By Don Gallogly
The Three Sisters are a trio of closely spaced peaks in the high cascades of central Oregon. On the first weekend of October, I ran to the summit of the South Sister; the third highest peak in the state or Oregon. Although it's the highest at 10,358 feet, the South Sister is the least technical climb of the Three Sisters and a popular destination. The combination of a perfect sunny day late in the season and a forecast for wet weather ahead meant that I wasn't the only one who decided to head for the mountains that day. Although there was plenty of room for everyone on the trail, the parking lot was overflowing. I parked with the other late arrivals on the shoulder of the road and filled out my paperwork at the trailhead before heading out.
The trail from Devils Lake begins by climbing steeply through lodge pole and ponderosa pine for about a mile and a half. It’s a good trail for hiking, closed to bikes and horses, and a challenge for a runner. It switches back and forth, with periods of steady climbing alternating with steep steps over tree roots and around boulders. I warmed up quickly and covered this section in about 15 minutes.
At the top of this climb the trail intersects with another and the terrain changes. The trail follows the top of a large glacial moraine through smaller and widely spaced trees. Although it’s still a steady climb, the slope is gentler here and a runner can stretch out and cover this section quickly. It’s here that you get your first close-up view of the mountain. The jagged lava knob looms over you above the tree line. It's less than two miles and took me almost 15 more minutes.
At the top of the moraine the trail climbs steeply again and the terrain gets much more rugged: switchbacks separated by long steady climbs over rocky soil to the bottom of the scree field. The vegetation is much more sparse here. The trail passes through a small grove of twisted pines then clears the tree line and heads up onto the upper part of the mountain.
The next mile is the steepest and most difficult section. The trail is dispersed where panting hikers have chosen from a dozen different lines up the field of loose fist-sized to car-size boulders. The last 100 yards of this section is a scramble up the moraine at the foot of the Lewis Glacier. I'd covered about 4 and a half miles here and my watch said I'd been moving for just over an hour. I grabbed a packet of energy goop out of my pocket and started to jog again.
From here, the trail climbs the dusty ridge of the moraine to the crater rim. It's less than a mile but with the combination of the altitude, the loose cinder gravel and my growing exhaustion it took more than 20 minutes.
The crater in the top of the dormant volcano is about a quarter-mile across and filled with firm snow. This is the only truly flat section of the trip. At the far side, a slightly higher part of the crater rim overlooks the other two Sisters and the vast high-desert plain of central and eastern Oregon. A galvanized-steel sign post is bolted to the high point. I stopped my watch with 1 hour, 49 minutes and 19 seconds elapsed.
I found a small group of hikers resting there and a local mountain running legend. He was sitting on the summit like a guru with his backpack at his feet and his ice axe across his lap. He told me he'd come up to see about making the traverse to the Middle Sister, but the snow on the north slope was too soft. He asked me about my time and said his personal record was 1:38 and that others had made the round trip in less than 3 hours. That's a remarkable feat, considering that fit hikers usually require 4 hours to summit by the same route. We chatted a bit, and then he loaded up and jogged across the snow and over the lip of the crater. I took my time going down, stopping for pictures and to enjoy the view. I was back in my vehicle heading to Bend before 3 hours and 40 minutes had elapsed.
If you are interested in climbing the South Sister click here for more info.