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Climbing Faith

The tough way up leads to lifetime achievement

View from the Summit of North Sister of South (left) and middle sisters.

Paul Crowley
View from the Summit of North Sister of South (left) and middle sisters.

Founded in 1926, the Hood River Crag Rats is the oldest mountain search and rescue organization in North America. The Rats have several levels of membership, including lifetime membership. To be a lifetime member, one must summit Mount Adams, Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Mount Rainier and the Three Sisters: Hope, Charity and Faith. After several years of working toward that goal, with good weather, a strong leader, some help from locals, a couple of rental bikes and a bit of luck, the goal was accomplished in early June with a climb of the North Sister, known as “Faith.” This is the story.

In 2007, I met John and Lisa Rust on a large group climb of Mount St. Helens. The Rusts are something I am not: true mountaineers. John has guided on and summited Denali. Lisa was a climbing guide on Mount Rainier for many years. She was also a member of the first all-woman team to attempt an Everest summit. We had known each other for years. On that St. Helens climb, a friendship was born.

At a parking lot barbecue after the climb, John said, “We should climb Rainier.” That we did in 2008.

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Paul Crowley on the Summit of North Sister, June 8, 2013.

After summiting Rainier, I told John about the lifetime membership thing, explaining that the only mountains left between me and Rat infamy were Mount Jefferson and the North Sister. Translated, that means that having just summited one of the three hard mountains, the other two were left to do. A mission was born.

We reached Mount Jefferson’s summit in 2010. Then there was a slap of reality. The late spring of 2011, I was struck by what will be called, for the sake of this story, a catastrophic onset of osteoarthritis. The details can be boiled down to these: A lifelong runner, on June 3, 2011, I ran for the last time. Suddenly, I could barely walk. My right leg, from the knee to the ankle, became grotesquely swollen. Life had changed.

The tibial plateau of my right knee now has a dime-sized hole. The lateral side of that knee is bone-on-bone. As recently as September 2012, not one but two orthopedic surgeons suggested replacing that knee and soon.

My rheumatologist, and it’s hard to believe I’ve got a rheumatologist, helped defer the sawing off of my knee with a better-living-through-medication plan. Here are the rules: Avoid things that are weight-bearing, impactful on the knee or require travel on uneven ground. All of those are part of climbing mountains.

“Hey, John, let’s go climb the North Sister.”

Standing 10,085 feet, the North Sister, known as Faith, is the lowest of the seven required peaks. Her name probably comes from the fact that you need faith to attempt her summit. Due to her loose, free-falling volcanic rock Faith is also known as “the Black Beast of the Cascades.”

You’re not likely to meet anyone who has summited her twice. There is simply no good reason to do so. You’ve got pretty much the same view available from the top of the Middle and South Sisters without all of the hassle and exposure to potentially unpleasant consequences.

The only sensible way to climb the North Sister is from the west side. The best access point is the Obsidian Trailhead. There’s a small problem for us: The Obsidian Trailhead is reached from the McKenzie Pass. At the time of our climb, the McKenzie Pass was closed to motorized traffic. It was open to hikers and bikers.

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Paul Crowley (left) and John Rust on their last-minute bike rentals about to start their climb of North Sister.

In light of the closure, our plan was to approach from the east side, via the Pole Creek Trailhead. From there we would climb over the saddle between the North and Middle Sisters, accessing the west side, and climb to the summit the next day from there.

We stopped at the local ranger station in the town of Sisters. There we learned of another small problem; The last 6½ miles of the Forest Service road leading to the Pole Creek trailhead were closed due to fire damage.

“Yeah, all we allow out there right now are hiking and biking,” said the ranger.

Six and one-half miles in plus 6½ miles out equals 13 more miles than we had planned to hike. Bikes. We needed mountain bikes. The ranger explained that we had two options: There was a secondhand store a short spell in one direction and a bike store a short spell in the other direction. He recommended the secondhand store.

“They've got lots of bikes; cheap, too.”

We went to the secondhand place. They had lots of bikes, only one of which would arguably work. We talked to the owner anyway. He was intrigued by our plan: bike and climb.

“We don’t want to buy bikes. Can you rent us a couple?”

“Nope, can’t do that ‘cause of insurance. I could sell you a couple and buy them back tomorrow. If they still look good, I might even match your cost.”

He looked down. He looked up. He scratched his chin. We knew he was thinking.

“Here’s what you ought to do. Go to the bike place. We’re friends. My son works there. If they can’t set you up, come back and see me.”

John and I went to the bike place. It turned out the secondhand guy’s son was a student intern there. We had to explain our plan to them three times: 50-pound packs, crampons, ice axes, rope, pickets and bikes. Oh, and the pedals need to accommodate the climbing boots we’ll be wearing. We’re after a summit. They, too, became intrigued.

They had 29’ers (mountain bikes with really big tires for more ease in rolling over stuff) for rent. The cost was $30 per day. We knew that we couldn’t be back in 24 hours. This was all good fun, but it was getting late and we’d just tossed a bike trip into the mix. We negotiated a 28-hour-long day.

Back at the car we discussed plans. Why ride an unknown-to-us Forest Service road on the wrong side of the mountain when we could ride on the beautiful and paved McKenzie Pass road to the correct side of the mountain? We had gone from (a) drive to the Pole Creek Trailhead, to (b) bike to the Pole Creek Trailhead, to (c) bike the McKenzie Pass. In climbing mountains, end-game focus and flexibility in how you get there are important.

Off we went, like a couple of backpack-shelled turtles, climbing the 2,100 vertical feet to the top of the pass. There were many bikers on the road. We were the fans’ favorites.

“You guys goin’ hikin’?”

“We’re goin’ climbin’.”

If you ever endeavor to undertake a similar adventure, be forewarned this: The backpack places all of the weight directly on your tailbone, leading in very short order to a sore butt. You can’t stand to pedal to relieve your sore butt. The weight on your back pulls you back as you stand and throws you forward as you pedal, leading to unsustainable slamming pedal lurches, instead of the desired smooth pedal strokes.

Thirteen miles later, we arrived at the Obsidian Trailhead. We lost about 900 vertical feet dropping from the pass summit. In reverse Newtonian logic we knew that what just came down would later need to go back up. The payback would come on the way home.

We muddled our way up the snow-covered Obsidian trail, losing direction several times. It’s hard to look the part of a hardened, seasoned mountaineer when you’re walking in circles looking for blazes.

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Paul Crowley and one of the 29ers.

Once fully directed, we began to wonder whether we would ever find a dry spot for camp. Just above tree line there it was, an oasis, a rocky butte with a flat top. Our home. We loaded up on water, John’s tortellini, and very little sleep.

Having been pelted with rocks at 1:30 a.m., I stirred. “Man, I didn’t sleep all night.”

“That’s exactly what you said last trip. You snored for the last two hours. I had to throw 15 rocks at you before you woke up. The water’s boiling. Get the coffee out and let’s get going.”

It was show time.

Leading up to the trip we had fretted some about the weather. A hot dry spell was followed by a profound amount of precipitation. The five days before the trip were warm and dry during the day and perhaps not cool enough at night. It could be good. It could be treacherous. It turned out to be both.

On south- and east-facing slopes we came across at least four very recent avalanche slides. The largest was about 150 feet across at the top. John and I climbed the south ridge route, spending our time almost exclusively on the west-facing slope below the ridge line. There life was good. We traveled mostly in the dark of night or in the shade of the mountain.

There were four traverses to make: two minor, one fairly long and one over 200 feet long. That one the guidebook says is considered by many “the most hazardous part of the trip.” It’s a 45-50 percent scree slope under a rock buttress that sheds a lot. Bigger rocks lay down below to catch you.

But for us it was snow-covered and fast travel. The snow was fairly soft. We were aware that if we fell the pickets set for our rope probably would not hold us. We were also aware that in the event of a fall the pickets would very likely slow our descent enough that we would be able to self-arrest (bury the pick of our ice axe into the snow, pull up on the bottom of the axe, and lever ourselves to a stop). I was very happy with how things were turning out. It could have been a lot, lot worse.

The long traverse led us to the caldera, the sunken area on the top of the volcano caused by the magma chamber emptying when the volcano erupted. On the North Sister, the caldera has three walls, the west wall having floated away in volcanic flows. It is through the west side that we enter what is known as the bowling alley.

The bowling alley is a chute just below the Prouty Horns, the two tips on the summit named after the first person to ascend the south ridge route in 1920. The bowling alley nickname derives from the constant rock fall that knocks climbers down like bowling pins. It’s bloody awful.

There is steep to the right, steep to the left, and it’s steep straight ahead. All of the steep is covered with loose and crumbling rock. The terrain funnels toward the center. Whatever tumbles down is likely to roll toward the head pin, which is probably you.

I had envisioned that there would be a safe side. In fact, there was nowhere you want to be, but for one thing: it was frozen. There was ice to climb on, not soft snow like on the traverse. Thank you, Mother Nature. You would need to be truly dumb or suicidal to be in the bowling alley when it’s dry.

At the top of the bowling alley one reaches the “almost summit.” At that point, there is a Prouty pinnacle to climber’s right and one to climber’s left. We went to the right. It looked friendlier. Damn, we realized that the left was higher. (Did I mention that in the “transition to bike” scramble, the pages copied from the guidebook got left behind in the car?)

“John, we’re good, right?”

“No. It’s higher over there.”

So, over there we went. That was a great call. It was a lot easier to climb than it looked like it would be from afar. A crampon-on rock climb of about 75 vertical feet led us to the real summit. The rock we climbed to get there may have been the only stable rock on the entire mountain. Sitting on that side was much more rewarding.

All that was left was the descent. I hate descents.

Since I’ve written this you know that we made it down. The trip down was very slow. After we got back to our base camp, my previously mentioned trashed knee that had served so incredibly well up to that point screamed out, “No mas, no mas!”

John was like a race horse smelling the oats in the barn. I was like Old Paint, limping along, one leg short. I was frustrated with my pace and felt really bad about delaying John. That was tempered by thoughts about my right knee having been declared a natural disaster area that required replacement. That same knee had just taken me to the summit of the North Sister. It deserved a good ache.

Biking back to the car was, in a word, cool. We needed to reclaim the 900 vertical feet we lost on the descent to the trailhead. That was fine because we knew what lay ahead for us: a 5-mile descent from the McKenzie Pass summit to the car. We just held onto the handlebars and cruised downhill for 5 miles, a truly wonderful way to end a several-year-long journey. (I’m thinking that this is like the end of a Disney movie).

Fortunately, my wife, Susan, negotiated a late bike return for us. Before we broke camp, I called to let her know that we needed to spend an extra night in order to return the bikes in the morning.

“Why don’t you call and ask them if someone can meet you at the shop late,” she asked.

Two reasons: We had been up since 1:30 a.m. and didn’t have the mental candle power to think that creatively. We also didn’t remember the name of the bike shop.

She contacted the bike shop, Blazin’ Saddles. The rental manager, Eric Santner, agreed to meet us at the shop around 8 p.m. As we pulled in, forgetting about the bike on the roof of the car, I trimmed the tree in front of the shop. Thankfully, Eric was not there yet.

John scrambled to clean the tree debris from the bike. I scrambled to clean it from the sidewalk. There was no garbage can. Into the car went the trimmings. Eric arrived moments later.

We had blown the 28-hour-long-day deal. He declined to charge us for a second day. He declined a tip. He was intrigued. We were touched. It was a perfect act of kindness with which to end our mission.

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