June 13-14, 2012 – South Sister (via Clark Glacier)

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or so the saying goes.  Four years had come and gone since the last time Todd and I visited the south side of South Sister, and I found myself longing to make a return trip for a corn harvest.  The timing for such a trip however proved to be a bit difficult.  After a stellar weather window in middle May, the sun made only a few minor appearances over the next few weeks, making trip planning extremely frustrating.  A brief return to winter, with snow showers in the higher elevations and a generally unstable air mass seemed to be setting up for a repeat of last year.  Plans to head to the mountains repeatedly were put on hold while the weather did it’s thing.  Finally, a return to a more normal weather pattern was in the forecast, and a mid-week ski on the South Sister seemed like a reality.  Plans were made to camp above Moraine Lake on Wednesday evening and summit and ride Thursday morning. As it always does, leaving work early for skiing left me feeling very satisfied – but this time more so than normal.  Having taken on several large additional responsibilities lately, I was in a dire need of a mental break and a visit to the backcountry.  After a brief stop at the Salt Creek tunnel due to construction, we arrived at the Devils Lake trail head shortly after 5 pm, and found a wide spot on the shoulder to park on.  Conditions looked good, with the upper mountain holding more snow than in years past due to the late Spring storms, and over two feet of snow along the road. After a brief chat with a few fellow enthusiasts who had skied the peak earlier in the day, we started skinning up the Hell Creek drainage.  Judging by the fact that no other cars were at the trailhead, it looked like we’d have the whole mountain to ourselves.  The last pitch below treeline is somewhat steep and always fun skinning, but seemed to be a bit easier this year.  Popping out onto the flats above Moraine Lake, the mountain was looking good.

Skinning towards camp on the South Sister

Skinning towards camp on the South Sister

Another 20 minutes of skinning brought us to a favorite campsite not far from Little Broken Top.  Plopping the heavy overnight packs off our backs felt good, and we quickly went to work setting up a tidy campsite.  Todd had his bivy while I opted for a lightweight solo tent.  The light to the west looked incredible for photo taking, so I quickly boiled some water in the Jetboil, made up some freeze dried Mac ‘n’ Cheese and took off with my dinner, camera & tripod.  A few minutes later on top of Little Broken Top, I had a commanding view of the mountain and surrounding vistas….

A beautiful sunset

A beautiful sunset

In between snapping photos I wolfed down my macaroni, not taking too much time to do so because of the great light.  One of the things I like about June, especially those days near the solstice, is the number of hours of daylight – about 17 hours of light!  Looking to the south, Diamond Peak was visible, well beyond the lava flows of South Sister…

Looking south towards Diamond Peak

Looking south towards Diamond Peak

Both Bachelor and Broken Top had plenty of snow cover for some sweet turns, and the evening light hitting their slopes made them look all the better.  Turning back to the west however, the sky was turning a dark shade of orange, making for one of the nicest sunsets I’d seen in quite awhile…

Sunset from Little Broken Top

Sunset from Little Broken Top

After the photo session, I butt glissaded down the snow slope, trudged across the flats, and returned to camp to find Todd enjoying some fine spirits.  Being so near the solstice, it took forever to get dark, but eventually around 10:30 or so I was able to get a few decent shots of camp on a pleasant starry night…

Camp on South Sister

Camp on South Sister

After making several exposures and getting a few I was happy with, I retired to the tent for the evening to get some rest for the following day of climbing and riding.  Morning dawned early, and it was light in my tent before 5 am.  Both Todd and I were up by 5:30, prepping breakfast and melting snow for the day’s water supply for the climb.  By 6:45, we had the skis on and were skinning up the lower angle pitches above 7000 feet…

On the skin track

On the skin track

Due to the firm snow, ski crampons went on the boards as the pitch steepend, and they aided in the ascent for the remainder of the approach.  Just below the saddle before the Lewis Glacier, I switched to booting and crampons, while Todd continued to skin.  At the saddle, the view of the Lewis Glacier is in your face…

The Lewis Glacier

The Lewis Glacier

The final pitch to the summit rim is always a slog, and this trip was no exception.  I resorted to counting steps and snapping photos at breaks, but we still seemed to not be getting any closer.  Finally, as in years past, a few more steps, and finally we arrived at the flats on the summit rim.  Todd was suffering a few effects of altitude, so I booted across the plateau alone and enjoyed the spectacular views to the north of the remaining sisters and beyond.  To the north, Mt Adams was plainly visible….

Middle & North Sister

Middle & North Sister

Looking back to the south, I could barely make out Mt McLoughlin, and Mt Scott, Mt Bailey, Mt Thielsen and Diamond Peak were visible.  So, in order, 15 volcanoes (16 counting South) were visible.  Those being McLoughlin, Scott, Bailey, Thielsen, Diamond Peak, Bachelor, Broken Top, South, Middle, North, Washington, TFJ, Jefferson, Hood, St Helens & Adams.  For this reason alone, the views from the top of South Sister are worth the hike! Looking down onto the Prouty Glacier from the top of the Rim, I was reminded again about why I want to drop that route.  It looked perfect, and was nicely filled in, while the glacier below was wide open and begging to be ridden.  Here’s a shot of the Prouty from the summit with Broken Top to the east…

Prouty Glacier & Broken Top

Prouty Glacier & Broken Top

After enjoying the views from the summit proper, I hiked back down and traversed the flats, rejoining Todd on the south side of the rim.  He was feeling better and it looked like the snow was finally starting to corn up top, just in time for our ride down.  We dropped off the top around 11:15 just as the upper slopes began to corn.  The first few hundred feet were a bit crunchy, but the rest of the ride was amazing.

Todd & Broken Top

Todd & Broken Top

On the descent, we kept towards riders right, and found smooth corn on the Clark Glacier.  In fact, the snow was some of the smoothest, sweetest corn I’d ever ridden on South Sister.  The Clark Glacier was in really nice shape, and several steep slopes and pitches provided excellent riding.

Riding the upper Clark Glacier

Riding the upper Clark Glacier

Several thousand vertical later, we ripped our way right back to camp, and I literally took my board off my feet at the tent (one of the things I love about camping on the hill).  Shortly there after we had camp packed and were skinning out the flat pitch above Moraine Lake.  The ride back down Hell Creek was mostly fun, and led us with turns right to the road (with only one short piece of walking).  Back at the car after an excellent day of turns, I bid Todd farewell as he headed for home.  With my gear in the car, the celebratory beer would have to wait for the evening, since I had plans for another ski day on Mt Bailey the day following.  Gear loaded, I headed east on Cascade Lakes Highway past Bachelor & Broken Top for another adventure in the Oregon Cascades.

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