With all the traveling, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get back to Montana.
The trails there will spoil you. Catch them in the spring and they’re a riot of color bathed in a sun so close the warmth burns through even the chilliest breeze. It was there I really found my hiking and backpacking mojo.
That was last summer. This summer was spent cocooned on the Oregon Coast in the lush, eternally green stands of Sitka spruce. A temperate rainforest, stuff grew in other stuff, a great pile of symbiotic relationships all concerned only with feeding the next generation.
Oregon, as a hiker, is a foragers paradise. The beauty of the forest floor is chaotic but rich. And while it’s amazing to see, once you get used to it, you start inspecting. Rummaging.
Berries can be had year round as well as mushrooms. Not an expert by any means, I never tried my luck with the fungus, but I inhaled enough berries to be ready for hibernation.
My hiking there changed. Less oriented on getting places, I spent most of my time scanning for my next meal.
When we finally drove inland this past week, I got ambitious and damn near frost-bitten for my trouble.
The Three Sisters Wilderness outside of Bend is gorgeous. It isn’t the stunning vistas of Glacier where every which way you turn elicits a religious experience. But the peaks formed from raw, explosive energy and the countless hills like tension bubbles ready to burst under the slightest volcanic twitch provide the beauty of a sleeping disaster primed to fill you with awe before and after they awaken.
Of the hikes I’d marked, I chose South Sister, one of the triumvirate peaks the wilderness is named after. The day was clear, the air crisp but perfect for the strenuous elevation gain of 5000 feet.
A cold front had come in as we arrived in La Pine and evening temperatures kept defying the forecasted lows. Teens and twenties persisted warming slowly through the day to around fifty degrees.
This was at 4200 feet elevation. My goal was closer to ten.
Few cars were in the parking area, but far more than I’d ever seen in any Wilderness. Generally, this means a backcountry experience tucked away inside a National Forest along sketchy roads. The Cascades Highway was smooth and painted, the parking lot slightly lumpy, but asphalt all the same.
Hell, they even had a restroom at the trailhead.
A thermal layer with a thin hoodie is all the protection I’d chosen. I slung on my full backpack as well. Even if I’m not planning an overnight, I try to take the full weight. Usually, I only bring enough food for the day, but plenty of extra water and all my basic supplies.
What can I say, I was a Scoutmaster. I like to be prepared.
The trail immediately went into steep switchbacks as soon as I crossed the highway. Ground dry, littered with pumice and obsidian, many boots had ground away the path before mine. Passing up a babbling brook (no, really, this was that brook), I set in for the climb figuring with that kind of elevation gain, I’d be on a Stairmaster route from hell.
Then I got above the tree line.
It had been so long since I’d seen a bare mountain, I’d almost forgotten what one looked like. South Sister is a majestically voluptuous redhead. Bald, she’s a survivor in a scarred land. She watched my approach warily as I entered into an unexpected flat expanse of gritty pumice tufted with plugs of yellowing grass.
Walking there in the subalpine zone, I realized I’d found my way home.
My favorite hike in Glacier National Park had been Siyeh Pass. Along that 9.7 mile excursion, you transition from one fantasy realm to another where waterfalls fill private pools and trees grow twisted and huddled by their intense exposure on an otherwise barren face.
In the spring, flowers of all varieties cover the slopes of Siyeh pass. Arriving at South Sister in late fall, I could tell even the coarse earth here would sprout the same come Spring. I noticed a trail sign describing the fragile alpine area and entered a glade of pines reminiscent of Preston Park.
When I emerged from the cover, Sister started to change. Dark clouds gathered and a wind hit the slopes, harsh and sudden. Nothing blocked the view now and the switchbacks wound up her flank like tightly coiled springs disappearing into the runnels caused by the past winter’s melted snow.
I stopped less than half a mile up the slope with 3 miles and 3000 feet more to go. I’d covered half the trail and already my legs swelled, my face burned, I’d trudged the last quarter mile, willing another inch each time. Acclimated to sea level, this wasn’t maybe the smartest choice for my triumphant return to the mountains.
I’ve got an old pullover I wear. I’ve had it for twenty years. If you know me, you’ve seen me in that green mess. But we’ve got miles together. It’s always served me well.
Pullover out of the pack, snacks devoured, I set in for the rest of the climb. Sister laughed and only turned up the windstorm.
By the time I made it to the false summit, the wind came strong enough to nearly blow me off my feet. The trail had gone vertical, saving much of the elevation for the final two miles.
I struggled over the ridge and into the shelter of a glacier-carved cavity. Lewis Tarn, a glacial pond waited for me there but offered no shelter. The boulder strewn crater only seemed to amplify the wind and I huddled behind the largest rock I could find.
I have a hiking ritual. When I reach my destination, I stop, break out my Jet Boil stove and have a cup of tea.
Ideally, it’s tea made from glacier melt or waterfalls or sylvan streams and bubbling springs. An elixir or potion to strengthen for the return trip and impart some of the untamed spirit into my weary limbs.
As soon as removed my gloves, I knew I’d made a mistake.
I scrambled to the pond and dipped my cup in anyway. The water tickled numb hands. Less than thirty seconds exposed and my fingertips burned. I gave up on the ritual and huddled again behind my rock.
I was at 9000 feet. Siyeh Pass topped out at 8000. Up there, I’d found a perfectly sheltered crevice to share with a curious little golden mantled ground squirrel. He’d met me there both times I made the summit.
Here? I was the only living thing.
Bleak, barren, I traced the ridgeline to the top with my eyes. Exposed in this howling wind, the leading edge of a cold snap, I could only guess the hellish conditions ahead.
Switching to my backup victory ritual, a flask of Scotch, I began the long trek down.
That week I put on another twenty miles in Three Sisters Wilderness all under South Sister’s mocking stare. I’ll be back, probably some spring, to have my tea atop her fiery peak.
No need to go back to Montana quite yet.
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