Solitude on South Sister

October 3, 2006.

The weather forecast called for rain moving into the valley sometime this morning so I got off to an early start, hitting the trail by the dim light of the rising sun at 6:30am. The skies were completely overcast. I was ready for a tough hike, decked out in extra layers and carrying plenty of extra stuff.

I got the feeling that this was not a mountain to be messed with in iffy weather, so I was prepared to turn around if need be, but I wasn’t going to cancel my trip because of a slight chance of rain. I was more concerned about reduced visibility, since no amount of preparation can get you completely ready to handle that. I did overpack to combat any possible weather, though. This is what I brought with me: wool hat, earband, gloves, mittens, goggles, heavy fleece, light fleece, rain pants, rain jacket, extra dry layers and socks, first aid kit, lots of food and water, emergency bivy. Everything was in a garbage bag, some in ziploc bags. I know mountains like to make their own weather and I wasn’t going to let a few raindrops ruin my day 🙂 I figure, if I survived a New England winter outdoors I could take anything this hike could dish out.

The trail felt steep right from the beginning. Every extra ounce in that backpack felt like pounds. I took it slow and steady, taking many breaks for water and breath. Before long, I had de-layered to just a short-sleeved shirt and pants. The sun illuminated the forest more clearly and a mere 1.5 miles into the trip I broke out of the trees to get my first view of South Sister. It was gorgeous. Although the skies were cloudy, my view was clear for miles and miles. I took a swig of water and continued on my way.

For the next 2 miles or so, the landscape opens up dramatically. The yellow-gray earth below undulates in a series of softly rolling hills. Small stands of hardy green vegetation dot the scenery. Twisted, whitened, lone tree trunks spiral up from the land in grotesquely beautiful shapes. To my right lies Broken Top, a jagged peak that dominates the surrounding area. To my left, ominous gray clouds reach long fingers down to the valley. These clouds are sure to bring precipitation, so I’ll keep an eye on them.

As the trail traversed more barren territory, I began to make a conscious effort to look behind me to chart where I’ve been. Although the trail is blatantly worn into the ground, if clouds reduce visibility on my way back, it will help to have a mental image of the area. The walking here is pleasant, and breathing is easier. I use this opportunity to fuel up and recharge the batteries in my legs. I get a nice view down to Moraine Lake and I finally feel like I’m making some progress. The summit cone looms large.

Up ahead, there are a few huge cairns that mark the trail. The grade steepens and the footing becomes more tricky. Large rocks are cause for a touch of scrambling. The pebbles and sand form a loose base underfoot. Switchbacks snake up the rocks, gaining more and more elevation. For once I’m perfectly happy to wander along these indirect paths! I struggle to climb upward, stopping literally every 10-15 steps for a gasp of air. This trail has given me a run for my money already, and I know the worst is yet to come.

As I continue to monitor the clouds, take mental pictures of the terrain behind me, and carefully regulate my temperature (layering truly is an art!) a few bits of snow begin to fall. It was a light, gentle snow, my first of the season. Hiking through snowfall is magical.

Doubting that a few flakes could sprout instantly into a whiteout, I continued up to the base of the Lewis Glacier. By the time I reached this point, the snow had subsided completely. Visibility was still perfect. I clearly saw the route ahead of me, leading up a steep ridge that curved around to the left side of the glacier. As I stood there preparing to tackle this most difficult part of the hike, I heard nothing but the occasional cracking of the glacier and rumbling of my stomach. I was far away from civilization and not a soul was to be seen on the mountain today. Pure bliss.

The trail clearly follows the ridge for a few tenths of a mile but then becomes obscured by a network of herd paths leading in every direction. I couldn’t figure out which was the main path and which wasn’t so I picked my way up the red rock scree, heading in the general direction of the summit.

After what felt like an eternity, I reached the rim of the crater and my legs got a nice rest while walking the final, flat 0.4 miles to the summit. I found the benchmark, added some layers and had a sandwich. It was only 10:45am and I had the mountain to myself.

The trip back down the scree seemed more difficult than the way up. The ground broke loose with every step and I caught myself from falling several times. Every now and again snow began to fall, but nothing ever accumulated. It was just enough to provide ambiance to the scene. The wind picked up a little bit, and the clouds started to cover the surrounding peaks.

I hurried to descend below the glaciers, in hopes that I’d miss any weird high altitude weather that might roll in with the clouds. Since I felt that I hurried for much of the day, I decided to take it easy for the rest of the way out.

Walking along the vast, flat, open lands I soaked in the scenery and all the glorious feelings that come about from being up high on a mountain. There’s nothing like it in the world. Bad weather, good weather, and everything in between…a day spent on a mountain beats a day spent anywhere else.

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