A Great First Mountain to climb
South Sister is the mountain that started it all. It was 2018 and a group of us decided it would be a big deal to climb a mountain. We looked out the window and what did we see? Three mountains, the tallest of them being South. Quickly we learned there is a trail to the top and many people climb it. It was settled, we would climb. That experience taught me a number of things. One being that a mountain can and will give you a good butt swat and send you home tired, mentally and physically crushed. While at the same time, inspiring you to do it again. This is the basic definition of type two fun. It might not be fun in the middle of it, but it will be later. It’s like when you eat cold ice cream and you can feel the brain freeze coming. Those moments of intense, weird pain cannot be avoided because I have shoved too much cream into my face and now I must endure. It’s not enough to deter me, as I will be throttling even more sweet torture into my head soon enough.
Since the first ascent, I have climbed South every year. We have slept up on the summit plateau a couple of times. I highly recommend it. And I have made a couple day trips up and back. I will be focusing on my last climb but may add juicy side bits from the past during this post.
If you haven’t climbed South yet, here is a little info for you.
You have to get a permit through recreation.gov. It’s a bit of a hassle but I have been able to get one each time I wanted to climb. The trick to it is, once you choose a date for your expedition, go to recreation.gov two weeks ahead of time at 7am. That is when the permits become available for your day. Choose how many people you want on the permit and check out. You can’t be like grandma knitting a scarf in her rocking chair, slow and relaxed, you have to get after it, act quickly. The permit only costs one dollar per person so it won’t break the bank. I have found that it is much better downloading the recreation.gov app instead of horsing around with the webpage.
Once you have secured your permit, you must know directions to the trailhead. It is easy to find, it’s called the Devils Lake Trailhead, here is a link to the directions coming from Redmond Oregon.
We last climbed South Sister on July 1st 2022. The winter had been very heavy with snow and there was still a lot of it up there. We found ourselves in it at 6200’. Which is only about a mile up the trail. The first mile and ¾ is in the forest and climbs pretty good. You don’t gradually work your way into it, you start walking, you start climbing. The way I look at it is you have so many feet of elevation to gain to reach the summit, may as well get some of them out of the way in a hurry.
Let me back up a couple of steps and recommend an early start if you are climbing in the summer. You will bake your britches on the way down if you are still on trail in the hot part of the day. I don’t feel out of line suggesting a three or four am start time. Plus you will get some hiking in the forest in the dark, which is fun as buns in the sun, that’s my way of saying a day at the beach. Better apply some sunscreen. I mean it, you will be exposed on the mountain, sunscreen is a must.
Just shy of two miles you will arrive at what I call the flats. This is the cruising part of the hike. The views are good. You get to see what lies ahead, South Sister is not to be taken lightly, it is a good-sized mountain. Please don’t expect to climb it if you have been tater totting on your couch and not exercising at all. You must have a moderate level of fitness to summit. If you want it to be more enjoyable, be in better shape. I read an article that said you want to be able to run a half marathon to climb South. I think that is a pretty good rule of thumb. You can make it through sheer willpower if you are not in that good of shape, but it will not be a pleasurable experience. I can attest to that because my first climb, I was out of shape, and I remember sitting at the top seriously wondering how I was going to get down.
Three miles in and you kiss the flats goodbye. Now we climb. There is a trail pretty much the whole way. You will come to some steeper, loose rocks sections. Be prepared for pebbles in your shoes if you don’t have gators. The first thing you will realize is that the more you walk, the farther away the destination seems. Your goal is to make it to the glacial lake, the place we have named powder ridge. It is quite the climb to make it to the lake. Once there you will see the summit plateau way on up there. Powder Ridge is where I have seen many summit dreams crushed to powder. You can hear motivation seeping out of people’s bodies like air from a balloon on Powder Ridge. I suggest you take a nice long ten- or fifteen-minute break at the lake and regroup. You really have made most of the climb at that point, another thousand feet or so should not be a deal breaker. You are only and hour to hour and a half from the summit, keep going. Be smart though. There is no shame in turning around and trying again another day. Listen to your body. Being tired is to be expected but remember you still must get yourself down off the mountain. I made up some stickers that say, “I climb down mountains.” More than once I have seen adventurers really struggle getting down more than up. Plus, if you are in the situation that you are having to climb down, it goes without saying that you have climbed up it. I thought the sticker was pretty clever, it says two things at once, seems I’m the only one. I find myself in that boat quite often. "Weird is wonderful" is something only people that want to be weird would say. In reality, being weird is a pretty lonely existence with only a few stick figure birds and proteins bars to get you through. Did I mention that I climb down mountains?
One good way to make this climb better is instead of feeling sorry for yourself when you take a break to catch your breath, look around. The views are good. When I get up in elevation, I can take about ten to fifteen steps, then I have to stop. I used to think about the agony. That is a sure way to hate your life in those moments. Now I take advantage of the small break to appreciate the place I am blessed to be in and being able to get myself to that place. I have taken some of my best pictures during those moments. Also remember that type two fun is sometimes horrible during but will give you the best memories. The kind that get you through blah days later. Sometimes I walk outside my front door and look at South, I remember the good times it has given me, and smile. Like the Cheesy hot dog smile that says, “Yeah, I do stuff sometimes and sometimes that stuff is cool.”
I must tell you about the first time we climbed South and I reached Powder Ridge. Tyler had made it there before me. I was already beatdown and struggling and Tyler appears out of nowhere in the middle of a freakout. He was talking very fast and babbling about the steep section right before the ridge and how steep it looked to the top. He was on one. I was so tired and within myself that I simply sat down for a break. I didn’t have it in me to take his misery and fear and deal with what I had going on too. I have experienced similar on other expeditions. We can get to a place where our individual struggle is all we can handle. When I climb a mountain, even with a group, I am responsible for myself. Sure the others are there to aid me if things go wrong and I need emergency assistance, but I have to be ready to get up and back down. The Posse has been together on many mountains, and we all have our moments of hard core, soul wrenching, struggle. It’s hard. When it happens to you, there may be people all around you, but you will feel so alone. That is one of the things that makes climbing mountains so worthwhile.
Making it to Powder Ridge will take some time. The trail will make you clumsy and trippy. You are in for more of that and then some once you leave the lake. It’s time for the red rocks. Say goodbye to flat ground for awhile. It’s loose and those dang cinder rocks are scratchy. I have slipped on them coming down and those little jerks will shred skin off your hands. Push through this last climb and you will pop your little weasel head up to the summit plateau. It feels neat up there. I love how the sound of my voice and even the wind is different high on a mountain. This is the victory march to the summit. Enjoy it. Make your way around to the other side of the plateau to stand at the peak of South Sister. Once you make it there, the view will fill you up. As many times as I have seen it, it never loses its magic. I love it. I don’t climb mountains to think in some way that I have conquered it, I climb them to appreciate them. Each one feels so different, they have personality. South Sister is a friend that I never tire of, unless it were to call me in the middle of the night drunk and I must get up early and work the next day. Really though, if you haven’t done yourself the favor yet, go climb it.
The total length of the climb is around twelve miles and you gain around 5000’ of elevation. There is a trail all the way and it does not take special mountaineering skills to climb. We have camped up there a couple of times and the late afternoon/evening start time means less people on the trail.
You can see quite a few videos of South Sister expeditions on our youtube channel. Here is the link to one of them.
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The First Peak at South when arriving at the flats
You really get some time to grasp the extent of the challenge on the flats
I should have said July 1st
Now we climb
Aaron and South is like peanut butter and jelly beans
The view from Powder Ridge
From the Summit