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Cascades TR part 1 – South Sister

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 image.jpgtoward 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.

image.jpgIn 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.

GREAT views!!! Love this trip!

You guys and your beautiful snow covered peaks...

I just drooled on my keyboard. Well off to the trail I go. 

Welcome back, Bill! Thanks for sharing!

Neat outing Bill! I must confess to not be in the know concerning your "One Percent" reference. Though of course I never take you seriously. :)

Nice hike. So 5,000 ft elevation gain over 5 miles?

Love the rock. The Cascades are pretty much like the Canadian Rockies from what I see. Maybe a bit less snow. Very pretty.

'Better Route, Short Cut, Faster Route'. Thanks - I sure laughed when I heard those! Can't count the number of people that have needed rescue because they thought the could make their life just a little bit easier.

Lessons re-relearned 1) stop thinking of two younger women as competitors 2) "follow me" usually means "you're cute" 3) getting lost in the woods with two ladies gives you the oppurtunity bust out your mcgyver moves and call "Middle!" in your make shift shelter for the night. "Oh, OGBO!"

peter1955 said:

'Better Route, Short Cut, Faster Route'. Thanks - I sure laughed when I heard those! Can't count the number of people that have needed rescue because they thought the could make their life just a little bit easier.

 Short cuts in the himalayas are usually much steeper and therefore for non-sherpa lungs far longer in time to complete. HA Short cut...thats always a good one!

MoZee said:

Lessons re-relearned 1) stop thinking of two younger women as competitors 2) "follow me" usually means "you're cute" 3) getting lost in the woods with two ladies gives you the oppurtunity bust out your mcgyver moves and call "Middle!" in your make shift shelter for the night. "Oh, OGBO!"

 As one of the only females who posts here regularly, I would have to take exception to your assessment of what things usually mean to a woman. Perhaps if I were sidled up to you in some dive bar and I were hoping for pay for my cocktails, "follow me" would mean "your cute". But out on the trail it would never occur to me that the same lame, overused lines (or mentality) would be present in such an invitition. So lesson learned for me: crude is as crude does....on and off the trail.

MoZee said:

Lessons re-relearned 1) stop thinking of two younger women as competitors 2) "follow me" usually means "you're cute" 3) getting lost in the woods with two ladies gives you the oppurtunity bust out your mcgyver moves and call "Middle!" in your make shift shelter for the night...

Jeez!  I always thought bugs and lack of toliet facilities were the the reasons why so few women ventured into the backcountry.



Good for you--what a fabulous place; so glad you enjoyed.  The "1%" for sure!  I appreciate your reference to the digitalized NG TOPO maps, their "State Series."  I had not heard of it, but the one you picture looks very nice!  Did you find the printout had good, useful trail details for hikers?  Were you able to get clear prints at the 1:24,000 scale? 

Glad you had a great climb and thanks for taking time to share it with us!


The direct answer to your questions is this:

NatGeo TOPO! has been around for many years. Originally, TOPO! was developed by a small group of outdoor enthusiasts/computer types who formed a company called Wildflower. They developed software for high quality scanning of USGS topographic maps and stitching adjacent quads together. To get multiple levels of zoom, they scanned everything from small scale (that means the details are small, 1:250,000 scale for example) to large scale (the details are large, 1:24,000 scale for example), to provide 5 scale levels. If you print at the nominal scale level, the quality is as close to the USGS level as a direct scan can be to the engraved plates of the USGS. But if you try to print the image at, say, 1:10,000, the quality goes down.

At first, the map packages were issued by state (or in New England, a group of the smaller states). After 10 years or so, Wildflower was bought by National Geographic, and a lot of the staff moved to Colorado to the NatGeo maps offices. NatGeo also bought the Trails Illustrated (originally paper maps, then scanned for computer use) and Backroads Explorer companies. At one point, you could get the maps printed out at kiosks at the USGS offices and shops like REI on high quality paper in standard scales.

So - print quality is very good, especially with a high quality inkjet printer (or if you have only a b&w laser, high quality grey scale), and especially on high quality waterproof paper. The standard scale at level 5 is 1:24,000, although I sometimes print at a 1:30,000 or 1:40,000, depending on the area I am going to cover. This shrinks the details, of course, but on a high quality printer, things are very readable. Sometimes I print at 1:10,000, but the details are magnified, hence fuzzy (just as when you use a powerful magnifier to look at a USGS quad). I print mostly on 8.5x11 inch paper, sometimes on legal sized (8.5x14) and sometimes on "tabloid" (C-size, 11x17).

Trails - Since the maps are scanned USGS maps, the trails are what the USGS has put on the maps (except the Trails Illustrated, where people have actually gone out and mapped the real trails). Since the updating of USGS maps is a slow process (there are hundreds of thousands of 7.5 min quads to be updated), the maps have a lot of accurate trails that have been there a long time, a lot of abandoned trails, and lack a lot of trails that have been re-routed or more recently constructed. Same situation as the street maps of your town or state that you get from AAA - it is extremely difficult to keep up with the changes. Even Google Earth gets out of date quickly with its photos - on Google Earth, they are still showing my old house before we demolished it and built a new one 3 or 4 years ago, despite the fact that Google's home office is just a couple miles from my house and they drive their "Street View" cars around the area every month or two. You still have to "navigate smart" and not depend on perfection in the maps - it does not and never will be 100% up to date.

Now, about getting the software and using it - First, unfortunately NatGeo is discontinuing their States series of Topo! software. You can still find many of the State packages in places like REI and online. They are succumbing to the "cloud" model, where everything goes online.

But, the good news is that they have a "cloud" service set up under the AllTrails logo at There are several levels of service. As a long-time registered Topo! user, I got an email a couple months back announcing the service and signed up under the "Pro" level. The idea here is that you don't have to have a few hundred CDs or DVDs (or a large hard drive) and keep getting updates. Instead, you go onto the website and download the maps as you need them and print them out. In principle, they are kept as up to date as the USGS issues the maps. With the Pro level (actually much cheaper than buying the state packages), I can select the area of interest, print it directly to the printer or to a pdf for later printing. At this point, there are several deficiencies to AllTrails. One is that the scales are non-standard. That is, you can't print to 1:24,000 or other scales to match your standard map scales on your compass or map ruler. A second is that in the NatGeo TOPO! state packages, I can overlay a grid with labels of lat/lon or UTM with various grid spacings to make it easy to transfer to and from my GPS receiver. Not so with AllTrails. In the TOPO! software, I can draw a trail or trace the trails I want to use to appear on the printout, or have TOPO! convert the drawn trail to a GPX file to download to my GPSR. I can upload GPX files from my GPSR to AllTrails and download tracks someone else has uploaded of a trail I want to follow, though.

A big advantage of AllTrails is that the scans are very high quality. Since I am still getting acquainted with it, there are probably a number of things I can do with it that I have not yet discovered.

There are other map packages out there, such as Delorme's Topo North America. They appear at first glance to offer capabilities that NatGeo's TOPO! does not offer, such as more or less continuous zoom. But to get this, they have used USGS DEM files (Digital Elevation Model), which are a grid of elevation points with a 100 meter spacing in some areas, 1 kilometer in a lot of backcountry areas. The contour lines are generated by a multipoint interpolation scheme at the time you bring the area up on the screen. This produces weird results in steep areas (contour lines that cross each other in Yosemite Valley or Grand Canyon, for example). You can get scanned USGS topo maps, but at significant extra cost, plus the complication of figuring out their map layering schemes. You can get satellite and aerial photos from Delorme and some other places, and they will transfer to your GPSR or iPad or Android phone (at an extra cost, and view on a small screen - plus if you drop your map, you can just pick it up, where if you drop your iPad, where do you get a replacement halfway along the PCT of AT). Also, you can't see the trails on the sat photos or aerials in densely wooded areas.

For quality topographic maps, I prefer to go to my neighborhood USGS map store (the Western Mapping Store is just up the road from me in Menlo Park) and get the Real Thing. But otherwise (and to get maps customized to my trip) I use the TOPO! states I have or, now, use AllTrails.

Bill S said:

..For quality topographic maps, I prefer to go to my neighborhood USGS map store...

Agreed.  I use Topo (states) for planning purposes and sharing map info via email, but always hit the trail with a USGS printed map in my pack.


Now I feel like I'm in the ball park!  Thanks, guys, for the context and for sharing your personal trail wisdom about it.

August 5, 2020
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