North Sister (10,085ft) via Thayer Glacier Headwall, 2500ft WI1 M3, 20 Apr 2020
With the current global public health pandemic raging and showing no signs of amelioration, we recently cut short a road trip to the southern Utah desert after Zion closed as did numerous other trailheads and state parks. We had started the trip before the stay-at-home order hit Oregon, and in the little towns and gas stations we frequented, life seemed to carry on as normal. A strange feeling of guilt slowly crept into the trip though, as we continued to climb daily while accross the country, people had already been stuck at home for weeks. Now being back in Bend, we’ve continued socially distancing, and it’s giving me an opportunity to seek out a plethora of seldom-climbed lines from the 60’s in our local alpine playground of the Three Sisters wilderness and pursue numerous new ways to climb familiar mountains.
The world is always uncertain, as is life itself. And when one heads into the hills, one must embrace the unknown, as the only thing one can expect is the unexpected. In a way, this has prepared me to deal with and rationalize difficult situations in life off the mountain. But I must admit that this pandemic has somewhat slashed my psych for climbing in general, and in the last couple weeks its been difficult to not view climbing as vain, selfish, and pointless. There are many things more important than climbing, yet if one ignores the things that brings one fulfillent, meaning, and energy, then less than a full self remains to add value to others and to the world.
I’d made a couple “attempts” on Thayer Headwall in the past week, a line that has inspired me since first setting eyes on North’s impressive east face. On the first, I began climbing a steep couloir in the dark, only to realize at sunrise that my eagerness to start climbing led me onto the East Buttress route, and had steep mixed climbing above me that I did not feel I could do without a rope. On the second, I arrived at the plateau below the Thayer Glacier at sunrise only to be greeted by 40-50mph wind gusts and a very socked-in upper mountain, forcing an early morning retreat.
I decided to recruit my friend, roommate, and occasional climbing partner Daniel to join me on this attempt, and we camped at the glacial moraine lake below the mountain’s east face to give ourselves maximum chances of success. We also managed to convince our girlfriends, Sarah and Addy, to join us for the somewhat mind-numbing approach and chilly night at the edge of the glacier. This was a first for me, having two loved ones waiting at the base while doing an alpine route, and it was difficult to not worry about them while on the route.
Daniel and I set off with the sunrise and made quick progress up the couloir. The climbing was straightforward front-pointing up steep névé, and beyond having to climb over a couple of burgeoning but still inconsequential crevasses, it felt safe and secure.
We made it to the saddle between the Prouty and Glisan Pinnacles just over two hours after setting off. We soloed an insecure crux move stepping from the saddle onto a tiny rock ledge below the final steep pitch to the top, and then threw on the rope. I led us to the summit, choosing to climb loose but easy mixed ground over the already soft and deep steep snow on the left.
Now at the top, the real work began. I’d summited North once before, soloing up and down the same final pitch that Daniel and I had just climbed, but had never climbed the “Bowling Alley” finish to the regular route. In retrospect, we would have been better off rapping down to the saddle, and downclimbing our route, but we felt that going the long way, down the South Ridge, would be safer.
A scary, rimey downclimb brought us into the top of the Bowling Alley, where we decided to down-lead the gully after being unable to find any rap stations under the still-thick rime. The gully had a steep and time-consuming rime-and-ice step, then continued through lower-angle snow and ice that would have been fun to climb up (it’s in folks, go for it!). We downclimbed this off an ice axe and picket anchor, placing only one picket along the way, and regretted not bringing more pickets and a stubby screw or two over our small set of nuts.
This brought us to the “terrible” traverse, which we soloed relatively comfortably. Turning the corner under the south horn of the Prouty Pinnacle, the traverse got steeper and softer, so we brought out the rope for another 60-meter traverse pitch. Daniel and I had been up here in November, and it was surprising how much steeper the traverse was in these early season conditions. We finally got onto a flat spot on the ridge where we put away the rope for good, took some deep breaths, ate some food and snow, and continued questing down the south ridge. A front was moving in, socking in the summits of South and Middle Sisters, and occasionally coming down on us, but we were able to lose elevation quickly enough to never lose too much visibility. From here, more time-consuming weaving through gendarmes and gullies spit us out where the south and southeast ridges meet, and we moved back into the cirque above our camp, downclimbing very soft snow until we could glissade safely back to the moraine lake.
We’d optimistically planned on tagging the summit and being back at camp before noon, which ended up causing Sarah and Addy considerable anxiety as we only got back to the car at 5:30pm, after packing up our tent and skiing back to the trailhead. I was happy for Daniel, finally getting on top of North, his last of the Three Sisters, via a prouder line than the standard route. Thoughts of the world beyond our small bubble on the mountain had fully dissipated for a blissful 24 hours, and being back at the car, I felt a pervasively strange mixture of guilt and satisfaction. But looking back up at the mountain, seeing a heavy front fully settled on the upper mountain, I was mostly just happy to be off of it, and to finally have gotten this elusive line visible from home, where I will be resting (and socially distancing) for the next day or two… or maybe even three.