The South Sister is the 3rd tallest mountain in Oregon. At 10,358 ft (3157 m) it can be a tough climb to the top. It was Sunday afternoon when I got a call from some friends from church. The weather was forecasted to be perfect on Monday and they were going to climb the South Sister. They called and wanted to see if Melissa and I could join them. Monday was Melissa’s birthday as well, but she could not get out of work on such short notice. Fortunately I could, so I took them up on the offer to join them on the climb.
Monday morning was in fact perfect late September day. It was sunny out and forecasted to be in the mid 80’s with little to no wind. It is hard to find days like this. One of my climbing partners is a pilot and said the forecast up high was just as promising. At 8 am in the morning I got picked up in Bend and we headed out to the Devil’s Lake campground. Devil’s Lake is a small lake along Century Drive. It is shallow but has lots of color due to the clarity of the water. There is a parking lot with a bathroom as well there which makes it a good spot to start. From the trailhead it is 6.2 miles and 5000 foot climb to the summit on the “South Sister Climbers Trail 36”. We started off around 9AM and climbed up the first section through the woods. The Sisters climb can be broken up into 4 sections: the climb through the forest, the plateau, the first rock section, and the red dirt ridge.
The climb through the forest is 1.5, sheltered from the sun, and a little lacking in views. When you finally reach the plateau you get your first views of the mountain. This is also when you start to reach open terrain. The climb from here on had views of all the surrounding mountains. We could even look down on Moraine Lake to the East. The plateau section is about 1.5 miles and has a minimal amount of climbing, by far the easies section of the climb. At about mile 3 the trail hits the base of the mountain proper. The climbing begins to enter rock strewn areas where footing is more difficult. The trail is much steeper and we took rests every so often. It is about here that the trail starts to get dusty. Climbing up the loose rocky slopes was much more work, we caught up to and passed a couple other climbing parties heading for the summit.
This section of trail consists of a bunch of small switchbacks as you work your way up the slope. About halfway up this section there was still some sections of snow and a small creek where water was available. A little bit past mile 4 we reached the end of section three. This is at the terminal moraine of the Lewis Glacier. There is a nice flat spot for a rest and a tarn if you need some water. From here the trail is along the ridge to the west of the Lewis Glacier. This section is more loose rock and gravel colored red. At this point some of the group was starting to feel the effects of the climb, so I soldiered on to the crater rim and took a rest while they came up. We had a quick snack and congratulations and took some pictures.
The South Sister’s crater is large, about 1 mile in circumference. The crater was still full of snow and even Oregon’s highest lake (Tear Drop Pool) was mostly slush. There is some wind breaks built out of rock up on the crater rim. I think I will make another trip up there one day and stay up top overnight. After our short rest we walked to the other side of the crater and had our lunch. We also called Melissa to wish her a happy birthday and told her we wish she could be there. We were all feeling pretty good after the ascent and relaxed in the warm sunshine for about 45 min. Even at the summit, the winds were very light and the sun was warm. In order to get down at a reasonable time we packed up and headed around the west side of the crater rim. The decent while much easier on the lungs is always tougher on the joints. I also do not like descending loose rock and gravel, it tends to be dusty and gets into your footwear. We descended the same way we came up and took a couple breaks at the same spots. On the way down we passed a couple of hikers who were coming up to Moraine Lake to camp for the night, I must say I do not think I have ever seen a group have so much stuff backpacking. For three people they had 6 gallon jugs of water, which is a lot of weight to carry. Other than that the trail was fairly quiet.
It took us 6 hours to reach the summit and under 3 to get back down. If you get a good day in September, I would definitely recommend this climb. The crowds are small this time of year and even though the trail can be a little dusty, I have heard it is much worse in the middle of the summer. The other bonus of September, no bugs! Climbing the South Sister is not technically demanding but will take some effort. The views are worth it though, as always your mileage may vary.
- Osprey Talon 22 Backpack – Nice lightweight daypack. Had easily enough room to carry everything I needed. A good testimony for the pack is I did not have to think about it all day.
- Keen Targhee II Shoes – Was my first climb in these shoes and they worked well. Grip was good on the loose scree. No blisters and were comfortable all day. I was worried a bit about the lacing but had no issues.