Saturday, May 3, 2014

Absolute Certainty on North Sister

Two summers ago I had just started really climbing (rock climbing and pursuing goals on alpine peaks). My friend Mike and I went up to try climb Middle and North Sister in a day during late summer. We started with North and got sketched out by all the loose rock. Looking towards the summit pinnacle we decided that it was probably too dangerous and turned around without even getting a closer look. I learned an important lesson in climbing from that outing: don't turn around until you have checked all possibilities and verified (with your face an inch from the rock or ice) that there is no way the route will go, or go safely in your chosen style. Based on my limited experience as a beginner in this sport, I would say this perseverance is what most often separates success from failure.

Since that trip with Mike I had not attempted North again. I knew that I could easily climb it in summer if I wanted to, but I have high standards in rock quality for an Oregonian (mainly that it be solid and support my weight over 90% of the time). As a result I was set on climbing it in winter conditions when I could climb ice and snow instead of rock. This means a long approach most of the year and so I put it off (next month, next year, etc.). However, if you try hard enough, you eventually run out of excuses...

I knew I had the weekend free. A friend suggested North Sister. I said yes. The friend bailed, but I was already psyched (impending storms just make sends more epic so screw it). I called another friend. He was already planning on going with his wife, did I want to tag along? Well, ideally I'd be climbing WI4+ runnels on my way to a direct new route up the East Buttress, but this is Oregon. Temps had been high and not cooled down yet. A storm was rolling in that night. I guess I could compromise my lofty ideals (read bloated ego) to climb an "easy" route.

Pole Creek Trailhead... yay for carrying skis on your back!

The East Buttress and SE Face of North Sister on the approach.

Anyway, that's pretty much the back story to meeting Travis and Bethany in Sisters at 5am and driving out to the Pole Creek Trailhead. We brought the skis and had hoped to skin from the car, but like I said earlier, this is Oregon. We hauled our skis on too-small packs (super jengis) to the Green Lakes Trail. At this point Bethany turned back (she started getting sick the night before and pretty much looked like an unearthed corpse). Travis and I showed her our sympathy by making her carry all the extra gear back to the car. We then powered up to North Sister on our skins super fast, kind of... actually pretty relaxed. We hit massive wind blasting down valley to meet us and watched clouds doing roller coaster loop-de-loops over the summit. To the south all the other mountains were hidden in clouds and appeared to be getting rained on. At this point I was just hoping to get some mileage in on the skis and scope routes for another time, BUT I don't turn back until I am absolutely 100% sure something is a bad idea.

So we started up the snow field to gain the South Ridge. I made the mistake of skinning and almost lost it in the "V of Death" when a 40mph gust ripped down hill. Travis made the mistake of not skinning and post holed to his waist in mashed potato snow for several hundred feet. Eventually we reached the ridge in deteriorating visibility and winds that prevented verbal communication, BUT I did not turn back because I had to be 100% certain that this was a bad idea.

Looking towards the summit as we climb sun baked snow to the ridge top.

We slogged along the ridge, and looked at the rimed up summit pinnacle that was going in and out of cloud. It seemed that the storm on the west side of the ridge fought with desert heat on the east side. One minute the clouds would roll back and we'd pass behind some rocky ledge to block the wind. I'd rip off my hood and shell as my body soaked itself in sweat and my face turned the color of strawberries in the sun. Within five minutes the clouds would roll back over the ridge. Wind would blast spindrift down my neck, my beard would ice up and my nose would go numb. This continued with the sunny intervals growing shorter, BUT we figured we might as well go all the way to the summit pinnacle because we should just make sure that this was not going to work no matter what.

Travis on the ridge after climbing over the gendarme behind him.

Travis is psyched... I forget why.

At the base of the summit pinnacle, sheltered behind some rocks, we figured we might as well start the traverse to the gully that gains the summit. We ate, drank, zipped everything tight, put on our goggles and moved around the corner into the freezing intestinal fury of a hundred angels breaking wind in our precise direction. We started the traverse, and realizing the wind wasn't so bad off the ridge crest, kept going. We climbed up through the gully on some fun, solid rime ice and reached a "safe zone" (read small nook in the ice where the wind was somewhat abated). We made sure our cameras were easily accessible because every good climber knows that if you don't have a summit selfie to post online then your climb doesn't count. Then we dashed to the summit as the clouds broke to reveal blue sky above. I snapped some photos and then we down climbed everything really fast to prevent excessive spindrift getting blown up our noses (I'm pretty sure I could sneeze out a snow cone right now). We got back on the ridge as the visibility finally went to shit for the last time and slogged down the now even wetter, softer snow to our skis. We skied some uber slushy corn as far down as we could and eventually found the trail. It started to mist rain as we hiked down the last mile in our ski boots, and looking back the entire mountain was engulfed in black cloud.

Looking up at the summit pinnacle during the "Terrible Traverse"

Travis on the "Terrible Traverse"

This photo is oriented as accurately as possible, the rime ice and snow is completely vertical.

Travis exits the "Bowling Alley" gully on our way up the summit pinnacle.

Travis on the left, nearing the true summit.

Travis closing in... will he make it?

A crazy wind gust knocks him off his feet!

But he sticks the move and finishes with a piolet flourish... such style!

Summit selfie... because we were there and now I can prove it on the internets!

So, there you have it, the story of my years-long quest to climb this epic mountain. My exploits of death-defying bravery and unparalleled athleticism and, I'm joking. Seriously though, it was actually a pretty fun climb... BUT lets remember the lesson to be learned here: that we wouldn't have gotten up any of it if we hadn't persevered in becoming absolutely 100% certain that it was in fact quite doable and entirely possible. I guess that's plus one for hubris.

Travis descends from the summit with blue skies above.

Back on the glacial moraine and now the whole mountain is socked in by the storm.

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