I’ve been waiting the whole summer for another shot at the Three Sisters Traverse record. Back in about 2005-6 Kevin Grove took me across all three peaks for the first time. He trashed me that first time and little did I know until the third and final peak that day that we were racing it and trying to hit a time. We stood atop South Sister at 10,358ft and he says to me, “We’ve got an hour to make it down by 8hrs.” I was like, “what, we’ve been trying to hit a record?” and off we went to dip just under 8hrs and get what we thought was probably under Ben Husaby’s time.
Skip ahead 7 years and the record has been lowered to about 6:30 by Brett Yost and Dave Potter. It’s a pretty fast time but one I thought I could probably handle on a good day. So on Aug 23rd I left town about 8:15am, drove up to Sparks Lake, jogged down the road to Devils Lake Trailhead and started my watch just after 9am.
I did a hill workout the day before. Was that smart? Eh, the legs were working ok and I felt pretty good up the flanks of South Sister. Since that first epic adventure of a North to South Sister traverse, the consensus (by that I mean Yost and Potter’s record was done S to N and scouting by me) is that a South to North assault is probably better because of the footing, so that’s how I was attempting it. The jury is still out, however, after this. I checked off the summit of South in 1:27, actually a record for me, and down the loose scree slopes of the north side of South I went.
Bounding and flying down South Sister into the saddle between Middle and South I went, only to be stopped by a thicket of weathered gnarley old fir trees. Ugh. Out of those after only a few minutes and I was back on my way up Middle and summited the 10,047ft peak with nary a hiccup.
Then, I had a big hiccup, fog on the summit shrouding everything from Middle to the saddle and on up to North. I couldn’t see a thing. I had an idea of what it looked like but shoot, it’d been a long time since I’d been between the two mountains and all I remembered was a scree slide off north and a snowfield to Middle. It started off easy enough, a quick scree run down off Middle until…a crap, a cliff. Or I thought it was. I skirted carefully around the cliffs and stayed on the scree. I went off in the direction I thought north was but found only rock bands and rock fields. I continued on through the fog not knowing exactly which way I was headed. All I had to go on was that down to the left somewhere was Eugene and down to the right somewhere was Bend. Unfortunately, a mountain’s topography is never that simple so the snowfield I expected to be there never materialized how I thought it should. I did find a really cool rock canyon to go through and areas that made Mordor look tame and quite tranquil. It was nice.
Finally giving up and thinking that I was probably completely turned around in between Middle and North Sister, the sky began to lift, at least a little until from where I was could see the faint outline of a mountain on my left and one on my right. It was really weird but I was so unsure of which direction was which by this point that I had no idea which mountain was North. I had to scramble up to a little ridge line a couple hundred meters away so I could see down into the valley. I righted myself, (I’d been going in the right direction, whew!) and on I went…or scrambled. Down a rock ledge I was traveling on and onto the snowfield that I remember being there, (It was a lot smaller than I remember it) up the scree slope and onto the Southwest ridge of North. This was, by far, the worst (by that I mean slowest) footing on the whole route. Very steep, very loose. Take one step, slide back two. Lame.
I was still making good time at this point. I hit Middle in 3hrs and the time in the fog only cost me, eh, 30min or so. But, what lays ahead I have no way of knowin’, to quote Tom Petty and that’s where I screwed up. See, there are two sections of North that make this mountain the most dangerous and slowest. First, you have the traverse. Covered by snow until late season, but now melted into the loose large skateboard size slate that can, with a wrong step, send you off your feet and on a vary painful slide down knife edged rocks. Choosing your footing here wisely is the key and a necessity. To top that off, just as I arrived at the traverse, the familiar sound of crashing rocks made me look up just in time to see a couple baby head sized rocks come careening right down the center of the traverse. Uh Oh! Waiting a few minutes to check which route I was going to go with (up or down?) and whether the rock fall was going to hold, I finally decided I would move quickly and quietly and get across. Whew, made it! Not too bad.
Ok, now you get the Bowling Alley. A series of shelves in a narrow chute with particularly loose rock that you can rain down on any climbing partners you happen to be with. Lucky for me I was both first and last of my party this day. I did rain down rocks however. I saddled up and climbed into the Bowling Alley, or what I thought was the Bowling Alley. I remember it being sketchy, but I also remember it being doable. On the first shelf, I was unusually sketched out but made it up, the second shelf however was a 30-40ft high vertical wall with questionable hand holds a drop that would most certainly kill you. I DO NOT REMEMBER BEING THIS SKETCHED OUT!. See photo below for emphasis. AH! Down climb! Don’t need to die, not sure how I did this before, don’t let go. And here’s the funny part, I’m down climbing over this sheer face and I look over and see that, “Oh, there’s another gully that looks exactly like this one”. Ah, crap! So, I take my time to down climb the rest of the WRONG Bowling Alley very carefully so that I can actually live long enough to try the right one. Onto the right one after spending at least 30min (felt like 3hrs) on the wrong one, I find out that it is sketching indeed but also doable, even after almost crapping my pants, so in reality: not that bad. Huh?
I hit the summit at 10,085ft in 5:30. That still gives me an hour to get down to the Pole Creek Trailhead. Hustling down the Bowling Alley, crossing the traverse, picking my way down the ridge, sliding a massive scree slope, making great time. Going to be close to 6:30…wait, if I’m at 6hrs that means it’s 3pm. It’s my 10year anniversary tonight and we have plans at 5:30. I’m supposed to be home at…gulp, 5pm. Oh, crap. Veer hard right! Make B-line to car, now!
See, I didn’t expect to be out this long as you can tell. I also decided to do this attempt a bit different than the other times. The Three Sisters Traverse is from Devils Lake Trailhead to Pole Creek Trailhead (car-to-car) and we always do a shuttle to make it easier, cus who wants to run the extra 12-15 miles back to the car afterward. Uh, me? So, looking at my watch at 3pm and realizing I have at least 12 miles of mountainous terrain, possibly half of which is going to be cross country, I kind of had a mild panic attack. Now, under the normal circumstances of just having a date with my wife I wouldn’t freak out, but seeing as how it was our 10 year anniversary I was able to find that extra gear deep down and bolted straight for the trailhead as fast as I could. I pretty much trashed myself on that run. It was fun and I had a great adventure moving through those woods. Over springs, across gorges with rushing rivers, under a huge rock fall, through a rock arch. Lots of really cool things in the woods where no people ever go.
I made it back to the car right at five. I would be home by 5:30 for a quick shower and I would only end up about 5-10min late. It was awesome, and a pretty good save (I could have been much later). I didn’t end up finishing the whole traverse since I didn’t go the 2 miles to the Pole Creek Trailhead but it was a good reconnaissance mission for the next attempt.
Man what a day, a good 8hr adventure, a date night with my wife with good food, hot chocolate, and then a banana split sundae. Not sure if it gets any better than that.