Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Prouty Glacier Pack Retrieval

My friend Kolby (trail name Condor) is heavily involved in the Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiking community and regularly lets thru hikers stay at his house in Bend. At 11:20 on Monday morning I got the following text from him: "A thru hiker staying with us attempted to go down the north side of South Sister yesterday w/o any climbing gear. He found himself in a position where, if he lost his grip, he would fall. He saved himself by removing his backpack, which fell down the mountain. He was able to get off the mountain safely but lost all his gear and hitched back to bend with only what he was wearing (which didn't include a shirt). I'm asking if anyone has an ice ax he can borrow today to go look for his backpack on the northeastern side of South Sister."

After grumbling about bad decision making and foolish kids getting in dangerous situations (that's not me at all!), Caitlin told me that I should go get some good karma. So I told Kolby I would accompany his friend to look for the lost pack and an hour or so later Kolby introduced me to Fire Hazard (the trail name of our unlucky thru hiker).

It turns out Fire Hazard had been trying to climb all three Sisters south to north. He had seen the moderate looking north ridge of South Sister on his topo map and attempted to descend it toward Middle Sister. He got off route in steep terrain and dropped his pack thinking it would land on a ledge 20 feet down and he could retrieve it. Instead the pack bounced down over a 1,000 vertical feet of choss cliffs towards the Prouty Glacier and he was unable to see where it had come to rest. After trying unsuccessfully to down climb further he climbed back over South Sister, hiked out in the dark and got a ride with other late hikers back to Bend. If I'm being honest I have to admit that I could see myself getting in a similar situation.

The Prouty Glacier, South Sister's NE Face, and the approximate pack trajectory in red.
Back to Monday afternoon: Hazard and I drove up to the Green Lakes Trailhead, arriving around 2pm. Knowing that daylight was limited (sunset around 8pm and Prouty Glacier being a full 8 miles from the car, some of that off trail) we set a good pace, covering the first 4 miles to Green Lakes in an hour. Two hours from the car we had left the trail and were cutting across old glacial moraines and decomposing volcanic ridges towards Carver Lake. Looking up at the big north face of South Sister and the fairly crevassed Prouty Glacier, we were both convinced that the pack was never to be seen again. Still, we continued through the difficult terrain, determined to at least get a closer look.

A close up from the relevant USGS topo with our approximate off-trail travel in orange and the pack's trajectory in red.
We traversed around the west side of Carver Lake on the big old terminal moraine that holds it in. From there we were able to move up onto the scree piles on the glacier. After a certain point I got on the ice and cruised on up. Fire Hazard, lacking gear and glacier travel experience stayed on the scree. I figured I would turn around at 6pm, which should allow me to reach the top of the glacier beneath the cliffs to see if the pack was there, though at this point I was 99% certain that I wouldn't find more than a shred of material. However, as I approached the bottom of the cliffs I saw a blue and yellow object sitting among the rock fall. I hurried over and found a completely intact pack, minus a couple broken buckles. Even the aluminum tent poles strapped to the outside were unbroken. I threw the pack on my back and hurried away from the cliff (it had been depositing rock fall regularly while I climbed the glacier).

Sunset on the terminal moraine at Carver Lake with Broken Top in the background.

Fire Hazard is stoked to get his pack back... and in one piece! He dropped it from just left of the highest pinnacle visible on the ridge and it landed at the top of the glacier directly underneath.
After getting the pack to Fire Hazard we started hiking back to the trail. Fire Hazard struggled on the glacial/volcanic scree with the minimal running shoes he uses for trail hiking and we reached the trail in darkness. But after we got back on easy trail we picked up the pace until we were running by the light of our headlamps. Fire Hazard may not have made the best decision on South Sister but he was a blast to hike with and can sure fly on the trail. We arrived back at the car around 10pm and by 10:30 we were ordering beers and burgers at McMenamins late night happy hour in Bend. Cheers to new friends and impromptu adventure... not to mention good karma and my next life as a member of the bovine family! Moooooo!

Clouds flow through the pass between South and Middle Sister as the sun drops. Time to get outta here.

Giant frogs on the trail as we jog out... seriously, they were bigger than my fist!
P.S. For those who are interested, Fire Hazard's pack was made by Haglofs, a Swedish company, and was mostly constructed from "ripstop" nylon. We later discovered that the plastic food bags inside had been completely shredded by the fall despite the pack material being completely intact and just a little dirty. It was like someone removed the plastic bags, let their pet tiger maul said bags, and then put the bags back in the pack.

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