A late-season climb of South Sister

South Sister (10,358′) is the 3rd-loftiest peak in the State of Oregon, and while Mt. Hood (11,240′) and Mt Jefferson (10,495′) both require technical skills to attain their highest points, an ascent of South Sister, though long, requires only trail hiking to reach the summit. But what a trail! Five and half miles long and with an elevation gain of around 5000 feet, it winds its way up the mountain with spectacular views almost the entire way.

Charles (my companion on my earlier epic trip to the Southwest) and I left Roseburg at around four in the morning, heading north on Interstate Five until we were just south of Eugene. We then headed east on Highway 58, passing Lowell, Oakridge and Willamette Pass as we got closer to the Three Sisters Wilderness. We eventually took a turn North on the Cascade Lakes Highway, and after about four and a half hours of driving, we arrived at the Devil’s Lake Trailhead, gateway for virtually all climbs of this mountain.

Being that this was mid-October, it was very cold when we started, probably in the mid-thirties, but the weather was crystal clear and we headed out feeling happy to be here. I had climbed this mountain twice before, but it had been seven or eight years since I had been here last.

The trail starts out winding through a dense forest, and Charles and I talked as we headed up. After a few miles we broke out of the trees and onto the vast, undulating plain that sits at the very base of South Sister. I guess I should mention that I had been sick for the week before this climb, so I was not at all in my usual good shape, whereas Charles was in his usual superhuman level of fitness. He was kind to stick with me for as long as he did, but eventually he would take off and I would plod behind him.

Views of Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top, Moraine Lake, and, of course, South Sister gave us plenty to ooh and ahh about, and after a short time, we reached the bottom of the volcano. At this point Charles had already surged ahead of me, and I took my time with the ascent. Numerous other climbers either passed me or were already heading down, and I stopped to talk to a few of them. I really wasn’t feeling too well, and wasn’t certain if I would actually make the summit this time, but I kept grinding it out, and kept gaining elevation. Soon I was at the base of the Lewis Glacier, where a lovely turquoise lake formed by glacial silt glittered beneath the sun. Above me, the Mother Of All Scree Slopes awaited.

The Lewis Glacier and the beautiful lake at its toe

The last thousand-plus feet of climbing on this massive volcano is formed by a huge slope of red cinders, making it a two-steps-forward, one-step-back affair, plus, you are dealing with being close to ten thousand feet high, so altitude also plays a part in slowing the ascent. It seemed like it took forever to reach the mile-wide summit crater. It was only at this point that I really knew I would make the summit.

I followed the southern, then the eastern rim of the crater, doing a little bit of very easy rock scrambling to reach the true summit, where I found Charles patiently waiting. We enjoyed perhaps half an hour on the top, taking pictures, eating some lunch and recuperating from the grueling hike. Then it was time to head back down, and drive back home to Roseburg, another climb, another adventure under our belts.

Climbing Wheeler Peak (Nv.) in Hurricane Force Winds

 

Wheeler Peak is the rounded peak on the right.

We had hiked 21 miles in 120 degree heat in the Grand Canyon in a single day, climbed the spectacular trails of Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Valley and The Narrows in Zion National Park, and our trip was almost done. We had been gone for about a week, and still had an eighteen-hour car drive to get back to our homes in Southern Oregon, but being fit, highly motivated individuals, Charles and I still had a little more energy, so we decided that in the morning, we would get up early, drive for four hours to Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada, and climb 13,063′ Wheeler Peak. It would be the perfect way to end out epic trip.

We arrived at the park at around 9 a.m., and swung by the ranger station to get permits and refill our water bottles. Then we headed up the winding, switchbacking road that led to the trailhead at just above 10,000 feet. It was an interesting experience, driving from 6000 feet at the ranger station to the trailhead at 10,000 feet in something like 20 minutes. By the time we got there, the altitude was already making me feel slightly buzzed, but I wasn’t worried. With all my experience in the mountains, I have yet to get any noticeable altitude sickness, so I was fairly certain I wouldn’t here either.

The parking lot for Wheeler Peak

 

It was really windy at the trailhead, and I wondered what it would be like higher on the mountain. We sorted a small amount of gear and started up the trail, which initially passes through a beautiful forest of Aspens, a type of tree I have not been around too much, being from the Northwest. After about fifteen minutes we encountered a fellow climber who had turned back short of the summit due to the intensity of the winds. He warned us about it, we thanked him and continued on.

Soon the trail left the Aspens and began to cross meadows and grassy slopes beneath the mountain, which positively loomed above us. We snapped pictures and shot film as we took occasional breaks and adjusted our layers of clothes. Out of the wind, it was quite warm, but there were few spots where it was sheltered enough to avoid the near-constant gusts. We weren’t worried about it since so far it wasn’t anything scary.

Looking up towards the summit

We reached the saddle below the mountain after less than an hour of hiking, and here the wind was picking up, but still we weren’t worried. As we began to encounter more and more climbers, virtually all of them had turned back before the summit due to the intense winds. We still didn’t worry. There would be no exposure, no dangerous spots where a big gust could get us into trouble, so unless the wind just flat-out blew us off our feet, we were going to keep going. That is one of the differences between ‘true’ climbers and hikers.

 

Once we ascended above tree-line, the wind truly began. Down below, it had been blowing at thirty or forty miles an hour, but on the completely exposed shoulder it amped up to closer to 50-60 miles per hour, with gusts reaching even higher. Virtually everyone we met had forgone the summit because of the winds. We still kept going.

As we climbed higher, the wind increased in intensity, so that it became nearly impossible to walk without stumbling. I would walk, bent over into the wind, and then it would either let up or gust harder, pushing or pulling me in every direction. It grew frustrating. Fortunately, there are many wind-break stone walls built (mostly for shelters for tents), and so I would take occasional breaks out of the wind.

Looking back down towards the saddle

Charles had left me behind once we got to the base of the final ridge, and I watched him rapidly head away from me, despite being in excellent shape myself. I climbed the last hour pretty much alone.

Once I got above 12,500 feet, my hands began to tingle from the altitude and my lack of time to adjust to it, so I knew I was going to have to reach the summit as quickly as possible. After 2.5 hours of climbing, I reached the summit, reunited with Charles and took the time to sign the summit register. Ironically, it was far less windy on the summit than down below, and we enjoyed a break from the pounding we had been taking.

Charles and Don on the summit of Wheeler Peak

 

We only stayed on top for a few minutes, since we still had to get down, and finish driving the remaining 14+ hours to Roseburg. We hustled back down the mountain to the car, and headed west across Nevada. We would not reach home until seven the next morning.

The ever-changing dynamics of life

A month ago I was standing on top of South Sister, the third highest mountain in Oregon. I had been ill for the previous few days and really had to push through the 5.5 miles and roughly 5000 feet of elevation gain in order to reach the summit. Unfortunately, I also made myself sick pretty bad and ended up missing a good chunk of school over the next week. I have some regrets over this. I should have just made myself go, but I wimped out and got myself way behind in my classes, and if I hadn’t done that, then I would not have had to withdraw from my classes like I did just a few days ago.

I am, at the present time, no longer in school.

A week and a half ago, I started having seizures, just little ones mind you, but nevertheless disconcerting and disturbing. I would be talking to someone and suddenly just not be able to see them anymore, they would just vanish before my eyes, I would no longer be able to see or hear them from anywhere from a second to five seconds, but when I come out of it, I am disoriented, faint and dizzy. I started having them anywhere from five to twenty of them a day. I ended up going to the hospital, spending the night and getting a whole battery of tests to make sure my heart and my circulatory system was operating properly. They could find nothing wrong with me (of course, they did not test for epilepsy or anything, just the really serious stuff like heart attacks and strokes.)

I have been finding it difficult to focus — something I have always struggled with — and reading especially seems difficult right now, and I ended up missing another week of school because I am struggling so badly to keep focused. Once that happened, I knew I was going to have to withdraw from school, which I did this last Friday. I am now on academic suspension, and I should be able to work my way back into school if I can get these damned seizures under control.

So what does this all mean for my outdoor life? Not really sure yet. There is a possibility that all of this is occurring because of the medication I have been taking for pain, and if that is the case, then I should stop having them as I slowly withdraw from the drug (this is not a medication you can just up and quit, so powerful is its physical dependence.) Yet if it is the drug, then that means that my chronic pain will also be coming back, not really something I am looking forward to.

But what if it isn’t the meds? Then what? Well, if I have somehow developed a form of epilepsy (I have a niece who was recently diagnosed with it, so there is some precedence for it) then that will definitely alter my climbing and my more extreme adventures in the future. Definitely will change my ability to do technical rock climbs and mountaineering. So I am really hoping it is the meds.

However, this also means that I will have more time to blog, at least for a little while.

There are so many unanswered questions in my life right now.