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In early July, I headed north to Oregon and the Cascades for a bit of climbing (and to gather info for an upcoming gear review of some nicely improved snow anchors). First stop was to do South Sister, the higher of the 3 Sisters. This is located about 20 miles west of Bend (OR), with the trailhead I chose being the one at Devils Lake, a few miles west of Mt Bachelor ski resort. On the drive up from the SFBay Area, I stopped at Yates Mountaineering in Redding to drop of a batch of cams in need of new slings (since I teach Climbing Instructor courses for a couple of Boy Scout Councils, using mostly my own gear, I have to follow their 4-year rule on fabric gear, besides which the slings were looking a bit scruffy).
After a good night’s sleep, I headed to the trailhead at dawn. Several cars were parked there ahead of me, and two women were just starting up the trail. On the descent, these two women provided an epic finish to the climb, and a reminder of some basic knowledge all climbers, orienteers, and others should be very aware of. More of that later. The trailhead is at 5400 feet.
After a hundred feet of so, I encountered the signout kiosk and filled out the required wilderness permit, then headed up the trail --- until the trail disappeared under the snow. I could follow the tracks of those who had gone up the day (or a few days) before, though they were pretty well melted out. Within a mile or so however, it became impossible, since the tracks wandered all over the place, though going pretty much up a ravine, with occasional scrambles up the sides of the ravine. After a couple miles, though, the terrain flattened out and Moraine Lake (and a bunch of overnight campers with their rambunctious dog) became visible, along with the distinctive ridge and summit of the volcano.
Even though I thought I was going slowly, I seemed to be catching up with others. From Moraine Lake, I had to slog through soft snow up over some wooded ridges (I was later assured that the trail was under the snow and readily visible most summers). I paused for a few moments at 7700 ft above a moderately steep snow slope to shoot some photos across the ridge toward the Lewis Glacier and back toward Moraine Lake. The bergschrund on Lewis Glacier is visible just right and above center in the first photo (looking North), with the trail following the clear dirt along the ridge.
In the second image (looking South), Moraine Lake is visible surrounded by snow on the left center of the middle of the photo. The route from Moraine Lake to the camera location followed the open snow area just right of Moraine Lake in the photo downwards in the view, skirting the line of trees just to its right. Note the broad open area in the center and the watershed below it. That area plays a role in the dénouement.
After stopping for some snacks, I continued up the loose volcanic ash along the ridge (the usual 2 steps up and 1 slide back found universally on volcanic ash slopes). Near the top skyline in the first photo, I began encountering climbers descending who had camped around Moraine Lake, mostly in tennis and trail-running shoes, heedless of the amount of debris they were shoving down the slope toward those of us still ascending. A bit longer, and I reached the crater rim with about 300 feet more to ascend by walking around the crater rim, and then I stood on top at 10,350 ft, with an
average ascent rate of 1006 ft/hr over the roughly 5 miles, just a bit faster than the canonical 2 mph plus one hour per 1000 ft. (the formula predicted that it should take 2.5 hours for the 5 miles trailhead to summit plus 5 hours for the roughly 5000 ft, or 7.5 hours, vs the 6.7 it took me). Obviously I am slowing in my old age, but maybe not too shabby. Well, maybe my excuse is that the Old GreyBeard came straight from my sea level house to the 10,300 ft summit is about 24 hours.
I spent an hour on top talking with some of my fellow climbers, as we joked about being part of the One Percent (no, not THAT 1 Percent), though we decided that the climbing population must be much less than one percent of the population and don’t know what they are missing. We did agree that on a day like this we were richer by far than THAT 1 Percent in the ways that are truly meaningful. The day was perfect, with only a few clouds and a reasonable temperature, though perhaps a bit warmer than we might have liked.
Then time to head down. I had a friendly conversation with a USFS Ranger on his patrol up the peak, who was checking everyone to see that they had obtained the proper permits (I had, of course). The two women who had started ahead of me at the trailhead said they were very familiar with the area and knew a faster way back to the trailhead (RED FLAG WARNING!!!). I followed them down, but noted that their path was drifting west of the route I had taken up (look at the picture of my GPS track in red). A comparison of the GPS track, the topo map (which I had printed beforehand on waterproof paper from National Geographic’s TOPO! Oregon State module), and the terrain showed we were clearly headed down the wrong watershed. The women kept insisting we
were on the right path, until I pointed out on the map that the direction we were headed would not intersect the road, thanks to the sharp bend it takes around Devils Lake. Even after I had convinced them that we were on the wrong track, they did not want to climb the steep, tree-covered ridge it would take to get to the correct path. Eventually, they decided I was right and we scrambled through the trees and over the 300 feet or so of extra climbing with its additional half mile of hiking. Note that we came through the trees right on path and within sight of the campers at Moraine Lake. The rest of the way to the trailhead was easy and straight-forward. No more “shortcuts”.
Lessons re-learned – (1) as we learn early in our orienteering competition days, do not follow another competitor – s/he may be on a different route than you are on, or they may be more confused than you are, (2) any time the words “short cut” or “better route” are uttered, that is a BIG RED FLAG! and (3) stay aware of where you are on the map and match the terrain constantly to the map.