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Sam Carpenter and Nancy Knoble on August 11, 2001

Sam Carpenter and Nancy Knoble on August 11, 2001

Nancy Knoble and I, Sam Carpenter, departed Bend at 4:30AM on Saturday August 11, 2001. We were on the PCT near McKenzie Pass at 5:30AM. The elevation at this point is approximately 5,300 feet. We walked south, hard and fast, with our 30 pound packs. It was a six mile trudge on the PCT before we jumped off onto a climber’s trail headed east. After two more miles, it was 10:00AM when we reached North Sister’s NW ridge at about 7800 feet. The ridge was barren and dry and the mountain loomed ahead, dark and nasty, to the south. At this point, the weather was clear and warm with just a few clouds materializing.

We dumped our packs and strapped on our rope, pro, harnesses and water. At this cache point as we prepared to climb, we each gazed to the south, at the mountain. We didn’t say much about those moments until after we had descended many, many hours later. We found that we had each shared the thought that this was a mean, black, forbidding monster…frightening in a dark way…clearly the disturbed, passionate, dark sibling to the other two Sisters. If Nancy and I were characters in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, we were at the threshold of Mordor.

We climbed up the ridge through shattered rubble to the 8,500 foot level where we encountered a fin with what seemed like an obvious ascending ledge on the north side. Without going into detail, suffice it to say we negotiated a very small stretch of this ledge before we discovered the meaning of the terms “damn rotten rock”, “extreme exposure” and “poor risk/reward ratio”. Climbers must avoid the lure of this ledge and bear right around this steep ridge. In fact, as other steep ridges appear further up, the key is to stay to the right of every one of them. 

It was 2:00PM before we approached the summit pillars at 10,000 feet. The rock all the way up the ridge, and on the pillars themselves, is unbelievable tormented, fractured, loose and on-the-move. The first close-up sighting of the three summit pillars was as intimidating as our first glimpses of the mountain from our cache point down below. The pillars were much larger and more imposing than we had imagined. The thought of climbing them seemed ludicrous. But, in a fit of summit fever, we scrambled, short-roped and belayed across the scree slopes to the west and directly underneath the vertical wall of Glisan Pinnacle, in an effort to reach the north horn of Prouty Pinnacle which is the true summit. The day was moving ahead quickly and I talked Nancy into belaying me one more time, further south, across the top of one last steep scree field, so I could maybe pick up a quick route for us up to the top.

The mostly horizontal pitch took me around a corner and I was out of her sight, moving south across the bottom of Glisan and toward Prouty. There were no protection points available as the entire wall Glisan was rotten. I inched my way across the base of the pinnacle with nearly every handhold breaking off. From the base of the pinnacle, and to my west, steep scree slopes dropped away for 3,000 vertical feet. I kept moving across and then scrambled, about 30 vertical feet, up through a tiny notch of about eighteen inches height. The notch was about ten feet wide but eight feet of it was a very steep, falling-away, blue ice mini-glacier. I crawled up through a dirt slot which was maybe two feet wide, just to the left of the ice, hard against the Prouty rock wall. It was an effort to find holds against the wall to keep from sliding down the ice and into the chute below. It would have been a 100+ foot slide/tumble before Nancy’s belay would stop the plunge. Six feet out of the crawl space, I finally stood on a tiny saddle between Prouty and a small pillar just to the west of the main monoliths. I was completely out of rope so tied off my end and free climbed the small pillar and found I was due west and 100 horizontal feet across what appeared to be the infamous Bowling Alley that leads to the summit. If this chute was truly the Bowling Alley, from my vantage point, it appeared to be vertical and looked impossible to climb. But, chutes can look that way when viewed head on. My understanding is that in reality it is a rope-less scramble to the top.

I stopped, thought about it, and called it quits as the afternoon was wearing on quickly. If Nancy could have joined me there on the notch, I believe we could have achieved the summit within an hour. But, at 4:00PM, it was too late in the day to do anything but retreat. I crawled back down through that awful, tiny notch and made it back to Nancy. It was warm-we both wore light T-shirts as we contemplated our descent. 

We backtracked downward quickly but didn’t reach the PCT until 8:30PM. We reorganized our gear, changed footwear, guzzled the last bottle of water and headed out at 9:00PM. From there, by headlamp, it was a two and one-half hour starlight trudge to the car. It had been a 20+ mile, 5,000 vertical foot, eighteen hour day.

My final thoughts for summertime climbers taking on the North Sister via the NW ridge is that it’s an OK way to go although, for a one-day venture, the 8 mile approach is a bit much. To take this route, consider walking in and camping near the ridge…from there, leave for the summit very early. Take plenty of water and plan to be focused every second while on the route. If climbing is an equation, the instability of the basic climbing strata of the North Sister is an element of unbelievable variation and unpredictability. It is unforgiving: the rock is rotten, rotten, rotten…take plenty of slings and there are places that mid size to large cams and hex nuts are useful. There is no need for hardware until the pillars are encountered. Also consider some light gloves to help protect against the harsh rock. Be sure to gaiters to keep the scree out of hiking boots in the down-climb: we didn’t and must have stopped to empty our shoes twenty times on the descent. A helmet is mandatory due to rock-fall around the pillars.

I very much appreciated Nancy’s unwavering enthusiasm for pushing ahead no matter the obstacles and the frustrations. The single word that kept going through my mind as we dealt with this mountain was the word “gnarly”. Whomever coined that word must have been climbing the North Sister at the time.

When we go back to finally gain the summit it will be via the more traditional southern approach, via Pole Creek, although we have heard that the ice field directly below South Prouty is a major challenge except in late Summer and early Fall when it usually melts off. 

-Sam Carpenter

Copyright© 2002 by Sam Carpenter. All Rights Reserved