Saturday, May 29, 2010

South Sister Ski Descent

This past Saturday Chris and I headed to South Sister on the opening weekend of the Cascade Lakes Highway road for a great ski descent on the 4-5’ of fresh snow the region had got over the past week or so. I had been busy all week with my thesis work so I hadn’t considered the avalanche danger or even brought a shovel. Thankfully, Chris was on top of things and described the warnings to me on the way. We left town at about 8pm Friday night and after stopping a few times for gas and snacks found ourselves driving past the Tumalo Parking lot towards the trailhead at around midnight. I had called the highway department earlier in the day and they told me the road was open but there was no parking so it was a gamble for us to find a spot. When we got near the trailhead we saw about 5-6 cars that had rammed themselves into snowbanks on the side of the road so we pulled over and spent about 20 minutes digging ourself a spot as well. Apparently, we found this out later, you can’t get in trouble if both wheels are on the shoulder side
of the white line. After several tries Chris was able to ram his Subaru into the snowbank close enough to be off the road. We both had a beer and chatted before I climbed into my bivy up on a snowbank above the car. I had been slightly worried about snow cover but as I fell asleep on a snowbank 5 feet off the ground I knew I would have nothing to worry about.
In the
morning at around 6am I was awoken by many cars driving by apparently looking for parking spots. Thank God we had stopped and dug out last night as it was now a free-for-all! As I was poking my head out of my bivy I heard over the rumble of a large truck quickly approaching, “hey look out for that kid in a bivy!”. This got my attention quickly and as I looked out I saw a huge, lifted, older F350
climbing the snowbank on one of it’s sides right at me! Thankfully the bumper stopped about 5 feet from my head but it was still a little nerve-racking to wake up to! I pulled my stuff off the snowbank and ate some food with Chris getting our gear ready. The group of guys who had shown up with two big trucks seemed really nice and had dogs with them. Getting over the white line for them didn’t require any shoveling obviously!
Chris and left the parking lot at about 7:30am made great time heading up through the woods. I had done this exact same climb in 2007 so things quickly looked
familiar to me although everything was buried under many feet of snow now. Almost immediately the trail was steep, which was tiring but meant a great descent on the way out was in our future. We quickly made it up to the flats below the summit which
were a pain to get through (and even more of a pain on the way out) but soon we made our way to the true base of the stratovolcano which was still shrouded in thick clouds. I had decided not to put on sun tan lotion because I thought I had a good Florida base and it
was still pretty cloudy. I should have actually taken a moment to think about that when shortly later I put on my Polarized glasses due to the sunny glare of the clouds around us (read: I’m an idiot). We made our way up the open slopes quickly gaining on the group of guys who had almost run me over in my bivy. One of the snowboarders
with them that had a dog headed down past us as we climbed. Another that we caught up to wasn’t used to his skins and had legs that kept cramping up on him (not sure if he ultimately made the summit or not) but he had a trusty lab with him that stayed by his side as his friends continued on. Slowly the clouds cleared around us and we were afforded magnificent views of Broken top to
the East with it’s majestic jagged peaks and stellar looking Western facing bowl. We had passed a group of climbers who had camped in what I called “tent-city” below that said they had turned around due to high winds and low visibility. It was only
9 in the morning and I wanted to ask them why they didn’t wait for it to clear but chose not to. One of the guys looked really defeated and it was apparent it wasn’t his decision. Thankfully, I’ve been in these situations plenty of times and knew that if we kept climbing the clouds were likely to disperse or we would punch through them in elevation. The clouds also gave us the added bonus of holding off the heat of the afternoon which would greatly increase the avy danger. We did pass by an extremely windy and cold (~30 degrees) area just below a huge glacial cirque in the side
of the volcano that acting like a funnel but it wasn’t anything that would turn us around and we quickly climbed out of the wind again. Climbing with my skis on and three layers of jackets through that windy section was sure a contrast to snorkeling in 85 degree water in Florida 5 days ago!
I reached the crater rim and looked back at
Chris following me I could see the typical sea of clouds to the West being arrested on their trip inland by the crest of the Cascade Volcano chain which we had views of all the way south to Crater Lake. Crossing the actual summit caldera was an easy quarter mile of flat and we were both easily able to skin up to the true summit over the hoar ice and snow making completing our trip from the car to the very top without taking off our skis. My GPS had died
halfway up so on the descent I used my iPhone to track our tracks. The top was fantastic and I think Chris was really impressed with the views.
Personally, I think the views always look better when the mountains are capped with snow. We could see all the way north to Hood which was lightly shrouded in clouds but Middle and North Sister were crystal clear and we got to watch as clouds enveloped Three Fingered Jack between them. We snapped a few great photos of each other and grabbed some food. Just before we left a young couple with a beautiful red Golden Retriever joined us at the summit. They were from Tahoe and said they had an epic snow year there. Lucky for them because it seems like the Northwest had a shitty winter but the late spring snows were at least making up for it a bit. I popped on my helmet cam and
followed Chris all the way down from the top back to his car without taking off our skis once. We stopped on several occasions to let our legs rest on the 5,000+ foot descent. The snow was really inconsistent with some spots being plush corn while others being soggy spots that would jar you forward as your skis slowed down in it. Despite the crappy snow
at times, we had a great time through the mashed-patotoes int he trees and making it all the way back to the car in just over an hour was far better than a 4 hour hike down in boots for sure! Both of us relaxed by the car with a beer before heading home,
stopping at Sisters for slice of
Later on saturday night as I slept I woke up to a wet feeling on my face and scratched my nose making it even worse. I got up and went to the bathroom to find that my lower lip and nose were covered in blistered and the rest of my face felt like leather! It was a crappy night of sun poisoning after a poor decision not to wear any on a sunny day on a glacier... dumb! Thankfully as I write this it has been several days later
and the blisters and peeling are long gone, replaced by a thoroughly funny
looking severe google tan which I’ll have to sport at the two conferences I’m attending next week... great. Anyway, it was a fantastic climb and I always enjoy going with my best bud Chris who is truly my equal in mountaineering it seems. This was the last fun outdoorsy thing I’ll be able to do until mid-July because of my defense on July 9th and I’m pretty sure I got the craze out of my system from it... :)

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