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Climbing North Sister with Allen Throop

Allen Throop:
"Heather Throop climbs below Prouty Pinnacle on North Sister."

Sister act . . .
Of the Three Sisters, North provides most challenging ascent
By Allen Throop
Venture Contributor
Saturday, June 21, 2003

"Rock!" I heard Henry yell from somewhere above me.

Although I didn't hear the characteristic clatter of a piece of mountain plummeting down, I ducked and pulled myself into the cliff. The blow that struck me despite the dodge made me stagger as the unseen rock bounced off my helmet and then off my pack.

Gingerly, I shook my head.

Nothing wrong there.

With great relief, I continued to lead our way down and away from our unreached goal — the top of North Sister mountain in the central Oregon Cascades.

Despite the close call and stopping short of our goal when we ran out of time, I felt on top of the world. The trip was a classic mountaineering experience: a mental and physical challenge that pitted our skills against a cold, impersonal natural world.

No gold medals awaited us on top. Memories of the companionship, the challenges and the views were sufficient compensation for our physical and mental exhaustion.

North Sister is not the "solid-as-a-rock" peak that most people visualize when thinking of a mountain.

Pleistocene glaciation eroded away much of the top but left three spires vying for the honor of being the highest. The spires are remnants of a volcanic neck that, when still molten, pushed through older rocks and then formed a peak which dominated the surrounding countryside.

The original North Sister possibly resembled a taller version of Belknap Crater, which is nearby — a classic volcanic cone covered with loose cinders. Middle and South Sister formed later. Millions of years of glacial erosion, freezing and thawing, and avalanches and rockslides sculpted the peak to today's shape.

Our goal was the 10,085-foot summit of the two-pronged Prouty Pinnacle.

The peak was named for Harley Prouty, who is credited with the mountain's first ascent in 1910. According to Corvallis resident Don Alan Hall, author of On Top of Oregon, Prouty stated after his third and final ascent — at age 60 — that the peak would be impossible to climb soon because of loose rock.

Tile-shaped chunks of andesite have been falling off the mountain since the large glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago. As the peak slowly and inevitably wastes away, countless future generations of climbers can expect to face similar loose rock on North Sister.

Backpackers, day hikers and hunters stick to the lower, more gentle part of the mountain. The massive base is formed of layer after layer of basalt built up into a huge dome.

In addition to Prouty Peak and the attached ridges, numerous young cinder cones decorate the massive base and basalt flows. The names given to the features ranges from purely descriptive (Four in One Cone and Obsidian Cliffs) to the frivolous (Oppie Dildock Pass.)

The ascent to the summit started where the volcanic neck pierces through the broad base.

The initial climb was up a steep cinder slope similar to the one on South Sister but without the well-worn trail. For every two steps forward, my boots slid back one step.

A large collection of those cinders ended up in my boots. With persistent climbing we eventually reached the solid bedrock that forms the backbone of the summit ridge.

The backbone reminded me of a stegosaurus with its row of thin fins sticking up above the main ridge. As the route led steadily up the backbone, we shifted from the left side of one or two of the animal's fins and then to the right side of the next.

While climbing, we focused on finding solid footing. We didn't enjoy the panorama until we reached the end of a large fin.

Suddenly, Hayden Glacier lay at our feet, and Broken Top sat a few miles farther away. The rigors of the climb were eclipsed by the magnificence of the view.

Looking at our world from an airplane always excites me, but that window view doesn't compare to the real thing.

The view, enhanced by the wind and the 1,000-foot cliff at my feet, was the answer to the question: "Why climb North Sister?" The view was dramatic: numerous Cascades peaks; the routes of many previous visits to this wilderness; thick clouds rolling in from the Pacific and disappearing near Bend.

This moment would live on as a bond shared by only four of us.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, that view created the emotional high point of the trip. After a snack we moved on.

The climber's route next went horizontally below the base of Prouty Peak. To my right, the rocks of the old volcano's neck stuck up vertically for several hundred feet. The route sloped steeply to the left. Traversing this area was like crossing a steep roof of a skyscraper covered with layers of loose roofing tile.

On that day, I felt comfortable and confident while crossing. Careful foot placement and a proper attitude made all the difference.

Another member of the party, however, decided that the combination of loose rock and the potential of a long fall was more challenge than she needed that day. We found a secure resting spot for her, promised to turn around at 1 p.m., and moved on.

We worked our way past the base of Prouty Peak and started up a crack described in the climbing guides as The Bowling Alley.

Loose rocks were the balls and the climbers were the pins. We spent some time going up an incorrect dead-end route and then set up our climbing gear for the final ascent to the top.

Although the last few hundred feet are the steepest, they are probably not the most difficult. The top seemed to be within reach, but time defeated us. At 1 p.m., we looked longingly at our nearby goal and reluctantly started our descent.

It's not easy to turn around within sight of a summit after every effort for hours has been fixed on reaching it, but climber's discipline ruled: set limits, stick with them and climb another day.

We coiled the ropes and headed down, each of us thinking, "Next time we'll get started earlier, next time we'll know the route, next time . . ."



The Allen Throop Page
Brief history of Allen Throop, as seen (mostly) through the eyes of Henry.

This is a page for and about my dad, Allen. He's been a writer, geologist, father, teacher, dog trainer, mountaineering trip leader, canoe builder, tandem captain, and source of inspiration and happiness to me for the last 31 years.

As of February 2003, dad has been diagnosed with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's disease -- cf. Stephen Hawking). ALS takes away the motor neurons, meaning that voluntary muscle control (arms, legs, speech, swallowing, etc.) becomes more & more difficult. His physical life now is mostly limited to trips around the house pushed in a wheelchair or carried in a lift-crane. Motor neurons account for well less than 1% of the body's mass, but without them the whole life experienced by moving about the world is lost. I've been so lucky to have the assistance of him and his motor neurons throughout my time here.

NB: The dates and actual places here are mostly close, but only rarely 100% accurate. Unlike my father (who can remember the history, wind speed, and local geology of every dirt road in Eastern Oregon he drove down), I have the memory for neither maps nor months.


Note: Go to the web page above and spend a few minutes reading about this interesting man and his family, described with great humor and loving appreciation by his son.
-Webmeister Speik





Read more . . .
American Alpine Club
Oregon Section of the AAC
Accidents in North American Mountaineering

North Sister - Accident analyzed for ANAM by Fitz Cahall
North Sister - Trip Report June 2007
North Sister - Climbers swept by avalanche while descending Thayer Glacier Snowfield
North Sister - Climbing with Allan Throop
North Sister - Accident Report to the American Alpine Club on a fatal fall
North Sister - Fatal accident news reports on the loss of Dr. Shively
North Sister and Middle Sister - Trip Report, spring summits on telemark skis
North Sister - North Ridge Trip Report by Sam Carpenter
North Sister - AAC Report of fatal fall from east side by Martina Testa
North Sister - SE Ridge Solo, a Trip Report by Sam Carpenter

North Sister, the Terrible Traverse in September, 1999
Middle and North Sister exploratory adventure   
North Sister and Middle Sister spring summits on telemark skis
North Sister, Scott's solo summer summit
North Sister exploratory
North Sister winter solo
North Sister: crux photos of the Three Sisters Marathon
North Sister by the south east ridge

Middle Sister, Oregon, photos of this mountaineering summit in June 2007
Middle and North Sister exploratory adventure  
North Sister and Middle Sister spring summits on telemark skis