R Solo: Three Sisters in the Snow

November 5-7, 2015

In early November, I spent a few days celebrating my dad’s birthday with a snow camping trip to the Obsidian Limited Entry Area in the Three Sisters. (The “snow camping” bit was only kind of intentional.) We’d been thinking about something lower down – most likely Enchanted Valley in the Olympics – but the forecasts there were grim, and there seemed to be a reasonable window of good weather further south, so we decided to go for it.

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The plan was as follows:

  • Thursday: drive from Portland to the Obsidian Trailhead (just off 242, a little west of McKenzie Pass), hike up the Obsidian Trail to the PCT, and make camp a few hundred feet above, at Arrowhead Lake.
  • Friday: ramble around above Arrowhead, toward Little Brother and the pass between Middle and North Sister.
  • Saturday: hike out, hopefully avoid getting caught in the incoming storm.

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Thursday, November 5

1.

We leave Portland luxuriantly late – around seven – and make it to the trailhead a little before eleven. As we drive up, there’s a light dusting of snow, maybe three inches, but nothing too deep:

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I’ve only ever been here in the height of summer, and I walk around the trailhead sort of confused. Where are all the cars? All the people? The oppressive heat? The bathroom’s empty and there’s ice on the seat.

We set out in all our warm clothes, but within half a mile I’m down to a t-shirt, walking up the familiar trail made strange by snow. And it snows more, off and on, as we climb. By the time we’ve gone a few miles, to the Jerry Lava Flow and White Branch Creek, there’s maybe half a foot.  It feels strange to be walking into this. I remember being here last June, being chased down the mountain by mosquitoes.

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2.

At the meadow just east of the lava, the trail splits, as the main Obsidian Trail veers south, toward Obsidian Falls, and the Glacier Way Trail breaks off and slopes more steeply east, toward the PCT. We take the latter, and, after huffing and puffing up for a little less than a mile, make it to the PCT. From here, it’s just a short hop south to the use trail that goes to Arrowhead, and another steep climb up.

Approaching Arrowhead. The PCT’s in the upper left:

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3.

We make it to the (very frozen) lake around three and set up camp. It’s my first time camping in the snow, and I’m sort of clumsy about it all. It takes me twenty minutes to break through five inches of ice on the lake for water, and more than that to help clear out a spot for the tent. But we do eventually get everything up, and cook, in our little kitchen clearing, just as the snow starts again.

I drink a heroic amount of brandy to stay warm, but it’s a cold night – maybe in the low twenties – and we turn in early, to each lose at a few games of cribbage.

Friday, November 6

4.

We wake up Friday to completely clear skies. I love that about backpacking: coming in and not seeing anything, going to sleep, then waking up to a completely new world. Here’s Little Brother (left) and North Sister (right) over Arrowhead Lake:

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We walk around a bit before breakfast, taking in the views. Here’s Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Jefferson to the north:

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The Husband to the south:

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Little Brother, to the east:

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Looking down on Sunshine Meadow. You can just about see our track on the left side:

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Ponds, near the PCT below:

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5.

We have the usual breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, then set out northeast toward Little Brother. I’ve been a little worried about climbing around in the snow, but kicking steps into the fresh powder ends up being a lot easier than it was to ascend the thing last July when things were bare. The snow is perfect: cushy enough to kick in steps, but compact enough for the steps to hold us. We walk straight up the steep hills.

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6.

We take a short break in the saddle just south of Little Brother, and briefly contemplate climbing the thing, but the potentially icy slope and slight exposure are enough to make us think otherwise. Plus, even just from the saddle, the views are incredible. I put on sunscreen.

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7.

From the saddle, we head back south, then a little further east, toward the northern edge of the Renfrew Glacier. As we ascend, the views just get better.

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We’ve been vaguely thinking about making it to the pass between Middle and North Sister, but run out of time, and settle on lunch on a moraine overlooking the Collier Glacier. Not so bad!

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8.

As we’re eating, some clouds roll in from south.

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I’m a little worried about route finding,should the clouds come up to meet us, so we eat quickly, and head back down, directly west toward camp. It’s fun to walk down the steep snow – sort of halfway between walking and skiing, trusting the snow to hold my weight. Every once in a while there will be an unexpected rock under the snow, and my foot will unexpectedly turn when I hit ground, but even that’s not so bad. It feels so natural. As we descend, I remember years of walking through snow fields when I was younger. A lot of them just on the other side of the Sisters crest. And I’m suddenly very grateful for it.

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Nice views along the way:

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9.

It’s around four by the time we make it down to near camp. The evening shadows have already begun to descend.

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10.

Soon after, sunset comes, and turns all the scenery red.

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Saturday, November 7

11.

By the next morning, our luck with the weather has largely run out, and we wake up to low clouds obscuring the summits. Back to black and white:

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12.

We eat breakfast and gingerly packed up the frozen, wet tent, then start the scramble back down to the PCT.

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13.

From the PCT junction, we go south to see Obsidian Falls and all the stuff we missed on Thursday.

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14.

Yesterday’s warmth has pushed the snow line to a bit over 5000′, and descending to the car feels a little like passing from winter back into fall, or even back to when we were hear last, before the JMT, wearily walking down in the failing light. It makes me weirdly emotional.

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15.

We make good time coming down, and get back to the car a bit before three. We eat lunch, I change into shorts, and we still have some time to take the scenic way home, stopping at the Dee Wright Observatory to watch an afternoon storm coming in. The clouds are just incredible.

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16.

The storm hits just as we’re driving over Santiam Pass. The rain get increasingly dramatic, and, at one point, just east of Idanha, there’s suddenly thick smoke (!?), which brings visibility down to maybe ten feet. Sort of sketchy to drive in. But we make it home all the same, and finish the weekend with a few beers and a couple of pot pies at the Horse Brass pub on Belmont, thankful to be warm and cozy.

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