11 Nov Middle Sister Trip Report
Scheduling a climb in the Cascade peaks in October can be a risky proposition but this year we hit the jackpot. Seven of us gathered at the Pole Creek trailhead on a Saturday morning for a weekend of practicing the skills necessary for safe travel on glaciers and then to give a try for the summit of Middle Sister. With crisp autumn weather and a forecast of cloudless skies coinciding with the full moon, we were anticipating a great rip. And we weren’t disappointed.
Our party consisted of old hands Gary Armstrong and Humaira Falkenberg, newer members Bill Strycharz and Frank Florence, and first-timers (to CM) Bridger Mann-Wood, Brian “Woody” Wood, and Weston Turner. Our goal was to hike up to the North Fork of Whychus Creek (formerly Squaw Creek) and set up a camp at about 7,000’ elevation. For the first three miles of hiking we were in area of the Pole Creek burn of 2012. Even in the early morning light it was obvious how hot the fire must have been. The soil appeared to be totally sterilized and completely absent of anything growing green. But a little after crossing Soap Creek, we moved into the unburned forest that abuts the alpine zone. From there we cut cross-country in a westward direction to our intended camp site. In one of many examples of good fortune on this trip, we found that enough of the snow of a couple of weeks earlier had melted away to provide dry, flat spaces for all our tents.
Once camp was set up and lunch attended to, our part stripped down to day pack loads and headed up to the Hayden Glacier. The azure sky and bright sun made the snow a little soft, but that was fine. Our first objective was self-arrest practice on one of the snow slopes below the glacier. The warm afternoon temperatures and softened conditions made it a fun class. Simply stopping soon progressed to seeing who could twist, tumble, or somersault into the most spectacular arrest.
From there it was only a little hike further to reach the toe of the glacier. At that point the crampons and ropes came out and everyone got to remind themselves how to tie in and rig their prusiks for safe glacier travel. I’ve been on the Hayden Glacier before in early season when it looked like a broad white and placid expanse. But it was obvious in October how much it moves throughout the summer. Numerous crevasses and a fairly sizeable icefall demonstrated recent plastic flow. The glacier surface was an interesting mix of old ice, refrozen corn, and the remains of the recent fresh snow. In places, fairly thick snow bridged some of the crevasses, suggesting other crevasses might be effectively hidden.
We organized ourselves as two rope teams and headed up onto the glacier to take a closer look. During this excursion Bill gave a short demonstration on placing snow pickets as anchors and Frank had the group practice placing ice screws into an exposed wall of blue glacial ice. After that, we returned to camp for dinner and to get ready for a summit climb the next morning.
Alpine starts can be uncomfortably early and cold some days, but we woke at 4:30 to surprisingly mild conditions. The snow around camp wasn’t frozen hard but by the time we’d hiked back up to the toe of the glacier we were high enough to encounter almost perfect styrofoam conditions. With a firm purchase and no snow balling under foot, walking in crampons can hardly be any easier. And with a full moon reflecting brightly across the glacier, we all discovered we could as easily walk without headlamps as with.
As we moved higher, dawn caught up with us and tinted the mountains in front of us a beautiful rose hue. Bill set a steady pace and led our party across the upper glacier, weaving a little to get us through a crevassed section safely. It wasn’t long before we were all taking a break on the lee side of the col between Middle sister and Prouty Peak. From there we could look up the North Ridge of Middle Sister and study the route conditions. The September snow storm had done a pretty good job of covering much of the scree except along the ridge line proper where winds scoured most of it away. But we could see that along the path of the traverse onto the northwest face below the summit some ice that had formed from melting and refreezing. As we discovered, some of the ice was reasonably thick and solid but elsewhere it was a layer only few inches thick over less consolidated snow.
Bill collected pickets from both ropes and again led out. A few hundred yards uphill the slope angle steepened. He began placing pickets spaced so that as his second on the rope came up to one piece of protection, he’d pound in the next. In this way, the rope team was constantly safeguarded by one or two pickets as it moved up. Pickets were left in place as we ascended so that the second rope team could also use them, as well as making them available for the trip down. In this way the party ascended the steepest portion of the face and came out onto more moderate, and more snow covered, slopes leading to the top. By 10:30 a.m., we were all gathered there and all smiles.
Our descent followed our tracks back down to where we’d left the pickets. Carefully, steadily, everyone clipped their ropes past the anchors and we all made it through the icy spots without a single misstep. Soon, we were back at the col and out of the wind.
The temperature was now noticeably warmer than the previous day, as confirmed by the softer snow conditions. It was a little after noon when we walked back into our now warm and sunny camp. Bill, who had an evening appointment to meet, quickly packed his gear and headed out to the trailhead first. The rest of us followed at a more leisurely pace, indulging first in an afternoon coffee refresher. The hike out was uneventful, save for the many plans hatched for future trips among our group. Oh, and a gift from Bill who, upon arrival at the cars, had left a six pack of beer and a bag of Doritos on the hood of my Subaru. Perfect end to a perfect weekend.