South Sister (Oregon Cascades; 10,358')

South Sister (10,358') is the third-highest mountain in Oregon. The South Side route is an easy, although arduous (due to the almost 5,000' elevation gain from Devils Lake), hike that can be done in sneakers even in mid-June, provided the weather is good and you don't mind getting wet feet. Don't get intimidated by the hordes of people on the trail who carry equipment that would be adequate for K2, but don't hesitate either to switch to boots or turn around altogether if you encounter icy conditions near the crater rim. As on all high volcanoes, of course, bad weather can drastically increase the seriousness of the trip. The South Side also provides a superb ski descent. Contiguous, or almost contiguous, snow usually can be found from the summit to the flats at around 6,800' until early July. Later in the year the route is just an endless scree slog. The East Side (from Green Lakes) provides a nice variation that is much less traveled. Prouty Glacier (also approached from Green Lakes) is a technical climb, and an extreme ski descent.

Topo Map

Routes: S Side (Grade I, Class 1, moderate ski
S Side Variation (Grade I, Class 2)

South Sister from the south in early July (photo credit: Jörg Rollbühler)

References: Jeff Thomas, Oregon High (Keep Climbing Press 1991)
J. Smoot, Summit Guide to the Cascade Volcanoes (Chockstone Press 1992)

Date: May 28, 2005

Party: DB solo

Route: South Side, ski descent

Equipment: AT skis

Time: Devils Lake - Summit 6 hrs, roundtrip from Devils Lake 8 hrs 30 mins

Trip report:

The snow pack in the Pacific Northwest was unusually low in 2004/2005, so I figured if I wanted to ski a big mountain I had better do it early. Consistent with the low snow pack, Cascade Lakes highway had been open since May 21, and so I planned on South Sister on Memorial Day weekend. The forecast was for showers in the morning followed by thunderstorms in the afternoon, but Monique, who wanted to make drawings at the lakes, and I nevertheless got going at 4am under thoroughly overcast skies. At Devils Lake it was still overcast, with rain-producing squalls all over the vicinity. At 7:30 I started out, with serious doubts about the weather.

There was snow at Devils Lake, but the trail turned out to be mostly snow-free up to the huge boulder two-thirds up the approach gully. In the gully I passed a party of two who turned out to be the only people I met face-to-face all day. By the time I reached the flats above Moraine lake the weather had further deteriorated, and towards the west it looked truly awful. Shortly thereafter it promptly started to rain, but before I could seek shelter in the trees it stopped again, starting a pattern that seemed to divert the squalls to the west, skirting South Sister. I hid in one of the last tree stands from a noisy group of Mazamas coming down, who apparently had turned around on account of the weather, and then started the ascent to the Lewis Glacier Saddle at 8,880'. Apart from the Mazamas, the only other people on the mountain were a few parties on skies which were way ahead of me. (The couple I had met in the gully I never saw again; they apparently were not headed for the summit.) The last of these skied off of the crater rim towards the south-west while I was still on the moraine, so I had a true solo experience.

While I was climbing the flats started to get engulfed in clouds. Within minutes, the entire shoulder of the mountain was covered by clouds, which started leaping up towards my position. I expected to get whited out, but then the clouds disappeared as fast as they had formed. After that the weather improved for a while, and around 8,500' I noticed I was casting a shadow, which prompted me to finally put on sun screen.

On the way up the Lewis Glacier moraine the wind started to pick up, and squalls headed for me again. I could see no signs of them being electric, and so I kept climbing. On the crater rim the wind was strong enough to make it hard to keep my balance with my skies strapped to my pack, and the latest of the approaching squalls made me wonder whether going to the true summit was a good idea. I decided to go after all, and the squall promptly got diverted again. North and Middle Sister, however, were both covered by clouds, but through the mist I could see Mt. Jefferson in the sun in the distance. Weird weather! It had taken me six hours to get to the summit from Devils Lake; I'm not quite sure why it took so long. Snow conditions were reasonable, so that's unlikely to be the reason. Maybe I ate and drank too little on the way up, my intake was definitely on the low side. My decision to do the entire hike in ski boots may also have contributed, sneakers would have been easier and faster both in the approach gully and for most of the Lewis Glacier moraine.

I did not linger long on the summit before putting on skies and making my way back to the south crater rim, careful to not get blown over the Lewis Glacier headwall by the fierce gusts. I called Monique to let her know I was running late, and even got a connection; then I started on the 30-minute, 3,500' run down to the flats. The snow up high was very good, lower down it became a bit heavy, but the skiing was still fun. After traversing the flats again I managed to ski down to the boulder, then hiked back out to Devils Lake.

On the way back to Highway 58 the storms turned electric, the temperature dropped by 25 degrees, and then it was dense fog, pouring rain, and lightning all over all the way back to Eugene. I can't believe how lucky I was to have summited with the weather that unstable!

Photo Gallery:

Click the pictures to see a higher resolution image.

View of South Sister from the flats. Note the pale light. On the summit, with the foot of Middle Sister barely visible in the background. Middle and North Sister minutes later, with Mt. Jefferson in the background. View of Broken Top from the summit. The big lava flow seen from the descent. View of Mt. Bachelor, with the Lewis Glacier moraine on the left.

View back towards the mountain from the flats Back at Devils Creek

Date: July 4, 2004

Party: DB and Jörg Rollbühler

Route: South Side, ski descent

Equipment: AT skis (DB)

Time: Devils Lake - Summit 4 hrs 50 mins, roundtrip from Devils Lake 10 hrs

Comments: Roundtrip time includes lounging for two hours on the flats after coming down

Trip report:

Jörg was looking for a nontechnical climb, and I was looking for a way to stay in shape until a week later, when I was planning on Forbidden Peak. I also didn't mind one last ski descent before everything hopelessly melted out, and so South Sister was the perfect objective. Monique and Nicola came along, but wanted to focus on painting rather than climbing. So we got going from the Devils Lake trailhead at 6:30am, with Jörg and me charging ahead. The weather was perfect, and we made good progress. On the last 500 vertical feet I seriously felt the extra 40 pounds on my back, but we still reached the summit in less than five hours. The visibility was superb; I've rarely seen Mt. Adams so clearly from there. The snow cover was not sufficient to ski off of the true summit, but from about 50' below I skied to the south crater rim, mainly to get a feeling for the snow conditions. At the rim Jörg and I parted ways, as I would go wherever the snow led me, while for him it made much more sense to follow the trail back down. After hiking down maybe 100 vertical feet I reached the snow field I had eyed from below, and from that point to the flats I had to take my skies off only once, to traverse a 10-foot section of pumice. The first 2,000 vertical feet were perfect corn, and the remaining distance to the flats was still decent; all in all a really cool descent. On the flats I was met by Monique and Nicola, who had gone higher than I would have guessed, to about 8,600', and had gotten a lot of painting and drawing done. We sat down in the shade of some trees, and waited for Jörg. When he did not show up after an hour or so, the women decided to go down towards Moraine Lake and do some more drawings. When they got back after another hour, and Jörg still had not shown up, we decided that he must have missed us and was waiting down at Devils Lake, so we got on our way. Indeed, when I caught up with a party we had met on the summit, they said they had seen him heading down way far to the west. Sure enough, when we got to our car, there was Jörg. Going south on Cascades Lakes Highway I had to brake for a bear that was running across the highway. Fortunately, I had seen it coming in time, unlike the unlucky elk the year before.

Very nice trip, and an ultra-cool ski descent, comparable to Mt. St. Helens in March 2004.

Photo Gallery:

Click the pictures to see a higher resolution image. All photo credits Jörg Rollbühler

The flats with view of South Sister. The line of my ski descent is here Hiking the flats View of Sparks Lake and Mt. Bachelor Climbing the Lewis Glacier Moraine Jörg on the summit, view N Jörg on the summit, view SE

Me on the summit, view N Me skiing the upper snow field Devils Creek

Date: June 15, 2003

Party: Dietrich and Paul Belitz

Route: South Side, ski descent

Equipment: AT skis

Time: Devils Lake - Summit 5 hrs, roundtrip from Devils Lake 9 hrs 30 mins

Trip report:

This was easily the most expensive trip I've done to date, as I totaled my car in the twilight of dawn on the way to Devils Lake. (The responsible party, a huge elk, got totaled too, I'm afraid.) I had some minor cuts and burns from the airbag, Paul was okay, and so we decided to do what we had come to do after all and still managed to have fun skiing. We skied from the true summit to within 300 or so vertical feet of the trailhead. Snow quality varied from icy (above 9,500') to perfect corn (9,500' - 7,500') to slush (below 7,500'). The wrecked car even got us home, but just barely. It went to the junk yard the next day.

Date: June 8-9, 1998

Party: Dietrich Belitz and Dave Cohen

Route: South Side variation from Green Lakes

Equipment: Crampons and ice axe

Time: Highway - Green Lakes 4 hrs
Green Lakes - Summit 5 hrs 45 mins
Summit - Green Lakes 2 hrs 30 mins
Green Lakes - Highway 3 hrs 30 mins

Trip report:

The plan had been to climb Prouty Glacier, but a combination of arriving late in camp at Green Lakes due to bad snow conditions and unstable weather made us change plans and do the standard route instead. It was just as well, as the snow was indeed horribly soft and unstable most of the way, and from the Lewis Glacier saddle upward we had to fight fog, snow, and hail. Close to the crater rim my ice axe started humming, an effect that got stronger as we started to traverse toward the true summit. I should have known better, but after planting the thing as a lightning rod I continued to the summit. (Dave never noticed anything electric, and I did not tell him.) After taking a few pictures we got the hell out of there and ran back down to Green Lakes, only to find our tent sitting in a small pool. The day before it had looked attractive to pitch the tent on the forest floor in the melted-out ring around a tree, but given the thunderstorms that turned out to not have been such a great idea. We packed our wet belongings and postholed back to the highway, carefull to not fall into Fall Creek that was raging underneath the snow.