Twenty-five years ago, my friend Shirley and I attempted to climb the South Sister. The South Sister is an old volcano, considered still active, in Central Oregon near the city of Bend. It is 10,358 feet high — the third highest mountain in Oregon. The wonderful thing about South Sister is that during the summer, you can hike right up to the top. You don’t need ropes, carabiners or pitons. The not-so-wonderful thing is that it is a very strenuous hike, slogging 5,000 feet up in 6 miles. When Shirley and I tried to climb South Sister in 1982, we arrived at the base of the mountain too late in the day, mostly because of our poor planning and poor judgment of the passage of time.
Last week, spurred by my 50th birthday in May, Shirley and I once again tried to summit the South Sister. This time we brought family and friends to support us, physically and psychologically. I talked to people who had hiked it before. I pored over maps and guide books. I researched on the Internet. I did it all (to make up for my lack of experience). Then I hatched a plan: We would backpack into Moraine Lake at the base of South Sister, camp overnight and take 3 miles off the otherwise 6 miles to the top. We would rise early the next day, conquer the summit and return to base camp. On the third day we would cheerfully hike the 3 miles back to the car at the trailhead, buoyed by the adrenaline of standing on top of South Sister. So much for plans.
I assembled a team, aptly named The South Sister Assault Team, of family and friends. Meghan and Caitlin, my two strong teenage daughters; Patrick, Meghan’s friend; Diane, a friend of many adventures; Sharada, long-time friend from the San Jose area; Namita, Sharada’s friend, also from the San Jose area; Daniel, a friend and fellow lover of the outdoors; and Shirley, from St. Louis all assembled at Eileen’s home in Bend. I would like to say that I hand-picked this group of intrepid explorers, but the truth was that these were the people who were left after many others dropped out, excused themselves and otherwise slipped away. What we lacked in experience, we made up in enthusiasm.
At the trailhead, I dumped a box of “necessary” items, including lots of food (one wouldn’t want to starve to death), onto the ground. It was my intention for everyone to carry some of this load. After picking through the pile, everyone except me found more than half of the stuff “unnecessary.” My “fearless leader” credibility was sinking. An hour later, properly packed and properly pottied, we hit the trail. We walked along Fall Creek, named because of the beautiful succession of small waterfalls. Three miles and three hours later, we arrived at Moraine Lake, our to-be base camp. We set up camp uphill from the lake. Dinner was rehydrated, homemade lasagna, possibly the highlight of the trip. Everyone was tucked in their sleeping bags by nightfall, about 8:30 p.m., dreams of mountain heights dancing in our heads.
Rising early (relative to teenage time), we ate breakfast and prepared our daypacks for our summit attempt. Water was the most important item. We were supposed to carry at least three quarts each. Food was the next important, which fueled our bodies and also helped keep us hydrated. Among the nine of us, we also carried a couple of water filters, a first-aid kit, sunscreen, cameras, a GPS and cell phones. (Yes, we got cell reception!) We had been warned by our camping neighbors that it was pretty cold and windy at the top, so we brought extra clothing. The morning was beautifully blue and sunny. Our spirits were high!
To make a long 11-hour-hike short, all nine of us made it to the top of South Sister that day. It was very steep, rocky, gravelly, cold and windy. But, boy, what a view at the top! We could see Mt. Thielsen (near Crater Lake) to the south and Mt. Jefferson to the north. We could almost reach out and touch the Middle Sister and North Sister. Shirley and I hugged. Meghan, Caitlin and I hugged. Everyone hugged everyone. Tons of pictures were taken. Then reality hit us like a ton of volcanic rocks: We had to hike down. All I can say is, thank God for hiking poles. The poles pulled me up the mountain and turned around and propped me up on my way down. I would now need artificial knees if I hadn’t had my trusty poles.