July 3, 2020
South Sister

3 Sisters: Day Four

South Sister
Cold early in the morning, South Sister behind me.

We woke early, this time on purpose. The campsite would remain intact, as we would only summit South Sister and return that same day.

Full of hubris from our previous days, we discussed the possibility of striking camp after the summit and continuing on another five miles until the next available water. But we would wait to see how it felt when we returned to camp.

South Sister
Moraine Lake, our water source.

Of the Three Sisters, South Sister is the tallest at 10,358 feet. Nicknamed Charity, it is the most climbed of the three volcanoes, probably because it has the least amount of erosion and the most glaciation. The Middle Sister is noted to be “unremarkable,” both in its ascents and descents, and isn’t that just the way middle children are treated? North Sister is the steepest, with loose terrain, making it a formidable summit, even if it isn’t *quite* as tall as South Sister.


The Climb

Each of us carried a fanny pack–Andy had his red one, and his super awesome custom-ordered backpack had a removable section to convert the bottom into a fanny pack as well. We took two liters with us (there was water half-way up at a bench, and then also at the top at Teardrop Pool), several Clif bars and our trusty gorp.

South SisterThe first section of the climb was enjoyable–we were early enough in the day that we hiked in the shade, the alders somewhat sparse, but giving interest to the terrain. But then we hit scree, and I definitely stopped enjoying myself.

The scree was well, scree: it was a field of loose rock, some the size of cabbages, clouds of dust plumed from each step that melted back down the trail. Then it got worse. The scree became finer and finer, we lost a trail completely. My throat felt like it was closing up due to the dust. My chest began to ache. Breaths came shorter and shallower, until finally I couldn’t breathe without a horrible sound emitting from my throat. These were all my clues that I was having an asthma attack.

South Sister
Not quite to the scree yet

I’d had asthma attacks before, obviously. I had been proud of myself for remembering to pack my inhaler, as asthma attacks only ever hit me with some pretty heavy duty exercise. Of course, my inhaler was in my pack–back at camp. I’d forgotten it.

But if I catch the signs early on enough, as long as I slow down, I can stop it. I tried to keep the signs from Andy, which was ridiculous, because I was wheezing like an accordion. We scrambled up to the ledge above us, leveraging weight onto bigger boulders.

South Sister
Glacier pool at the shoulder

We reached the shoulder of the mountain and I sat down on a large boulder to rest. There was a glacier pool behind us. I put my hands on my knees and concentrated on opening the back of my throat, breathing deeper from my diaphragm: old tricks from voice lessons in college. Keeping calm, my heart rate slowed and I could feel my chest loosen, and I was grateful I had gotten the attack under control before it had started to really hurt. There is a point where things get worse, and even if I calm them or have my inhaler handy, my chest hurts for a few days afterwards.

South Sister
View from the shoulder

Andy was not happy. I had forgotten my inhaler which meant I needed to return to camp. In my mind, the danger had passed, I no longer needed the inhaler. So I told him I wouldn’t go. We were too close–I could see the top! I wasn’t going to go all this way to stop. So he said he wouldn’t go either, and we could both descend, returning to camp.

I pleaded. I promised I wouldn’t have another asthma attack (not really a thing). I said I was going up the mountain with or without him, and it would be much safer if he came with me.

By this time, the stream of other hikers thickened. One of them gave me a strange look as he passed, overhearing my promises. Finally, Andy gave in. We drank water and ate a snack.

Above us, the trail turned bright red with volcanic rock, and the soft scree we had just climbed through was solid compared to what was ahead. The hour was later than what we had anticipated, but it was still well before noon.

South Sister

To the Summit

Opting to not refill our water bottles at the glacier pool, we headed up the volcano.

South Sister
Andy on an outcropping

Each step sunk deep into the ashy ground. The trail was non-existent. There were two women hiking up who each had trekking poles. We normally don’t hike with poles, but on this particular mountain, a trekking pole would have been handy. They passed us and then rested, while we passed them. We traded position over and over as we climbed. The crowd around us grew.

Climbed is a misleading word. We slogged. Every single person on that face slogged, regardless of how fit they were. And there were so many people. We were amazed–it was not an easy peak, and it wasn’t even a holiday weekend. Is this just how people in Oregon are? we wondered.

South Sister

I have an urge as a writer to draw this part out, to make you, as a reader, understand how long and miserable this portion of the climb was. But there’s nothing to say, other than it got hotter. Everyone’s pants were rusty-colored as the basalt dust clung to legs.

South Sister
Andy on the tippity-top

And then we were on top.  Teardrop Pool filled the caldera, mostly covered by the snows of a glacier. Windbreaks constructed of stones ringed the volcano top, campsites if one should be inclined to spend the night on top. The stars would be spectacular.

We followed the trail around to the Geologic Marker and took pictures. A small squirrel stole food from the hikers that littered the area, all taking lunch with views of the other two Sisters, Mount Washington, Jefferson, and Mount Saint Helens.

South Sister
The Middle and North Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Washington, Mount Saint Helens in the very back

According to hikers we met on top of the mountain, the air was cloudy due to forest fires, but usually they could see Ranier, too.

We sat and ate our lunch, more gorp, more Clif bars, more water. The squirrel successfully carried off a peanut from another hiker while they took pictures of his triumph.

South Sister
The glacier on Teardrop Pool in the caldera of South Sister



After we finished eating, we circled around the caldera. A murder of ravens came and parked on top of the glacier, shining wet in the sun. The trail became convoluted and difficult to pass.

South Sister
Backside of the glacier with the murder of ravens

No were alone–no others opted to explore the caldera. We followed a set of crusty footsteps out onto the edge of the glacier, hugging the rock.

I was relieved when we had completed the circuit, and were back at the trail, ready to descend Charity.


Then, something surprised me. As we started down the sloppy, ashy face with me in the lead, I panicked. Like, blinding sort of panicked. I had never felt something like this before. Normally I would not categorize myself as a fearful person, but here was fear like I’d never had before. Out of nowhere, I became certain that my bad knee would fail me and I would launch myself off the face of the volcano into the gorge below. Not just fear, it was fact that hadn’t happened yet.

img_4392I tried to rationalize; I knew my knee was fine. But how would the soft terrain react? It seemed unpredictable. I had hiked down snow-covered mountain faces many times and had never encountered this fear. Why now? No idea. Andy didn’t understand why I wasn’t moving. I tried to explain, but it only forced me to tears. Fortunately, I managed to tell him that he needed to go first, so I could see how and where he stepped. So he did, his hand out, available for me to grab if I needed to, as if I were Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

South SisterI was just plain me, though, covered in rust-colored basalt, trying not to cry as we passed hiker after hiker on the ascent, me grabbing Andy’s hand as we skidded down the mountain. Then my fear: my knee did give out. I had taken one of the bounding Moon-style steps, and my knee buckled underneath me. I slid down the face, but the soft basalt absorbed all of my momentum, and I stopped only a few feet from my failure. I did not fall off the mountain.

Another hiker remarked how steep it was as they passed, Andy ran back up to check on me, but as it turned out, I was fine. What I had feared did go wrong, and I remained perfectly healthy. When we made it past the red basalt, and arrived in the firmer yellow band, I felt better. We stopped again at the shoulder to drink water and snack, and we checked in with each other. I was shaky from the echoes of the panic, but otherwise, completely fine. We descended through the scree field in the same way, Andy first, hand out to help should I need it.

The afternoon sun started to beat down on us, this time, there was no escape. We were close to the bottom when my bad knee started to hurt, the one I had been scared would go out on me completely in the red basalt band. So we slowed even more. Like the asthma, punishing my knee often meant an inability to walk on the following day. We still had another 25 miles of walking before we returned to the car. I couldn’t afford to kill my knee.

South Sister
into the lake!

Stopping more frequently to rest and taking our forward progress slow, we descended back down to Lake Moraine. We stopped at the lake to refill our empty Nalgene bottles. Andy waded into the lake, cleaning himself and his clothes all at once. I waded in up to my knees, enjoying the cold, knowing I was already sunburnt. My legs felt shaky, my arms seemed to belong to someone else, even my head felt off–I’d had adrenaline coursing through my body for hours as we made it through the soft terrain on the descent. Even though I could force mind over body, the adrenaline had continued.

South Sister
worn out.

I helped filter the water, but headed back to our tent alone, leaving Andy to enjoy the lake at his own pace. Even the sun was too much on my skin. Once back at our camp, I stripped down, took another towel bath and laid on my sleeping bag. I was angry at myself for my asthma attack, humiliated for having this weird panic that I’d never had before. I didn’t even understand how to process the event because it was new and irrational. I was physically tired from the ascent/descent, the sunburn, the lack of enough caloric intake, but more than that, I was emotionally wrung out.

We decided to stay the night again, as we had originally planned. Our hubris was gone, and I felt bad about being the one to give it away.

Day Four Statistics:

On Trail: 7:00 am

Off Trail: 3:00 pm

Total miles: 7 miles

Elevation gain: 4,000 feet

Elevation loss: 4,000 feet


2 granola rations

1/2 cup gorp

3 Clif bars

Mountain House Chicken & Dumplings freeze-dried entree

Mountain House Mocha Mousse Pie freeze-dried dessert

Water: 6 liters

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