was intrigued, to say the least. I had heard numerous
“marathon” stories after moving to Bend, Oregon. Stirring
tales from Rod Ray, David Newbold and Mark Chidlaw circulated around the
labs and offices at Bend Research, where I worked.
“I remember cramping up while climbing South Sister,” recalled Chidlaw. “I didn’t drink enough water throughout the day. We didn’t know as much about proper nutrition and hydration in the late eighties.” Stories about the traverse also emerged from friends who had completed the marathon several times in good form, including Jack Hart, Scott Johnston and Ben Husaby. Countless others have summitted all three peaks in a day or have fallen just shy of the goal due to sketchy conditions on North Sister. I wanted to add my name to that distinguished list.
Inspired by fellow climbers and their stories, I decided to give the marathon a go—abruptly. I asked my friend Max King if he wanted to do the Three Sisters marathon the following day. It was a Friday afternoon in August 2003, and we were finishing up some work in the lab. Although the marathon had been on my list for a couple years, Max and I had never discussed it together.
Max’s resume as an endurance athlete is one that few people can rival, so I knew he would be the perfect partner for the day. He also has the endless supply of energy and enthusiasm required for a long grueling day in the mountains. He agreed to the plan without hesitation.
At 5 o’clock sharp the next morning, I picked him up. We departed from sleepy downtown Bend while eating breakfast burritos packed with the energy we would need to get us up three peaks. It was August, and a hint of early autumn was in the air as we started from the Pole Creek trailhead out of Sisters. I started my stopwatch at 6:05—the beginning of my hidden agenda.
The Three Sisters marathon entails climbing North, Middle and South Sisters (also known as Faith, Hope and Charity) all in one day. The game began back in 1931, when three members of the Obsidians, an outdoor club from Eugene, completed the adventure. Don Woods, Ed Johnson and Clifford Stalsberg climbed the three mountains from a camp at the base of North Sister to the Green Lakes summer camp in about 16-1/2 hours.
Neither Max nor I had climbed North Sister before, so the excitement and anticipation of the day grew as we took off down the trail. Staying on the trail for speed, we quickly covered the first several miles before crossing Soap Creek. Beyond the creek, we reveled in the late season colors as we hiked up the trail heading toward Camp Lake. A few minutes farther along the trail, our instincts told us to leave the path and make our way toward the southeast ridge of North Sister.
We easily made our way through the open pine forest. Above treeline, we gained the ridge and traversed around one pinnacle after another until we reached the technical crux of the day. The west side of North Sister is a steep, exposed flank of rubble which, depending on the time of year, can be covered with ice. This late in the year, the traverse beneath Prouty Pinnacle was nearly free of snow and ice, but the footing still demanded attention. I initially led us too high, and we had to retrace our steps and try a lower traverse.
We crossed to the Bowling Alley chute, where the pitch increases but the rock quality improves, making it more enjoyable to climb. To save weight, we had brought no climbing gear, so we had to rely on careful routefinding to pick our way up chute. Three hours and 22 minutes after setting out we stood on the summit of our first prize, North Sister. Climbing a mountain is only half the battle; getting back down is often the greater challenge. To continue to Middle Sister, we had to descend the same route we had climbed, reversing the Bowling Alley and the Prouty Pinnacle traverse.
Energy bars and water replenished our energy reserves. As we headed off toward Middle Sister, I wondered what the Obsidian climbers had in their rucksacks more than 75 years ago, and how they had felt when they had made the first successful linkup.
Mountain scree is a sea of small loose rocks that are maddening to climb up—like sprinting in sand—but forgiving when you’re going downhill. We “scree-skied” down the southwest shoulder of North Sister on our way to the Middle-North saddle. From that point we could ascend the north ridge of Middle Sister. After some sweat and effort, one hour and 46 minutes after leaving the summit of North Sister, we stood on the summit of Middle Sister. We ate lunch on the summit. A peanut butter and honey sandwich always tastes good, but it is even better on the top of Middle Sister.
It was 11:13 a.m. and we were just over five hours into the Three Sisters marathon. Dropping down the south side of Middle Sister is like walking down a slope covered with basketballs. Like most Oregon stratovolcanoes, the rock is loose and chossy. Large, loose boulders covering the sidehill made for a delicate descent and a climber has to be alert for rolling boulders.
As we crossed Chambers Lakes basin, encroaching clouds and a cool breeze made for nice traveling. We heading for the direct north ridge of South Sister a route I had never traveled before. Half-way up the lower scree slopes I danced with an oven-sized block that tipped as I pulled on it. Fortunately, I was able to modify the roll of the block, moving to one side while bringing it to a stop.
We scrambled through the last cliff-band on the ridge before gaining the final scree slope below the summit of South Sister. Two hours and 43 minutes after leaving the summit of Middle Sister, we stood on the final summit of the day just before 2 p.m. Having seen only four so far that day, the summit of South Sister seemed like an anthill swarming with nearly twenty climbers.
There was not much time to socialize because my hidden agenda was pressing. I had set a goal to complete the three-peak traverse in less than nine hours (which I believed to be roughly the record at that time). We were eight hours into the day with one descent and one hour left.
“Do you think we can descend in one hour?” I asked King. His eyes lit up, and off he went, running down the trail. I raced after him, trying to pass people politely as we quickly ran by. We continued at a good pace and things were looking good. But five minutes from the finish line, a root caught my foot sending me headfirst down the trail. I quickly picked myself up, dusted off, and started running again.
At eight hours and 59 minutes, we crossed the finish line at Devils Lake trailhead. We had covered roughly 18 miles, ascending over 9,000 feet of elevation, descending another 6,500 feet and completed the Three Sisters marathon.
My ideal of fun usually involves long adventures in the mountains. The fresh air, gorgeous scenery, and the physical, mental and technical challenges of a long day with a friend who can tough it out are what I crave. The Three Sisters marathon had been all of that for me, and now my story and King’s would be added to those of the climbers had inspired me to try it.
As a long-time skier, my enthusiasm for Cascade traverses reaches a climax in spring when the mountains are covered with corn snow. Last spring, I set out to ski Broken Top and the Three Sisters in a single push on two separate occasions. Both times my partners and I settled for only three of the peaks, leaving off North Sister.
Jack Hart, Jason Moyer, Chris Williams, and I left the Mount Bachelor nordic area at 4:30 a.m. in late April 2009, on our first attempt. The snow had hardened like concrete after a 21-day curing cycle to give us fast travel conditions. With headlamps illuminating a 6-foot circle in the snow, we skated through the common corridor onto Century Drive (still covered in snow). The temperature was mild and I was concerned that the day might become too warm.
Removing our skis after skating across Todd Lake gave us a chance to catch our breath and take stock of the day. Attempting this traverse on skis had been on my mind for three to four years and it felt almost surreal to finally be giving it a try. After hiking up the steep slope at the head of Todd Lake, we gained a ridge and starting skinning toward Broken Top just as the first rays of daylight were starting to appear. We made our way into the Broken Top crater in good time, and as the sun began peeking over the horizon we looked down on the sleeping town of Bend.
I sensed that Jason was struggling a little and not feeling quite up to par as we approached our first objective. Packing skis at the base of the 11 o’clock couloir gave us a short break for re-fueling and hydrating. I shot a little video to document the adventure as we cramponed up the couloir. Traversing the west face of Broken Top, Jack found the key to the summit. After wrapping around onto the north face, a steep snow ramp led us right to the top. The sun shone brightly warming our bodies and spirits. I thought this was going to be the first of four summits and that we were going to pull off the four-peak ski traverse on our first try.
Vague tales of people trying the traverse on snow are sometimes heard, but I know of only one other attempt to do the Three Sisters traverse in a day on skis. Jonas Tarlin and Shane Fox set out in April 2008, taking a snowmobile to the Three Sisters Wilderness boundary by Pole Creek. They climbed to the SE shoulder of North Sister without summiting and proceeded to summit Middle and South Sister before being picked up by a snowmobile at Devils Lake to get back to the Mount Bachelor parking lot. We decided to attempt to summit the Three Sisters and Broken Top without any snowmobile assist, traveling from south to north.
After enjoying the summit views from Broken Top, we down-climbed 30 meters back to our skis before clicking in to ski the west face down to Green Lakes. The icy, teeth-chattering concrete was still frozen on the shady slope. Midway across Green Lakes, Chris and I filled up water bottles before starting the long climb up South Sister.
About a third of the way up South Sister, our weather and good fortune began to change. A wind from the west grew in intensity and a cloud bank developed, blocking the solar rays we needed for warmth. As the climb progressed, our spirits began to sink. Jason was extremely cold and still not feeling full strength. Powerful wind gusts knocked Jason and Chris to the ground more than once.
At the summit of South Sister, talk of retreat began. The snow was still rock-hard because of the cold wind and lenticular clouds that prevented the sun’s rays from softening it. We slowly skied and picked our way down the Prouty Glacier Headwall route on the east face. Jason noted, “It’s a good thing we brought Chris (a dentist) along to fix my teeth after that descent.” The whoops and high-fives that would normally celebrate a corn-snow descent were absent, and my hopes of completing the traverse on the first try began to fade like a prayer flag fluttering in the breeze.
After a food and water break, the weak sun warmed our bodies and increased our motivation. We decided to attempt one more peak and headed for the south ridge of Middle Sister. While Jason’s energy level seemed to rebound, Chris’s was dropping. Jack, just back from a week on the Ortler tour in the Italian Alps, was still charging. After reaching the summit of Middle Sister, we decided to pull the plug on the traverse and head out to Pole Creek. One last teeth chattering descent and a GPS bearing through the woods led us to the Pole Creek trailhead. Typically the end of the road, the trailhead was still under snow and another three miles of skiing and hiking ended our journey of 20 miles and a little over 10,000 vertical feet gain. We had been traveling just under 12 hours.
Happy, but not satisfied, Chris and I attempted the traverse three weeks later with the same result. The skiing off the Prouty Glacier on South Sister had us high-fiving this time, but the heat, sloppy snow, and fatigue from other ski outings sapped our motivation for a fourth peak. Winter or spring traverses in the Cascades are much more fickle than those in summer, requiring many stars to align for success. Yet it’s certain that ski traverses will continue to add chapters to the lore of the Three Sisters marathon.
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