By Gale Straub
At 10,358 feet, South Sister is the highest mountain I have ever climbed. My homeland, New England, is full of challenging hikes, but Mount Washington stands as the tallest peak at just over 6,200 feet.
The hike to South Sister’s summit gains 4900 feet in 5.5 miles, a tough prospect even without the effects of altitude. Coming from sea level just two days prior, my boyfriend Jon and I decided to climb South Sister on a whim. We stood at the lip of Lava Lake, gazing at the view when a man pulled up on a small fishing boat, the outboard motor buzzing. Jon commented on the clear, warm weather (nearing 80 degrees at 10 A.M), and the gentleman told us it was unusual for early October. He also informed us that it would be a perfect day to climb South Sister.
Looking out at the immense peak, we were dubious – the man was in his 70’s but he had the tenacious look of a farmer. We learned that no climbing equipment was necessary and that the hike took between 7 and 10 hours round trip. We checked the weather forecast and the sunshine held through the week. The next morning we’d get up and hike.
I woke up late and apprehensive. We had done the 13 mile Lewis & Clark “Fort to Sea” trail in North Western Oregon a week prior, but it had little elevation gain and the promise of ocean. This was the most demanding hike of the trip thus far.
The first 1.5 miles zig-zagged us straight up and over mossy forest to a merciful rolling valley. From the 1.7 mile flatland, we could see the entirety of South Sister – simultaneously daunting and compelling. Crossing quickly through to the base of the mountain, we headed up and up. The sun was acute and the terrain littered with scree. My footing became increasingly unstable as I ascended.
After a 1.2 mile plod, we came to a ridge overlooking Lewis Glacier and its beautiful blue melt.
With 1.1 miles to go, we were admittedly exhausted. The sight of the summit was sufficient motivation to push on through the accumulating scree, however. After a glance at the clock (3 o’clock turn around time to make it back before sunset), we did.
Slow going, but the top resulted in a snowy crater (South Sister is a volcano) and views of half of Oregon. All of a sudden, there were more mountains than I’d thought in the state. Layered blue and purple and perfect.
All photos & text by Gale Straub © 2014
Ahhh it’s been so long since that hike. Need to do it again!
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