A glacial ascent in the heat of summer – Middle Sister!


Friday through Sunday, 12-Aug-2022 through 14-Aug-2022

Vital Statistics:
Day 1 = 6 miles, ~2,000ft elevation from Obsidian Trailhead to Arrowhead Lake campsite. ~5 hours total.
Day 2 = 6 miles round trip, ~3,100ft elevation to Middle Sister Summit via the Renfrew Glacier. ~11hrs total.
Day 3 = 7 miles, ~2,000ft elevation loss, via Obsidian falls. ~4 hours total.

Talking with the rest of my team, I realized something interesting. This trip is pretty close to the 16th anniversary of my first backpacking trip! Not to the day, I don’t think… but the Perseid meteor shower is this weekend, and that was the starter for my first backpacking trip, so…

Hey! Happy 16th anniversary of backpacking to me!

Not only that, but Middle Sister is the tallest glaciated peak that I’ve summitted! Standing proud at just over 10,000ft above sea level, it beats my previous summit of The Matterhorn (no, not the one in Europe, the smaller one in Oregon…) which stands at 9,845ft.

An anniversary and a personal record, all in one weekend… not so bad, right?

There’s another first to add to the list too – My first official Mazama’s climb! Since BCEP, I haven’t had occasion to do a full and official climb with the group who I spent so many weekends hiking alongside. I’d signed up for the Mt. Hood climb, of course, as is tradition for graduating BCEP students… but unfortunately that trip fell through due to a series of increasingly unlikely and exceptionally ridiculous issues.

I got an email a week or two prior from the BCEP group I was a part of. There were a few extra spots on a Middle Sister ascent team, and applications were open if any of us were interested. I’d already made plans for that weekend to go backpacking in the North Cascades with a friend of mine, but since those plans were pretty tentative at best (and, let’s be candid here, I gave them a 50% chance of falling through) I pivoted toward Middle Sister pretty quickly.

Plans were crystalized, times confirmed, and gear packed. An earlier-than-normal morning was followed by a stressful drive, where I was convinced that I was going to be a full 30min late to meet the team… until I realized that the longer-than-expected ETA was because my GPS was planning on having me take 15mph forest service roads to the trailhead… instead of the 60mph highway that leads right to it. I arrived almost exactly on time, in the end, though I’m pretty sure I overdosed on stress hormones before I realized that tomfoolery.

One there, with the whole group assembled, we held a solid team meeting at the trailhead. Went over plans, routes, gear, and all the fun things that a new team of adventurers cover with each other. Then, we shouldered our packs and headed in.

The hiking was, truthfully, a bit rough for me. I’d like to think that I’m in shape, and I know that in comparison to the majority of the population I am, but compared to the team I was with… I wasn’t the strongest member. We had seasoned mountaineers, a firefighter, and exceptionally strong hikers. Our route wasn’t particularly tough (see the above vital statistics) but I was definitely lagging behind by the time we started into our final push to the lake-side campsite.

Thankfully, our campsite was singularly gorgeous, and we’d arrived with easily enough time to spare for a quick nap, some good relaxation, and even some crevasse rescue practice… not that we expected any major crevasses on the glacier, but they’re one of those things that you always plan around… the penalty for failure being as simple as it is catastrophic.

We rested, we ate, we hydrated, and we watched a perfect sunset drop below the horizon before heading to bed, with dreams of an early morning start in the forefront of our thoughts.

The following day, on the push for the summit, I was feeling the elevation. Or the gain, or… I don’t know, but it was definitely a challenging. The morning started beautifully cold, and I embraced the change of pace from the boiling heat of Wilsonville with gusto. My jacket stayed in the pack, and my tee-shirt let me appreciate the full brunt of the alpine morning.

As we steadily ascended, the sun lit up and we took some time to stop for photos of the sunrise illuminating the line of Cascade Volcanoes stretching off into the Northern distance. We continued on, though we did take fairly regular breaks… to my extreme appreciation. Route-finding wasn’t particularly easy, since the glacier has receded quite a bit in recent years, but soon enough we found the foot of the Renfrew Glacier and headed up.

I dragged.

It was tough going for Ben, I freely admit. I was tired, my pack felt heavy, and the terrain was steep.

I persisted though, and with some help from the rest of the team we all made it up, and I was able to summit my newest glaciated peak!

The rest of the day was better than the ascent. The descent went smoothly, with my knees thankfully playing well with the braces and glacier and not even hurting that much. The glacial descent itself was lovely – a bit challenging in spots where the snowfield got steep, but we had rope teams and crampons and axes, so even in the two instances where I lost footing I was able to very quickly self-arrest and stop my slide within a foot or three.

The return to Arrowhead Lake was glorious – we quickly dropped our packs, and our outside clothes, and jumped into the bracing lake. It was freezing at first, but actually quite warm once we became acclimatized to it… the lake was maybe 4ft deep at its deepest, and fairly small, so the sun warmed it up nicely throughout the day. It wasn’t like a hot-tub, by any means, but… more like a mild cryotherapy? Regardless of the exact temperature, the lake was hugely appreciated and undoubtedly contributed to a speedy recovery for my poor tired legs.

Dinner and sunset were lovely, as expected, and sleep claimed me quickly and deeply; a very well earned rest.

The following morning saw us packing up a bit later than we had on Saturday. We didn’t have a summit to try for, and almost our entire trail was downhill… which would speed our pace, and was absolutely critical to my sanity for the morning. I could (and did) survive some uphill… but the lake and some ibuprofen could only do so much, and my poor legs had performed right up to their peak over the two days prior.

We took a detour to visit a small spring at the base of our campsite, maybe 300ft below the lake, and to see the waterfall that it turned into later on. We hiked, chatted, and took semi-frequent breaks to snap pictures of the stunning scenery surrounding us.

That didn’t slow our pace though, and we made excellent time – finding ourselves back at the trailhead far earlier than I would have guessed.

A final group meeting was had, and the climb was officially over.

We did an outbrief, discussed lunch, and made our way to burritos in a small tourist town called Detroit. On the way, I picked up a few hitchhikers from Bangkok who were hiking the PCT, and the whole team had lunch (together with the backpackers) at an excellent pod of food trucks off the side of the highway. We traded stories, learned a bit about their slice of the world (Both were ex-pats, one from the States, the other from London), and finally said our goodbyes for the day.

I drove home, left my gear in the spare room, and drew myself a much-needed Epson salt bath.

P.S. – I just got an email from another team who was on the mountain! They got pictures of us on the summit!

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