Three Sisters Traverse, 9500ft, 4th Steep Snow, solo, 31 May 2020
Ever since I moved to Bend and began skiing in our local mountains, I dreamed of one day linking the summits of the Three Sisters in a day. Their attractive skyline is visible from most anywhere in town, offering nearly daily reminders to go and get it, yet the goal seemed too far out there, too big, too scary for so long.
Climbing a single Sister has always been a considerable day of work. But by this spring, I felt I had accumulated enough fitness and intimate knowledge of efficient navigation through these mountains that the traverse began feeling increasingly plausible. And with the summer quickly approaching, the snow melting, and cold days becoming more infrequent, I felt this was the moment to finally seize the opportunity.
The logistics were facilitated by my girlfriend Sarah, who selflessly woke up with me at 2:30am on Sunday morning (likely the earliest I’ve ever set an alarm!) to drive me to Pole Creek trailhead. I must admit that I had some commitment issues, setting off into the dark alone at 3:45 in the morning, but told myself I’d take it one mountain at the time. I’ve recently let my stubbornness around technology in the outdoors ease, and have embraced the use of a Garmin inReach, which not only allows me to text updates from just about anywhere but also provides useful maps, especially when trying to follow a trail through patchy snow and downed trees in the dark. So suffice to say that my options were open.
I hiked for an hour and a half in the dark, with misty fog enveloping everything and my vision limited to the 3-foot circle of my headlamp ahead of me. After a slight detour due to my eagerness to always go uphill too soon, I emerged above treeline near Hayden Glacier just as the sun was rising and burning off the fog, which greatly improved my spirits. I was pleasantly surprised to find hard, if not occasionally icy snow on the skin up to Prouty Point, which boded well for North, the day’s most technical objective.
Leaving my ski gear at the flat col between Prouty Pinnacle and North, I began climbing 4 hours after setting off. I decided to stay low and traverse left along moderate snow slopes below the south ridge, aiming for a couloir that would land me halfway through the “terrible traverse,” right below the mountain’s south summit horn. I later found that I had merged onto an existing route, the West Face- Right, and found enjoyable, mostly moderate snow climbing with a couple short steeper steps before gaining the traverse. I proceeded onto the Bowling Alley, which had melted out a bit from my last visit in late April, and a short 10-15’ crux step of decent rime ice and a couple rock moves brought me to the top in just over 90 minutes after leaving my skis.
A quick bite and a quick descent later and I was back to skinning, towards Middle this time. I was already starting to feel the morning’s effort, but reassured myself that summitting North represented over half of the day’s elevation gain. The climb was easy, with a good bootpack, and I stood on top before 1pm. Now the real decision came- dropping into the Chambers Lakes basin is total commitment to completing the traverse. I had 7 hours of daylight left, still had some juice, and the finish line was becoming tantalizingly close (or so it seemed). So not letting myself think too much, I dropped off Middle’s south face, enjoying some really nice corn turns.
I seem to have a knack for ski-cutting across roll-overs in the terrain, and triggered a little loose wet slide just above Chambers Lakes, but it was quite expected and I enjoyed having the time to stop and watch it hiss its way to a halt.
It was hot in the basin, the snow was very wet and heavy, so I beelined it for the lake where I briefly took off my ski boot and soaked my foot, pounded my last espresso shot, spooned some more Nutella (which after most of a jar isn’t quite as appetizing anymore, contrary to any and all prior intuitions) and psyched myself up for the final push.
I left in total resignation to my fate, knowing the next few hours would be suffering of the purest kind. My leg began cramping just after leaving the lake, which worried me a little bit, but I continued on as steadily as I could, skinning into the Skinner Glacier basin and hoping to find harder snow to climb just right of and up to the North ridge. But these aspects had been baking all afternoon, and straight to bootpack town I went.
At a certain point I could only take 4 steps at a time without stopping. It felt like I was truly crawling, with the ridge seeminglyt not getting any closer. At a certain point, several rocks zipped by me in quick succession, with one microwave-sized block whizzing a mere 15 feet away from me. I decided this would be an appropriate moment to take out my earbuds. One can only listen to so much Travis Scott in a day anyways.
This further slowed me down, as I promised myself to take a good look up every few steps, figuring that would give me enough time to anticipate any more of these bullets.
As the snow steepened, I swapped poles for ice axe and ice tool, which helped quicken vertical progress, and the snow slowly began to harden. I finally made it atop the ridge, but the deceivingly long final snow slope took me close to 20 minutes to limp up.
Standing atop South, I was in shock, it had all been a blur of focused and relentless movement. Countless ski tracks from earlier in the day made rejoining civilization feel like a real possibility again, and I enjoyed a solid golden hour ski run with not a soul in sight. I had made it.
Popping out at Devil’s Lake felt surreal. So was laying down in the gravel pullout and staring blankly at the orange sky. So was having Sarah there to pick me up with a warm burrito and even warmer hugs.
I graduate from college in a week, and this feels like the most fitting way to close this chapter. Bring it!