Friday, August 8, 2014

Climb of the South Sister

South Sister, Oregon
It promised to be a perfect day for hiking, as we woke up early that morning the last week of July in Bend and drove west. Mt Bachelor beamed ahead of us in the sunrise alpenglow. But the popular skiing mountain was not our objective for the day. Shortly after we drove past the turnoff to Bachelor, our real goal for the day boomed out of the Cascade forest to the north. The South Sister, at 10,363’ the highest of the 3 Sisters volcanoes and 3rd highest peak in Oregon, was in our sights. This was going to be some fun!

I guess I didn’t read the instructions to the trailhead close enough, because I assumed the trailhead would be on my right, closest to the mountain. The trailhead (called the Devil’s Lake trailhead) is actually on the left side, where the lake is. You then have to hike up and cross over the highway. The trailhead parking lot was already packed almost full - I think I got the 2nd to last parking spot, and it was not yet 6:45am! Surely all these folks weren’t on the trail, were they? Soon, we would find out. We dropped our $5 for the permit in the box and headed up.

The trail starts out in deep forest. The grade was fairly steep, but the crisp Oregon morning helped mask any additional heat caused by the workload. Walking at a fairly leisurely pace, we reached the junction to Moraine Lake in about an hour. There were just a few other groups on the trail at this point. By the time we reached the upper junction (that goes back down towards the lake) we were soon joined on the trail by more, and then more, and the more (!) hikers mostly coming up from the lake. Hiking South Sister is definitely not a “out in the wilderness alone” type experience.
Moraine Lake - Mt Bachelor to the right
But it was a solid and good trail. From the first junction to the base of the peak goes quickly, as the trail is essentially flat, wide and the views are spectacular. After a short break we started gaining altitude more quickly and encountered a few snow drifts still left on the lower slopes here and there and covering the trail in a few sections. Then we hit a steep section of scree and loose rock that went directly up and appeared to be off the main, summer trail. That led up to another steep section of snow, but there was a good well worn bootstep stair to follow up.
The trail evens out after the junction to Moraine Lake (looking back)
First big snowy slopes, most of it could be ascended by rock, but the very top was following bootsteps in the snow.
Back on dirt again above the snow slope
Looking back at a beautiful Central Oregon day
The scree and rubble just kept on coming. Finally we reached the bottom of the Lewis glacier and out of nowhere - fantastic view of a little lake at the base of the glacier (but it is NOT Teradrop Pool). We marveled at the picturesque scene at took a snack break. By this time there were climbing groups passing us both from below and descending from above. Easily there were 50-75 hikers up on the trail above us or just below us. And every few minutes more on the way.

Climbing up before the final push to the bottom of the glacier
The scree-filled ascent up to Teardrop Pool
Lake at the base of Lewis glacier - I thought mistakenly this was Teardrop Pool, it is not
From our vantage point just above the lake, we got a good look at the remaining (we hoped - no false summits please) portion of the route. It was obvious there was a steep more red portion just up above where the glacier has a bergschrund that was bottlenecking up hikers. We carried on, atop the ridge of ancient glacial till and remains and at last were on that section.

Looking ahead from the lake (which is NOT Teardrop Pool)
The very nice aesthetic of the ridge west of the glacier
A closer look at the upper slopes
It was tough,  but we kept at it slow and steady. It seemed like it took a lot longer than it looked like it would from below. At last we rounded the corner and saw all the large groups of people sitting in the rock shelters along the summit crater rim. From there, we could see on the other side of the crater the obvious highest point. We crossed the snow-filled crater, happy to relax on a flat stretch after all that uphill. After a short, rocky scramble we were up on top.

Looking back after ascending the last tough section
The actual summit is very small, and we quickly snapped a couple of photos before letting the throngs of other hikers enjoy their moments too. I was a bit disappointed that the sheer size of the summit crater (it’s huge, like a mini-Mt Rainier) did not allow for a proper panoramic shot from my iphone, but I did what I could.

Summit panorama
Some folks crossing the large snow filled crater 
The actual summit (small and crowded on a Saturday)
View from the top. Middle and North Sisters, behind is Jefferson, faintly we could see Hood, and even fainter yet we could see Adams on this day.
After lunch we started our descent and the gangs of climbers just kept coming. It’s an odd mix on the South Sister - sometimes we would see climbers overly prepared with ice axes, boots and gaiters on, other times we would see folks with nothing but t-shirts and shorts. Personally, I was glad to be wearing a good pair of boots and had a couple of different jackets to choose from, as the hike seemed to go through quite a  few different micro-climates.

Just before we made it back to the parking lot our water ran out. 2 liters was just not quite enough for this day, and it was quite hot in the lower elevations. Luckily the last stretch is back through the forest, and soon we were back to our car. South Sister was a really fun hike, lots of pretty scenery, and a just great day out in the mountains.


  1. Hi Michael,

    I enjoyed the writeup.

    Lots of people make this mistake--the teardrop pool is not the one down at the bottom of Lewis glacier. It's actually up on the north side of the summit crater, at the bottom of that wave-like ice wall. If you do a Google image search for "south sister teardrop pool," you'll see some good pictures of it.

    I've been up South Sister many times, and have never seen the Teardrop Pool in liquid state. It's always been frozen when I've been up there. :)

    1. Hey thanks for the info Theo. a previous google search I had done had indicated this was said teardrop pool. I'll edit the blog as soon as possible to reflect this new info. Thanks again