Late in the Season Climb up South Sisters

By on September 16, 2012

By Carol Lovegren Miller –

“Aunt Carol, would you take Cam and I with you when you climb the South Sister mountain?” my niece Shirree entreated. Were we planning to climb the South Sister?  Hey, why not go? This trip would be a piece of cake for my husband Kyle to guide; after all he has climbed the South Sister before…but 28 years ago.

In 1984, a fair number of people were climbing the South Sister making the trail feel more like a country road than a wilderness. Now, twenty-eight years later, in 2012, the trail resembles a freeway with lanes going in both directions; hundreds of people were climbing the mountain with us.

Actually, the assortment of people is part of what makes the climb interesting. In fact, I suspect my family may have attracted a bit of attention ourselves.

Kyle Miller on trail on South Sisters

As Kyle strapped on his 55 lb backpack in preparation for the hike he grumbled, “We have four perfectly good horses at home, why do I have to be the packhorse on this trip?” He may not have been riding his horse, but he still looked like a cowboy in his blue jeans, leather gloves, long-sleeved shirt and cowboy hat. His garb was a far cry from the other climbers clad in REI microfiber shorts. To top it off, he used a pair of 1970 skipoles as trekking poles.

Carol Lovegren-Miller

Because of a sunscreen allergy, I myself was a real fashion statement. One of Kyle’s big wide-brimmed hats slouched over my ears; an oversized, paint-spattered, untucked, cotton, collared shirthung to my fingertips; and my much larger son’s light weight hiking pants sagged from my rear and bunched up on my boots. The seven young twerps with us uncharitably dubbed me, “the rice farmer”. No matter, I escaped being sunburned, a very real hazard at 10,000 feet.

Chet Miller

If Kyle and I didn’t catch people’s attention, our son Chet, who earlier in the summer had shattered his collarbone in a zip-line accident, did snag a second look. Climbing the South Sister with his arm in asling earned him the “hardcore award” from more than one fellow climber (naturally, we saw nothing wrong with climbing while injured since 28years ago I climbed the South Sister two weeks after having a partially severed finger reattached). The only real problem Chet’s bound arm created was difficulty in keeping his balance on steep sections.

However, Chet’s difficulty balancing could not have been nearly as challenging as that of the man who, I kid you not, we saw climbing the mountain wearing a large neck pillow with a woman perched on his shoulders! He made our accomplishment of climbing to the top, which seemed to us like a truly strenuous task, appear far less impressive.

Climbers’ ages ranged from 7 to 70 with the level of fitness ranging from the guy who literally ran up the mountain and back, to people 50 pounds overweight, pouring sweat and climbing by sheer grit. One group of older climbers, a tour group from the northeast, looked like the sort of people you would normally expect to find riding a tourbus.

Some people (like us) back pack in the first few miles, camp near Moraine Lake, then start early in the morning to tackle the four or five hour 4,000 foot climb.  People who are tougher than we are add an additional 1,000 feet of elevation and four extra miles to their day bystarting at the Devil’s Lake trail head off Cascade Lakes Highway. The really hardy souls carry full packs to the top with the intention of spending the night huddled behind rock walls or out on the snow field.

When it comes to wilderness policy, there is no place for common sense… or outhouses. Long lines of climbers lingered at the last patch of trees on the mountain. One can only speculate on the dilemma of those spending the night on top.

There were a surprising number of dogs clambering up the rough lava that day. Those traveling with our group were clad in sled-dog booties, but most dogs gamely scrambled through bare pawed. The one exception was a fluffy little lap dog who serenely watched the scenery go by while her mistress carried her snuggledin a front pack. One golden retriever clearly did not understand the concept of drop-offs. Three times he nearly took a “toboggan ride of no return,” off a snow covered cliff.

It was hot the weekend we climbed; therefore the temperature at the 10,300 foot top was surprisingly pleasant. So, what does one do on a mountain top? Gape in awe at the view, eat lunch, pop open a bubbly, soak up some rays, and try to match the map to the lakes, trails and peaks below. Or…as one group did…decide there is nothing to do up there, shoulder the full packs they just carried up and hike back down.

Some people plunge recklessly back down the mountain, others timidly creep down, but spills are common among both groups as they slipand slide down the steep, slippery, scree-covered slope. My nearly new boots ended the hike with allthe seams ripped out.

By the time we reached Moraine Lake, we were so stinky, sweaty, and coated with trail dust,that we jumped into the lake clothes and all. It felt wonderful…until we clambered out of the lake and stood there dripping wet, trying to think of something to change into from our extremely limited backpacking wardrobes. Kyle swapped his cowboy duds for head-to-toe camouflage rain gear.

Our adventure was not limited to just the climb however. We decided to get a head start on our trip by leaving Thursday night. What we forgot is that summer construction closes the Highway 58 tunnel at 8:00 p.m. Driving through Oakridge we realized that we needed to fuel up, but if we did so, we might not make it to the tunnel before it closed. The gas station attendants were agonizingly slow – perhaps they own stock in the local motel. Back on the road we found ourselves with only 20 minutes to make the 20 miles to the tunnel, plus we had a semi loaded withpoles in front of us.

We soon noticed that the semi driver was barreling up the highway with his accelerator floored. Clearly he was also trying to make it to the tunnel in time. We reasoned that if we could just pass the semi, we would have a better chance of getting through since it would be so difficult to turn a semi around. We guessed right. In our rear view mirror we could see the last vehicle to be allowed though the tunnel that night…the semi with poles!

Arriving at Davis Lake on the Cascade Lakes Highway at dusk, we opted to stop and camp butnot bother to put up our tent, after all, there was no chance of rain. It did not take long for the tormenting whine of hungry mosquitoes to convince us to crawl out of our snuggly sleeping bags and pitch our tent in the dark.

Moraine Lake can be accessed from either the shorter, steeper, Devil’s Lake trailhead, or the more scenic but longer Green Lakes trail. We opted for scenic. We hiked in two miles, hid our backpacks behind trees at the trail junction, and continued on to Green Lakes for a day hike. It wasn’t far, only 2.4miles. After lunch, we decided it wouldbe fun to hike around the lakes; it would only be a couple extra miles.  When I finally stopped and did the math, I realized that added together these little extra forays lengthened the day’strek by seven miles!

The hike around Green Lakes was worth the extra miles. Green Lakes, on the flank of the South Sister, is surrounded by springs; some springs cascade down the hillsides, others burble out just above lake level, and some bubble up from underwater. Snow was abundant along the west shore. Our young friends Dan and Cam tromped merrily over the snow, searching for weak spots. They found one. Dan dropped chest deep into a crevasse –trapped until his buddy Cam decided to pull him out.

Returning to collect our packs, we hiked the final 1½ miles of our 11-mile day to a perfect campsite. Located along the creek flowing out of Moraine Lake it had a view of both the South Sister and some interesting lava flows; and we were just far enough from Moraine Lake to be allowed to have a campfire. The campsite was flat and had plenty of ants, but best of all it had a built-in shower. Unfortunately, the shower lacked a hot water faucet, so only young and crazy, Dan & Cam, used the 10-footwaterfall for bathing purposes.

In the end, it was nice to discover that not much has actually changed in the 28 years from our first climb…other than who is now young and crazy.


Carol Lovegren Miller lives in Oakland Oregon, population 950. Carol and her husband Kyle, of 27 years, travel often with their three children, ages 23, 21, and 18. Carol is a substitute teacher for middle school and high school students when she is not writing or traveling. Carol can be reached at [email protected].

Carol Lovegren-Miller

About Carol Lovegren-Miller

Carol Lovegren Miller has been married to Kyle for 32 years and has three grown children. She bakes, cans, organizes church events, and substitute teaches in between her adventures and writing." Carol can be reached at [email protected]

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Late in the Season Climb up South Sisters