bringing my skis was causing me a lot of anxiety about climbing the peak that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Sure, Mike might get down some parts slightly faster than I could glissade, but I was also a lot slower with transitions and skinning than I was with booting.
Day 3: Fog. Lots of fog. This wasn’t how thing were supposed to go!
We woke up at 3 a.m. and stepped outside the tent to find almost zero visibility. Lack of daylight combined with the clouds was enough to convince us we should crawl back in bed for a couple hours and see if anything changed. If nothing else, we could try to get some turns in the bowls below Broken Top and hike out in time to hit a couple of breweries in Bend.
Around 5:30, I started getting antsy. “Let’s just try,” I said. “It’s not like everyone who’s climbed this mountain has done it in perfect weather.”
We started hiking by 7. Still completely socked in. Step one: Find a place to safely cross the frozen lake when you can’t see more than 20 feet ahead.
It seemed to take forever to navigate around the lake. Finally, we were standing at the bottom of a gully that had looked so obvious from camp the night before but was now invisible.
Less than an hour of climbing up, and the clouds started to thin. Concern quickly shifted from sketchy weather to making it up and back before the snow was too soft.
The route was straightforward, and none of the climbing was particularly difficult, but I started to feel the altitude, and the going was slow. We ran into a few other groups — a couple in front and a couple behind. Finally, success!
The crater rim was pretty neat, with some cool ice formations. We stayed on the summit for all of 10 or 15 minutes, our energy focused on getting back down the gully as quickly as possible. Glissading was fun in spots, but it was tricky to keep enough momentum in the soft snow. One strategy that seemed to work was compiling a snow seat (aka a big pile of snow) under my butt, and then using this ball of snow to glide on top of the glissade track.
I started to regret not bringing skis but reminded myself it was probably for the best.
It took way too long to get from camp back to the car. We tried to stay on snow for as long as we could, leapfrogging with another couple and losing the trail more times than is comfortable when you’re hauling a heavy pack with skis attached to it and at the end of a 12-hour day.
The only redemption was that our insulated growler was still by the curb strip, despite most of the snow around it melting out while we were gone. Cold beer for the win.
Thanks to our gracious friends who live in Bend, we were treated to an awesome fish taco dinner and relaxing evening complete with real shelter, running water and heat! There’s nothing like sleeping on snow for two nights to make you appreciate the simple things in life. Like carpet. And soap.
Day 4: We enjoyed a lazy morning while drying out our gear and doing laundry. Before heading out of Bend, we made sure to stop at Crux Fermentation Project, arguably the best brewery in town. It was 1 p.m. on a Friday, and the place was hopping with picnicking families and people playing cornhole. Like, seriously, does anyone in this town work?
We took our time driving south, detouring slightly west to check out Crater Lake, which neither of us had been to before. I was happy to find the steep ridges surrounding the lake still dusted in snow.
We headed off into the sunset, which happened to include a commanding view of our next destination, Mount Shasta.
We knew there was a long, rough road connecting Highway 97 to our trailhead. About six miles in, we encountered an uphill section that was pretty much all giant rocks. Our Honda Accord has seen her fair share of treacherous forest roads, but this was a bit beyond our comfort zone. After ever-so-slowly reversing a few hundred yards downhill in the dark, we pulled off and waited for our friends to show up in their SUV.
When they finally arrived around midnight, I was already passed out in my sleeping bag in the front passenger seat. Some pleasantries and a couple pulls of whiskey later, and it was back to bed.
Day 5: This was our leisurely approach day at the start of the Hotlum Bolam route on Mt. Shasta. We squeezed five people’s worth of bodies and gear into the Element, which handled the last 2 miles of forest road like a champ.
We hit snow a mile or so into the trail, and Mike happily ditched his trail runners and switched to ski mode. (Once again, I had decided to air on the side of efficiency and caution and left my skis at the trailhead. This time, I felt like I definitely made the right choice.)
A few hours later, and we were at 10,000 feet — time to set up camp. We spent the afternoon lounging around, melting snow, and trying not to get sunburned. We crawled into our tents shortly after dinner to try to get at least six hours of sleep before our alpine start time of 3 a.m.
Day 6: Summit day!
Strong winds woke me up at 1:30 a.m. “Should we just get up and go now?” I asked Mike and Adam. [Insert minimal response here.]
By 2:30, I realized I wasn’t falling back asleep and stepped out of the tent into a clear, full-moon night. After some final preparations, we were off.
The first part of the climb was straightforward, and we soon caught up with another large group that we would continue to leapfrog the rest of the ascent. From here, routefinding became more of a challenge.
At around 12,000 feet, we needed to traverse left to a right-trending ramp. There was some disagreement in our group as to how high we should go before traversing, and when we got to the ramp, it looked too steep for the beta we had describing it as a “wide open blue ski run.” (Maybe it seems like that coming down on spring corn?) Finally we got back on track, and were soon at a 13,000-foot ledge known as “The Step.”
At this point, the sun was up, but strong winds meant it was freezing cold. I had climbed everything so far in my warmest puffy and was still cold. Mike loaned me his extra puffy and we took a break to rehydrate and warm up some tea.
From here, we were looking for two prominent rock outcroppings known as the Rabbit Ears and the Sharktooth. Again, routefinding was a challenge. We found the landmarks but our group disagreed on whether we should stick to the ridge, which required a lot of scrambling over ice and rocks in crampons, or traverse above the Bolam Glacier.
The three others wanted to stay on the ridge, which wasn’t too difficult to navigate. But we rounded a corner and came to a high point on a gully that turned out to be the crux of the climb. There were a few no-fall steps between some rocks, and the group ahead of us had roped up and were belaying each other across the gully.
The leader of that group sensed our hesitation. “Do you guys want a rope?” he shouted. Uhhh, no tengo harnesses mi amigo. Thanks anyway.
The rest of our group was eager to get it over with, but Mike and I thought about turning around. More than anything, we were frustrated we hadn’t chosen the other option to traverse above the glacier. Finally, we sucked it up and went for it.
Soon, we crested over the ridge that leads to the summit. Oh, there are all the people coming up the other route! It’s a pretty strange experience to be climbing a massive mountain with only a few other parties, and then get to the top and find a summit city.
After snapping a few photos and signing the register, we were eager to get back down through the tricky parts before the snow warmed up too much. Mike and I ended up doing the traverse on the way down, and it was straightforward (phew!). At the ledge, we took off our crampons and prepared to glissade (or ski, in Mike’s case).
The first thousand or so feet was smooth sailing, but we soon got to a point where the snow was significantly windblown and we needed to traverse to avoid a bergschrund that was supposedly a few hundred feet below us (and maybe snow-covered, maybe not).
I ended up having to self-arrest at the end of the glissade and found this to be ore difficult than I expected. (Um, why isn’t my ax catching? OK, commence kicking!) From here, the non-skiers decided the safest way to traverse was to front point in snow that basically amounted to a firm, windblown crust with soft, dip-n-dots crystals below. Neither surface offered much purchase.
Needless to say, it was long, exhausting and frustrating.
By the time we got back to camp, it was hot and the snow was soft. We took our time eating lunch and packing up, and didn’t make it back to the car until around 7 p.m.
Mike and I parted ways with the others on the long, bumpy forest road and started heading north on I-5. We hadn’t caught the views of Shasta from the interstate yet, and we had many “oh, look at it now” moments as we drove off into the sunset.
We rolled into Ashland, Oregon’s Shakespeare capital, at around 10 p.m. and discovered our hotel was set on the second floor of a century-old building where you open the door and must immediately climb a steep flight of stairs. Ouch.
We were worried nothing good would be open that late on a Sunday, but the front-desk person recommended a fantastic pub up the street, and we quickly transitioned to the post-climbing, eat-all-the-things portion of our trip.
Day 7: Drive and eat
We started off our last day with a bit of luxury (the “cation” part of “volcation”) and enjoyed a couple’s massage followed by a leisurely lunch at Caldera Brewing. Then it was off to spend several hours in Memorial Day traffic on I-5, and a quick stop for dinner with friends in Portland.
Although we weren’t in the backcountry for seven days straight, it still felt like we had a significant mental break from civilization, which was the intent. The first day back at work, I realized I hadn’t looked at a screen (except for my phone) in over a week. Typing on a computer felt weird, in a refreshing way.
Washington probably has enough mountains to occupy me for the rest of my able-bodied life, but it’s nice to know there’s even more terrain to explore just a few hours’ drive away. I have a hunch there will be future Memorial Day weekends where questionable weather at home will prompt us to head south.
After all, we still have two other Sisters to climb.