The sun was retiring. It occupied the space above the horizon and below a lingering cloud layer, dispersing itself across the landscape and up the western flanks of the Cascade mountains that visibly stretched North all the way to Mount Rainier, WA and South to Mount Shasta, CA. Samantha and I were standing on top of a volcano in Central Oregon, alone. It was eerily desolate and extraordinarily beautiful.
Hiking South Sister has been on our adventure list for a long time now but always seemed to get overlooked for one reason or another. It is the tallest of a tri-volcano complex in central Oregon composed of the 3rd, 4th and 5th tallest volcanoes in the state, each reaching over 10,000’ above sea level. Its location 4.5 hours away makes it out of reach for a single day trip from Yakima and at a one way distance of 6 miles and 5000’ of elevation gain followed by another 6 miles and a 5000’ knee battering descent back down from the summit, it is one hell of a day hike. I pitched the hike to Samantha with hesitation and she responded with confidence. My bluff had been called and the ball was now rolling. We would drive down to the trail head, stay the night in the back of our new (to us) 2003 Subaru Forster adventure rig and get an early start up the mountain the next day.
And then I stumbled across a trip report that inspired us in a way that I hope our photos and stories will to others; A first hand account of sleeping on the summit of South Sister. Our plans would change. We HAD to do it.
Now camping in an alpine environment at an elevation around 10,000’ is not unfamiliar territory to us and was a prerequisite to reach the 14,000’+ West coast summits of Mount Rainier (Disappointment Cleaver Route) Mount Shasta (Hotlum Bolam Ridge Route) and Mount Whitney (Mountaineers Route). But sleeping at the apex of a mountain is a very different situation than camping on a sheltered flank. The decision to evolve a day hike into an overnight trip comes with much more logistical baggage…and weight as well. A sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, dinner, breakfast, first aid, stove, fuel, cook pot, water filter, warm/extra clothes, whisky…are all essential overnight items in addition to the camera gear, water and trail snacks. Before you know it your pack is pushing 30lbs and that 6000’climb becomes that much harder on your body.
It was too late to change our minds though. We were inspired, stoked on the idea of sharing an evening on the summit of a volcano and we were due for a couple’s adventure where just Samantha and I head out and explore alone. It gives us a chance to deepen our connection through conversation and silence alike, on the road and on the trail; with ourselves and with each other. I like to think of it as an analog experience; a rare opportunity to recharge our hearts and souls during a temporary departure from the digital environment that occupies our minds on a day to day basis.
The drive south on HWY 97 is one we have made too many times to count. At this point it should be a dreaded route, tainted from repetition, but its beauty is timeless and it has yet to become old and tiresome. As we progress south we are re-acquainted with the Southern Cascade mountains one by one; Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Three Finger Jack, The Three Sisters, Mount Bachelor, Broken Top…and then you enter Bend, OR. A small city with good food, good beer, and a young, hip population that I still wonder what they do for a living. My best guess is that Bend’s economy is based on the service tourism industry with a focus on the outdoors, and it is pretty dang awesome. From Bend we headed West for twenty or so miles before rounding a corner and becoming aggressively confronted by Mount Bachelor, looming above with snow streaks stretching from its summit on the numerous ski trails carved into its flanks. Seven more miles brings you to Devils lake trail head and our starting point for this particular adventure.
It was 12:15 pm. It felt weird arriving to a trail head so late. At 75 degrees, it was hot; too hot. I started sweating just thinking about the first few hours of our journey in this heat, under full pack loads with the sun directly overhead. Everything seemed miss timed compared to what we were used to, but then again, we had never spent the night on the top of a volcano.
The trail head also seemed less busy than expected, for a “summer” Sunday afternoon on a weekend that had an incredible weather outlook for over a week. For most people, South Sister was a single day hike and even the quickest research will warn you of crowds and lack of solitude; a fact we were trying to avoid by coming on a Sunday night. With that said the parking lot should have been packed with vehicles that belonged to the anticipated throngs of people that should have started hiking between 4 and 8 am to experience the summit of South Sister under blue skies.
To our surprise, we only saw 10 or so people coming back down the mountain, half of them on skies and two of them from an overnight on the Summit….ALONE on a Saturday… This was welcome news and assured us that we would probably by the only one sleeping in the sky that night.
Winter clung to ownership of the trail early on, as snow and ice concealed the path and nearly buried the marker signs that were just this weekend beginning to melt themselves free and become visible to early season hikers. The unexpected amount of snow that still lingered at the low elevation portion of the trail would be enough to deter many hikers for a few more weeks and presented a plausible reason for the lack of people on trail. The going got tough early on and the long expanses of slushy snow combined with the unrelenting sun from above, and [reflecting off of the snow] below wore on us. Our packs got heavier and the straps cut through the muscle tissue of our shoulders. As the steepness increased so did the discomfort. The trail did not exist, it was buried beneath the 35 degree slushy snow slope that we were now switch backing up.
These types of moments occur frequently on our mountain excursions. They are not fun, and they are often conducted under silence. The summit is visible but only stands as a reminder of how far we have yet to go. I put my head down and begin counting steps to myself. 50 steps, 10 second rest, 50 steps. Every so often one of us will break the silence.
The other will force out a “yep” in as cheery a voice as they can muster in an attempt to keep positive; keep moral from dwindling. Most of me hates this part. But part of me loves it. It is the less documented side of mountaineering. No one celebrates the discomfort and suffering. Those feelings don’t come through in beautiful summit photos. It is raw. It is humbling. It is the main reason that reaching the summit has the personally applied value that it does.
We made our way up onto the shoulder that connected to the final ridge to the summit and for the first time in 2 hours we were on dry earth. With the snow behind us we steadily ascended the ridge that was squeezed in-between a melting snow field on the left and the Lewis glacier on the right. The ridge surface lacked stability. The scree slid away with every step, counteracting our upward motives and making us wonder if it was worth putting our crampons back on and marching up the adjacent snow field. The run out exposure down the snowfield convinced us to stay on the ridge and contend with the increasingly steep scree until we crested the crater rim around 7:15 pm. Even once on the rim, our views remained oriented to the south due to the slightly higher elevation of the northern edge of the crater that concealed the big reveal.
The sun would set around 8:50 pm, giving us an hour and a half to set up camp, make food and traverse to the northern edge of the crater. We set up and anchored the tent next to an existing lava rock wind wall and I began to heat up water while Samantha inflated our sleeping pads and laid out the sleeping bags inside. We poured the hot water into our freeze dried meal pouches, resealed them and placed them inside our jackets to keep both the meal and ourselves warm while it ‘cooked’ during our traverse of the crater. At 8:30 pm we stood on the Northern edge of South Sisters crater and took in the iconic view. It felt like we could hit the summits of Middle and North Sister with a thrown stone and behind them the cascade crest unfolded into warm pastel hues, dotted with prominent volcanic high points all the way to Washington State. Once again, it felt weird; Against our better judgment to watch our source of light, warmth and comfort disappear while still standing on the summit. We ate our meals as twilight faded and made our way back to our tent before darkness engulfed the mountain. A sip of whiskey warmed us into a slumber and for the first time all day we laid horizontal on a pad of air, allowing our bodies to decompress.
The next morning we emerged from the tent early and fought the aches and pains and crisp air while retracing our steps under twilight back to the northern rim of the crater to await the suns reappearance. It was another unforgettable experience as the sun breathed life and color back into the Cascades under our watch. We stayed on the summit for a couple more hours, soaking in the sun at 10,300+ feet above sea level, with all of Oregon laid out below us. As we packed up camp in preparation to return to the other life we live, immersed in an increasingly chaotic society, I was reassured that anything is possible; not through brute force as individuals but through patience, perseverance and teamwork; in this instance as a couple, alone on the mountain.
It almost killed me, and I feel stronger.
For those of you less interested in what we do in our personal lives now that our tiny house is completed, I urge you to stick around for one more post (which will be published in less then two weeks). We have finally been taking a thorough set of finished interior and exterior photographs of SHED and will be sharing them in an equally comprehensive final presentation of the design and construction of our tiny house on wheels. A big ‘reveal’ of sorts I suppose.
For any of you that do enjoy hearing and seeing a little about our weekend adventures (Hi, family:)), the rest of this post is dedicated to a month long catch up with 3 more single overnight adventures that we highly recommend!
Kayaking to Jones Island, WA
I have been to the San Juan Islands exactly once and stayed only one night, yet I feel that we may have stumbled upon the best campsite in the region; not by luck though, and only because we were inspired by the Nass family who had visited the weekend prior.
I share these underwhelming photos (relative to the physical analog experience of being there) with hope that we can provide as much inspiration for others as Bob Nass and family provided for Samantha, Steve, Jacob and I.
Here are the foot notes to our latest two day adventure of the weekend warrior project:
- Bob (Nass) posts photos of memorial day weekend to San Juan islands and it looks awesome.
- I check weather. Hot as $h!+ in Yakima (103 degrees) and sunny and 70 in the islands for the upcoming weekend.
- Have wine with Steve and Kassie on Tuesday. Wine seals commitment to weekend adventure but need second boat.
- Having dinner with Howard and Summer on Wednesday. They bring and leave canoe. (Thank you so much!)
- Make ferry reservations on Thursday.
- Find forth person. Jacob commits on the spot. Buy beer and food (a lot and a little respectively:)) and load up the rig Friday night, complete with a dorsal fin of a roof top canoe.
- On the road at 5:30 am Saturday morning and on the Ferry from Anacortes to Orcas Island by 11:00 am.
- Top out on the highest point in the islands for a view from Mt constitution followed by lunch and beverages in East Sound before putting the boats in the water for the 2+ mile paddle a much smaller island west of Orcas Island.
- Arrive at recommended campsite (thanks again Bob!) reserved for human powered or wind powered beachable watercraft and find ourselves at perhaps the best waters edge campsite I have ever experienced…
- Greeted by bald eagle. Find real message in a bottle on way to island. Break bottle, read message; learn of young couples rekindled love and impending wedding. Initially startled by large creatures in the bushes. Turns out island has small deer population and one is piebald (1/2 albino). Front row seat to island sunset. Still light at 10 pm. Cook on fire. Forget tent polls. Sleep on ground and in hammock under stars.
Wake up and reverse itinerary to complete recipe #127 for an epic weekend journey.
Surprise Birthday party and Stevens Pass, WA Hot Spring Adventure
Let It Be known, on the second Saturday of the 6th month of 2016, Samantha and I were duped. 100% full surprise status. Thank you to our PNW tribe and East Coast Family that came out in person and in spirit (and in cardboard, Drew) to celebrate our impending entrance into our 4th decade of life.
Cheers to Jessica for even thinking that surprising us was in the realm of possibility and for somehow pulling it off, with the help from all of you. The stakes were high, and we very well could have decided to take off on another shotgun trip and missed the whole thing completely!
Cheers to you Steve, Bec and Meghan for white lying us out of town for a few hours with the promise of beer and a new brewery visit.
Cheers to John Sweger, who flew across the country to be here and to Drew Brown who created and shipped a 2-dimensional version of himself across the country.
Cheers to ALL of you who took time to help prepare, execute and participate in said surprise, thus informing us of just how capable you are of hiding things from us 🙂
It really means a lot to know that while almost all of our blood line remains on the East Coast, that we do in fact, have a family on this side of the country as well. I hope we can all show the people around us how much they mean to us as much as you showed us on Saturday and that we all continue to be or work even harder to be welcoming, inclusive, kind and loving. Everyone deserves to feel like we do when we are surrounded by the amazing individuals that make up this beautiful little community.
We will never forget that moment of pure confusion when the garage door lifted and we saw all of your shining faces; the sign of an authentic surprise, executed flawlessly…
An attempt to get to the bottom of how the two of us could be so outwitted reveals threads of information, planning, ideas and conversations starting with Jessica that stretch back further than 6 months! I’m not sure if this means you love us or just really took pride in deceiving, er, surprising us 🙂.
But once again, Cheers to you. Cheers to all of you. We love you and appreciate you. Thank you!
Whats more is Samantha’s father stayed in town for another week and her sister didn’t have to work so we started scheming up last second adventures that took us to some pretty awesome locations! Steve showed us a hidden and spectacular waterfall in our extended back yard. We hiked mist-erious forests to an old fire lookout and camped riverside in the rain. We shared hot, mineral laced waters of a hidden hot spring where a conversation with a naked gentleman led to the discovery of a ghost town in the mountains with a tortured past. We descended upon Tye, WA and found a decaying 1/2 mile long, completely concrete ‘snow shed’ that was part cave and part cathedral. It was a reaction to the 1910 railroad avalanche tragedy, who’s devastation was so massive, they changed the name of the town 6 months later (to Wellington, WA) in an attempt to dis-associate this location with the disaster that claimed 96 lives. A short walk away we also found the entrance to John Frank Stevens engineering feat of a 2.6 mile cascade tunnel passing beneath the mountain pass that bares his name.
The tunnel took three years to build, opening in 1909 and replaced a time consuming series of switchback railroad tracks with a Max grade of 4% that allowed trains to cross the cascade mountain range using an arduous push/pull procession.
Due to toxic fumes from coal powered locomotives inside the new tunnel, the great northern railroad quickly electrified the track and used electric locomotives to pull the train cars just through the tunnel crossing. The electrified tracks were powered by a hydro electric plant on the Wanatchee River near Leavenworth. The locomotives used electricity to travel up the 1.7% grade (east) in the tunnel and generated electricty when traveling down the grade (west).
Ultimately, continuing problems with the trains route, including the 1910 avalanche disaster nearby caused the Great Northern Railway to finally re-route the tracks all together and build a new, longer and lower cascade tunnel that opened in 1929, effectively marking the beginning of Wellington/Tye’s dissolution into a ghost town.
A hut with a view.
A friend of ours had an upcoming birthday on the 3rd of July and our intentions to escape the crowded trails and camp grounds of the holiday weekend lead us to the Mount Tahoma Trails Associations ‘High Hut’ which we had the good fortune of renting for the night of July 3rd. The hike to the hut was 4.5 miles and a couple thousand feet elevation gain. The weight we saved by not having to bring sleeping pads, tents and cooking gear was replaced with boxed wine, fresh fruits and vegetables and beer. For the next 16 hours we devoured gourmet meals and cup cakes and the wide variety of fine beverages, tasting decidedly better than usual due to the effort it took to get them there. The Hut had a front row seat to Mount Rainier and the evening ski put on a fiery show before we awoke in the clouds on independence day.
There it is! You are now caught up on all of our happenings outside the walls of our tiny house. Next time we meet we will be sharing every angle and detail of our completed tiny house on wheels with you in a post that is 18+ months in the making.Stay tuned!