The rite of passage for every Central Oregonian

Climbing South Sister is like a rite of passage for every Central Oregonian. And since I’ve lived here for 20 years now, I’m kind of ashamed that didn’t make it up there until last summer when some buddies and I finally synchronized our work schedules so that we could set a date for the excursion.

Besides hiking up Bachelor, South Sister would be my first real mountain. On the one hand, I was nervous because I had never hiked anything close to 12 miles with 5000 feet of elevation gain before. I had also heard the search and rescue stories in the Cascades that inevitably happen every year. But I was more excited, because it was a new challenge and the perfect beginner mountain climb. What’s more, the view at the tippy top promised to be spectacular.

At 10,358 feet, South is the third highest peak in Oregon. It’s got glaciers and pools and a view of the Cascade peaks, evergreen forests, and alpine lakes as good as any other. And it’s nontechnical, so any reasonably fit hiker can hike it in a day. On a sunny Saturday in August, as many as 300 hikers may reach the top.

I packed up the 10 essentials, plenty of food and water, sunscreen, my down jacket for the summit, and my camera, and we hit the trail before 7 a.m. in order to beat the summer traffic on the hill and in the parking area–and the heat. The first couple of miles were steep and they hit me pretty hard, but after awhile we got into the swing of things and I felt like I could go all day, just putting one foot in front of the other. Apart from the summit, the hike itself is a sight for sore eyes (and legs). There are plenty of viewpoints along the way, including awesome proximity to the backside of Broken Top and the green depths of Morraine lake, where many hikers choose to stay if they decide to backpack instead of doing it in a day. My favorite place was the electric blue glacial pool near the top, where we stopped for a snack and dipped our toes in the freezing snow melt.

After that comes the not-so-good-part: about a half mile of scree awaits before you can reach the top–that’s climber’s lingo for really loose terrain that makes it feel like for every step you take forward, you are falling two steps back. It’s no walk in the park, but it’s not very often that you find a mountain that you can virtually just walk up.

Reaching the summit was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Middle and North Sisters were so close that it seemed as if I was looking at them through a microscope. Bachelor was looking handsome as ever, and I could see for miles beyond that, all the way to Mt. Shasta. This moment is what living in Central Oregon is all about–and we hadn’t even gotten to the fun part yet.

We went in late July, and there was still plenty of snow covering the bowls of the mountain. So, rather than painstakingly making our way down until our poor knees could take it no more, we plopped down on our shells, vests, space blankets, whatever we could find, and slid all the way down the mountain. And we could not stop smiling.

The best time of year to go is late summer or early fall (sidenote: that’s right now!) The average hiker should plan for an 8-10 hour day. And the best part is, the trailhead is only 25 minutes up the road from PointsWest. So you can mark this peak off your checklist and be home just in time for dinner. And finally, check out our Facebook for more great things to do in Central Oregon like these!

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