Jack Wills Photography | Climbing the South Sister

Climbing the South Sister

October 21, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

The Three Sisters-South Sister on the rightThree Sisters mountains, Oregon Cascades

                                The Three Sisters...the South Sister on the right.


This blog is about summitting the South Sister with my youngest daughter.  The mountain and surrounding Cascade peaks and lakes are beautiful.  I have included several photos of this journey.  I hope you enjoy taking this trip through my blog. 


Jackie and I awoke at 7:30 a.m. September 5, 2012. We were beginning our day of climbing, hiking, scaling the South Sister, sometimes called “Charity”, the 3rd highest peak in Oregon. The day was beautiful, a crisp clear Central Oregon day, a day for which we had hoped. The information I had read recommended this kind of day for climbing the South Sister, because of the potential for dangerous weather at the top. I considered this fortuitous.


We were staying in Sunriver with my partner, Cindy, and her mother.  Jackie and I had a robust breakfast of eggs, Torfurky sausage, orange juice and I added toast to my feast, easily justifiable due to the strenuous nature of our trip. Soon afterward we set about to organize our backpacks. This required packing a daypack for the actual ascent of the mountain as well as the typical items for a backpack. Even though we had planned a one or two night stay at Moraine Lake, many items are the same as a weeks journey; sleeping bag, pad, stove and fuel, etc. Additionally, since I did not know the quality of Moraine Lake water, I decided to pack in tap water as well as the filter for water on location. This added 150oz or about 10 lbs in weight plus two 12 oz bottles of Gatorade for each of us. The Gatorade was for the mountain. I had heard that it helped to replenish whatever was exhausted by the climb. (I think it may have helped.) I weighed my pack after the trip and it came in about 58 lbs sans the Gatorade and a couple of other items. I was also carrying a DSLR camera (Canon 5D Mark II), two lenses and a tripod. In other words, too much! Especially for an old back, old legs, old…oh well you get the idea.




                               The packs are heavy, and my denial is low, but we're going anyway.                

                                (Jackie's bag looked bigger than mine...must be the camera angle.)


Admittedly I was apprehensive as well as excited about this adventure. The journey to the summit combined two legs (no pun intended). First, we were to backpack into Moraine Lake for the night. This is a trip of approximately two miles with an elevation gain of about 1700 ft and a loss of about 200 ft to get to the lake. With a backpack on for the first time in several years, I think eight years, I was wasn’t sure how well I would do. Jackie also was loaded down and she had not backpacked in awhile as well. Secondly, we were going to scale (notice the presupposition) the South Sister the following day. I’m not sure which concerned me more, hoisting a 60-pound backpack plus camera gear to Moraine Lake or taking a daypack plus camera gear up over 3500 ft and 3 miles to the summit of South sister. Both seemed daunting to this nearly 66 year old man.  Jackie was carrying a similar load...with nutrition bars...an important part of the story.   I was glad to have my 24 year old daughter as my companion.


Packing and loading the gear for this trip was quite involved, but we were finally ready for our adventure by midday. In actuality, the trip up the first leg of the journey was fairly uneventful.  The trail was rated difficult, and it was, but we knew what we were facing.   We obtained our wilderness permits and headed off.  We had to adjust my backpack several times, a bit of an embarassment for a veteran backpacker.  My pack was ancient, and obsolete.  I use past tense, because I doubt I will ever use it again, either because I am working on ancient myself or because I take it to Goodwill for some other intrepid soul.  Earlier in the day I had made some attempts to make the backpack trip worthy by tying up (literally) some loose ends.  Anyway, my sleeping bag and pad along with my tripod had a tendency to slip to the back of my knees.  Jackie was patient and helpful, and after some adjustments, we stumbled over roots and rocks to reach the plateau above Moraine Lake. Whew, the first part done.  Well almost.  We still had to find a camping site, but since it was the middle of the week, we found one quickly.  So far, so good.


Our campsite was was great. We overlooked Moraine Lake from over 100 ft above on a terminal moraine bluff. The lake is at 6,400 ft elevation and is surrounded by an alpine environment of krummholz in exposed areas and larger, sometimes dead trees along with wildflowers that had blooms or had already bloomed. The South Sister loomed on the other side of the lake.





Photos: 1. Jackie negotiating a section of the trail.  2. Jackie preparing a meal. 3. Us, with the South Sister in the background.


Preparing dinner was next.  The disadvantage of having such a beautiful vantage point is that we had to haul water several hundred feet back to our campsite from the lake.  Once that was accomplished, (Jackie and I taking turns carrying the rubber bucket full of lake water),  heating the water and pouring it into our dried dinner packets was easy.  After dinner it was time to prepare for the first photographic adventure.  I say adventure, because I had not seriously done a time-lapse photo before.  I was somewhat prepared with knowlege from the Internet and from photographic magazines, but my confidence level was low.  My main concern was that I might not have this opportunity again.  I was at 6,500 feet and the sky promised to be clear with the stars having no compitition from artificial lights.  So I began with Jackie's help...initially.  The demands of the hike and the tedium of taking time-lapse photographs quickly lured her back to her tent and sleep.  I was determined to continue my fledgling efforts to capture the night sky.  My first effort was to attempt to capture a number (nearly 50) 30-second photographs of the area of the sky above the South Sister (an approach that would enable "stacking" on my computer), that included a portion of the Big Dipper.  I was not impressed.  The light from the fading Sun reduced the light of the stars in contrast with the sky.  After numerous and clumsy efforts to precisely time my shots, I began to notice the area to the right with the Milky Way and what appeared to be the North Star or Polaris.  With my increasing frustration in my initial attempt at time-lapse photography and the advancing hour of the night, I decided to make one last attempt to achieve my goal. I turned my camera toward the area to the right of my previous photographic target.  Again, I tried to arange my subject in the dark with a flashlight.  I enabled the noise control and set the timer on my iPhone to 30 minutes and pushed the shutter.  The night was quickly becoming colder and my thoughts were turning to climbing the South Sister early the next morning.  


At about 11:00 p.m. I heard the welcome sound of the alarm on my phone.  I was done and could go to bed.  Not so fast.  I had forgotten about the noise-reduction process on my Canon 5D Mark II.  I had to wait another 30 minutes for the camera process to finish.  Apprehensively I pushed the LCD button.  Voila!  The results are below.  Now I could go to bed.  Or so I thought.

Axis Mundi

I call this time-lapse photo "Axis Mundi".  I was fortunate to capture this photo with a portion of the tree pointed toward Polaris, which remains fixed in the night sky while the other stars show streaks as a part of their apparent moment as the Earth rotates.  Axis Mundi translates roughly as "the center of the world".  This is often presented as a special mountain or a giant tree that expresses the connection between sky and earth.  (See Wikipedia)


There was a slight breeze that night.  In addition to making the evening feel colder, the wind seemed to take delight in shaking my tent.  Each time I began to fall asleep, rattle, shake and I was awake again.  I did enjoy looking at my photo of the night sky each time that occurred, but I was not well rested the following morning. 


The morning was as promised, cold, with a clear sky, and a large mountain looming in the background.  Despite my lack of sleep, I was exited wtih anticipation of finally being able to complete the adventure that had colored much of my thoughts, and driven most of my exercise during the summer. I tried another feature of my camera, video, with limited success but with some enjoyment. 


I rousted Jackie out of her cocoon. Sleepily she joined me as we treked up the few hundred feet for sunrise photos of the area.  The Cascade Mountains in the background and foreground, everywhere you looked.   

                                                         Broken Top at sunrise


The South Sister behind Jackie as she prepares for the adventure.  2. The South Sister at sunrise.


Around 8:30 am we had finished our breakfast, and packed our daypacks filled with water and bottles of Gatorade.  The mountain was farther than it appeared, but around 9 am we reached the base and began our accent.  I respect the knowledge and the information provided by William Sullivan, but I think he omitted some of the more difficult sections of the climb.  He mentions the section of cinder scree near the summit, but there are three sections that I would label scrambles.  Maybe it is good I didn't know. 


We actually passed some hikers.  One woman I was impressed by in particular.  She didn't make it, but she tried.  Other people completed the climb in gear that was clearly inappropriate, but they were young, fit, and maybe a little crazy.  I was happy to have serious hiking boots, gaiters, and trekking poles.  Jackie was too. This brings me back to the "nutrition bars".  I had frequently reminded Jackie to bring several "Powerbars" on this trek.  Fortunately she did.  But I didn't.  She shared 1.5 nutrition bars.  I lost weight on this trip, but it could have been worse.

                                      "What did I get myself into?"  (One of the challenging scrambles.)


                                                     Jackie and Lewis Glacier (Lake's name unknown.)


There was no time either of us thought about turning around.  But there were times I questioned the wisdom of this adventure.  When we reached the top, those thoughts were as thin as the air.  The view was exceptional and exciting.  To view several mountains below us was amazing.  I know that others have tackled and achieved much, much more difficult adventures, but this was my Everest. This was what I had prepared for and planned for through the summer.  It was a great experience for Jackie, too.  I could see it in her face...tired but delighted.


We did it!  Photos: 1. Jackie with Mt. Bachelor in background. 2. Me with Bachelor in background. 3. Us with the Middle and North Sister in background. 4. Broken top from edge of South Sister summit.


After lingering for a short time (we had a long way to go) we headed down the mountain.  We shortened the trip by an hour.  We had gravity on our side, and we used a semi glissade or plunge step going down the scree sections.  We were in a hurry, because we had decided to try to pack our camp gear and hike out the same day. The trip up the mountain was a little over 4 hours.  The trip down was about 3 hours.


We reached our campsite around 5:30 pm.  We took a little time to patch Jackie's toes with moleskin.  She told me recently that the top of one toe blistered and the other is still bruised.  My toes were a little sore the next day, but, somehow, I suffered less damage. (I had special liners, which I believe helped).  We started our hike out at about 6:30 p.m., or so I thought.  My packing was a bit hasty and again my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tripod quickly became unwieldy.  I attempted to ignore the problem, but when my tripod began to bang against the back of my knees, and Jackie was laughing behind my back, I decided to stop.  After two more comical (sort of) attempts to secure the gear, I finally achieved a reasonable arrangement. 


The trail is steep going down from Moraine Lake.  Not nearly as steep as the mountain, but steeper than most trails.  It was dark before we reached the end.  Fortunately we each had headlamps that allowed for reasonable vision.  We had little concern about encountering wild animals, but we did see a Western Toad.  This is a very large and impressive toad. I think we surprised it and it shuffled clumsily across our trail.  An omen perhaps.  (Toads have been considered lucky in some mythology.) Shortly afterward we reached the vicinity of the end of the trail, but we could not relax.  We still had to cross a small creek with a makeshift "bridge", complete with large gaps between the differently sized dead limbs.  Thoughts were; "Will one of us fall in?"  It wasn't dangerous,  but I was in no mood to get soaked...let alone my camera gear.  Unsteadily we reached the other side.  We were tired, very tired, but we had made it.


The next day, the next three days, I was walking funny.  But I had a smile on my face.





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