Moraine Lake to the Summit of South Sister, then back to the PCT mile 1959 to mile 1962
3 miles on the PCT + 12 non-PCT miles
My eyes open before my alarm goes off. Today is like a vacation from my vacation! What will the largest-glacier-in-Oregon look like? Will there be ice still on the high elevation lakes? What butterflies will be flying around at 10,000 feet? I think about all the PCT hikers down around the base of South Sister, while I am high up here in the alpine wonderland. It thrills me to be deviating from the PCT and making my own choices about where I roam.
Despite starting to hike by 5:20 AM, I don’t get on the actual climber’s route until 6AM. I have to hike all the way to Moraine Lake from my remote site, climb up from the lake and then cache my tarp/ sleeping bag/ hammock off the trail. With all the habituated chipmunks lurking, I decide to carry all my (4 days worth!) food. Heavy, but prudent.
I love the morning predawn hiking. Love the vastness and the exhilaration of the climb. The air smells delightful after the storm. The footing is really good after the rain- like the trail got compacted and cleansed. I can only imagine how dusty and loose it was the morning before.
Three sets of footprints are in front of me. One set is small and I find out that they belong to a 4th grade girl hiking with her dad. Her sweet voice wafts on the wind and its delightful to meet her.
When I get to the really steep uphill with loose rocks I come upon the lead hiker, and we end up hiking for most of the day together. R. keeps a steady pace and just tells me a few snippets of his story. I’m amazed that he is 70 years old! He is one of those people you can sense had lots of experiences over his lifetime, but doesn't brag. I feel lucky to have run into him. R. says that he wanted to hike this mountain today because next year they are switching to a permit system.
The first lake is amazing blue and the Lewis glacier above has deep blue ice.
A few young guys pass us on the way to the top, but by the time we get up there (just before 9), they are already heading down again so it doesn’t feel crowded.
Instead, it feels like we are on top of the world and have it all to ourselves! Volcanos stretch out to the north and south, ones I’ve hiked around and have yet to hike near. The Three Sisters are all shaped so different even though they form from the same mountain building processes. R. talks about the geological processes that formed the features that he's hiked over the years.
On the way down, we run into A LOT of people coming up. It becomes very overwhelming and I hurry to turn off the Climber’s Trail back onto the side trail that will lead to the PCT. The experience of that massive crowd swarming up the mountains makes me see why they will have a permit system. I’m very grateful for my early start because I feel like the crowds didn’t negatively impact my experience of climbing the mountain.
I take a circuitous route back to the PCT, instead of the direct route, so I skip less of the PCT. The view of South Sister from the PCT is still beautiful, but it makes me really glad I climbed it so I could experience it up close.
I make camp early (4 PM!) since I don’t need to get to hwy 20 until Thursday. And because I’m tired and have been up since 5 AM. I delight the mosquitoes by fetching water and bringing it back to my campsite for a sponge bath. I’ve not felt so sweaty this whole trip. The rinse off feels delightful and the mosquitoes sure are pleased by the meal!
As I lay in my hammock and calculate my daily mileage, I discover I bypassed 6.7 miles of the PCT with my 22 mile Elk Lake/ South Sister alternate. Of course some people will still say that because I didn’t hike the official PCT route, that this makes my hike “invalid.” To this I can only laugh. I gained so much with my side trip— getting to see the glacier up close, experiencing an incredible view, and the butterflies up there were just amazing! I’m so glad to have the experience of that extra adventure. It was definitely one of the highlights of my whole summer.