Skiers: Erik Schmidt, Lindsey Clark and Kaya the ski dog
|Kaya and I cruising down some sun cups on Middle Sister|
Preface: It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m sitting in Dr. Cara Walther’s office with significant shoulder pain. She tells me I have rotator cuff impingement and to take it easy for a month or so. Of course I mention the Middle Sister trip I have planned for Friday and Saturday, and that I planned to spend a day and a half carrying a 50+ pound pack. With a funny expression, she asks me if I can lighten my load. I say probably not. So she gives me a cortisone shot and tells me to make up my mind on Wednesday. Of course my mind is already made up…
This is the second year that Erik, Kaya and I have made a pilgrimage to Middle Sister via the Obsidian trail to get in our September turns. The snow on Middle Sister is not easily accessible, but the approach is through spectacular country, and the snow is reliable. Last year’s adventure was memorable and worth repeating.
In summer, the western approach to Middle Sister can’t be beat. The Obsidian trail is famous for a reason! After about 3.5 miles of hiking moderately uphill through a beautiful and rather magical subalpine forest, the trail climbs up and over an ancient, rugged and bright orange lava flow. Descending off the lava, the trail crosses White Branch Creek and enters a beautiful small alpine meadow choked with lupine, Indian paintbrush and alpine dandelion flowers.
|A little out of our element...|
|An adorable fluff nugget in a field of wildflowers|
The next short, steep uphill section of trail along some small waterfalls brings you to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. At this point the trail becomes Glacier Way, and Middle Sister peeks out through even more wildflowers. At the back of the Obsidian trail loop a creek crossing takes you to a climber’s trail that heads uphill. From there, it’s a straightforward rock and scree scramble up the mountain.
|Kaya resting at the intersection of Glacier Way and the PCT|
We left the Obsidian trailhead at around noon on Friday. It was a challenging first few miles being burdened with a heavy and awkward pack, but my body quickly adapted to the load. We reached the stream crossing after about five hours of hiking, then cruised up a prominent, treed ridge back to last year’s perfect bivouac site at about 7,300’. This site is a favorite for its ski in/ski out location!
After taking some time to unload gear and relax, we all headed up the adjacent bowl for some pre-dinner turns. 7 PM is the perfect time to ski in September on the West side of Middle Sister. The sun cups are soft and the lava rock, expansive views and sunset are a pretty dramatic backdrop. Our fun, fast and easy turns were lit by a particularly spectacular sunset that evening with the sky full of layers of smoke from the forest fires down below.
|Erik skiing off into the sunset...|
After skiing, we had a great time cooking and eating dinner in our bivy sacks, surrounded by warm air and a great view of the milky way. We even saw some shooting stars! Tents are overrated; an alpine bivy on a warm, clear night can’t be beat.
|Melting snow for water under a beautiful sky|
We woke on Saturday to crazy gusty winds that were totally demotivating. After slow preparations, we set out at about 9 AM. Crampons were really the only option as the snow was frozen solid. Kaya’s built-in crampons seemed to work nicely! We made a direct trajectory toward the summit block, ascending what we refer to as the “RenCol” bowl: a large, steep, persistent snowfield between the Renfrew and Collier glaciers. It’s a non-technical route with some moderately steep snow climbing toward the top.
Erik was climbing out in front with Kaya, and I was following closely behind. After she slipped a few times, Erik decided to take the dog and call their high point at a convenient shelf. I continued to the top of the bowl, topping out at around 9,000’.
|Erik and Kaya climbing RenCol bowl|
When we split up, Erik asked me if I felt confident skiing the slope I was about to climb. I said, "Of course!" Really, I should have thought it through a bit more. 45-degree frozen sun cups? Easy! (Not really.)
|On top of RenCol bowl, looking out over the Cascade crest|
I dropped in with confidence and within the seconds it took me to make my first two turns, I realized a few things. 1: I was skiing right above multiple patches of lava rock. 2: The snow was shiny. Shiny = icy. 3: It was steep! I could hear Stefano De Benedetti's adorable Italian accent running through my head: “When you are in the situation that if you fall you die… You think very much about turning.” I wouldn’t consider this to be no-fall terrain, but I was indeed thinking very much about turning.
I traversed to a safer location and worked my way down the slope. Not my most beautiful ski descent, but I held it together and enjoyed the ride.
We leapfrogged back to camp, with the snow improving as our elevation dropped. Kaya seemed psyched to be skiing with us, and stayed right on our tails during the entire descent.
|Kaya and I making some fun turns back to camp|
Back at camp, we ate a well-deserved lunch while Kaya snoozed. She had just run down about 2,000 vert! We were packed up and skiing out by 3 PM. There was enough patchy snow that we were able to ski almost all the way down to the creek crossing, saving time and knees.
The Obsidian trail is generally populated this time of year, but we only saw two ladies on our entire hike back to the trailhead. Come to find out, there were over 500 people evacuated from a nearby stretch of the PCT that was close to a large forest fire. My guess is that the smoke deterred most people from hiking the trail on that particular weekend.
We arrived at the trailhead by 7 PM, and were back in Bend and eating Hungarian sausages by 8. Another fun September ski mission complete. Cheers to 24 consecutive months of snow worship!
|Back at the trailhead after a fun and successful September ski trip!|
Epilogue: My shoulder still hurts.
More photos here: