Tuesday, September 29, 2015

South Sister, and a rescue (9/20/15)

Sean, Brad and I attempted South Sister quite a few years back on snow with skis for the fellas and snowshoes for me. We camped above Moraine Lake and got to the saddle before turning back because of winds high enough to knock us off our feet.

The weather looked great two weekends ago, so we made a last-minute trip to Central Oregon for some climbing.

I've always heard South Sister was "easy" but a slog in the summer - non-technical but long and dry. Also, EVERYONE'S done it - Boy Scout troops, college leadership training, youth groups, everyone. So I honestly didn't think much of it. No biggie.

I did my hard running workout on the treadmill Friday evening before heading to the THS football game, where I stood the entire time. In hindsight, that probably wasn't the best idea. Then I loaded my overnight pack and got in the car Saturday morning for the 4-hour drive.

We crested the range and got a look at the mountain. Beautiful! And covered in snow?!? Apparently, it snowed earlier in the week. We were not prepared for snow - hopefully that wouldn't be a problem. Also, I looked in our trusty car atlas and discovered that South Sister is 10,358 feet - the third tallest mountain in Oregon! Perhaps I should have researched a bit more before agreeing to this quick, little easy adventure.

We parked at the Devil's Lake trailhead just past Mount Bachelor on the Cascade Lakes Highway, along with what seemed like 1,000 other people (mostly Subarus) who also decided to take advantage of the weather.

We hit the trail about 3 p.m. The hike in was steep and way tougher for me than it should have been. My legs were so tired from Friday's workout and the big pack I was carrying. I sleep very cold, so I brought my coldest (heaviest) sleeping bag. My next order of business is shopping for a lighter cold-weather bag (Brad says I should get this one) :)

This climb was nothing outside my ability, but I just didn't realize when I signed up that it was a real mountain. Knowing what I was getting myself into would have been a good idea. 
We reached the Moraine Lake area, our destination for the day, and found a great camp spot.
About 90 minutes after leaving the car, we were kicked back and enjoying this gorgeous view of South Sister:
After setting up camp, eating dinner, pumping water and hanging our food and other smellies, we went to sleep nice and early with plans to get up about 6 a.m. to head for the summit.

Morning view:
Sun rising over Moraine Lake:
A large helicopter was soon circling the summit, and my news nose tried to figure out what was going on. It wasn't behaving like a sight-seeing tour. A search? A rescue? It was first light, so that was a good possibility. After a few passes, the helicopter landed on a flat spot about halfway up the mountain. It lifted off a short time later and flew back toward town. We assumed someone was airlifted to safety.

The climbing route was obvious and very easy to follow. Even with our early start, we were leap-frogging several other climbers most of the morning. Later in the day, it was like a freeway! Very popular route.

About 9 a.m., we heard some men yelling on the other side of the ridge to our left. Brad and I decided to hike over and make sure no one was in trouble. It turned out two search-and-rescue guys had been dropped off by the helicopter and were looking for two lost climbers. The lost men had called 911 about 9 p.m. the night before asking for help, and the pings from their phone put them in that general area. The SAR guys asked our names, and when they learned we were not the two they were looking for, they told us to be on the lookout for Mohammed and Ahmed, ages 19 and 20.

Sure thing! And we were on our way.

About 15 minutes later, Brad reached the saddle ahead of my plodding butt and turned to take my picture:
As he was snapping away, two young, Middle-Eastern-looking men rounded the rock to Brad's right. It was a crazy aha moment! I pointed, Brad turned, did a double take, and asked their names. It was the missing climbers!!

I ran up to the saddle, and we quickly asked if they were OK and if they needed water or food. We tried to give them our warm clothes, but they refused the help.

Brad left to alert the SAR team while I stayed with the men and called 911. The men seemed very out of it, though they were uninjured. I finally convinced them to sit down and wait. It sounds like they got lost when it got dark and then climbed back toward the summit to locate the trail. Their phone had died after calling 911.

Their names were actually Mohammed and Anan. They were not prepared for cold weather, let alone an overnight on the side (or top!) of a mountain. They had light jackets, and one of the men had stretchy gloves without fingers. Both carried just book bag-style backpacks. They said they had saved some water and food and didn't need ours. I asked if they had huddled under a rock to stay warm overnight and they said there were no rocks where they were.

One of the men told me he had never been so scared. He thought he would die overnight.

Mohammed and Anan told me the rescuers said they would be there in about 5 hours. After 10, apparently they gave up and decided to walk out on their own. *Side note - Rescues take a long, long time. Some people think that if they get in trouble, rescuers will just come pluck them off the mountain. Not so. Always be prepared to stay overnight!

Fortunately, I had four reception bars on my phone. I told the 911 operator that we had located the missing climbers. She took all kinds of information and then had the SAR sergeant call me. He took more information and then asked permission to text me a link so he could connect to my phone's GPS and track my location.

I followed the instructions, and a few minutes later, he called back and said, "Got it! I know exactly where you are!" Meantime, Brad returned from alerting the SAR team, and I convinced the sergeant on the phone that we were "100% certain" that the SAR guys knew where we were and were on their way.

He took our names, address and dates of birth and said, "You're a very important person right now!" Why, thank you ;)

Within a few minutes, one of the SAR climbers arrived and started evaluating Mohammed and Anan, checking for frostbite on their hands and feet and also trying to give them food, water and warm clothes like we had done.

There wasn't much left for us to do, so we hit the trail, full of adrenaline and ready to make the summit!

Looking back, the men probably would have made it down on their own. However, if we had not stopped them, they would have kept going down while the SAR climbers kept going up on the other side of the ridge. They would have missed each other completely, and SAR would have spent the day looking for two guys who weren't there.

Click HERE to read a very complete news report that tells the story from the SAR side.

After that much excitement, the rest of the climb is a bit of a blur! We chatted about our rescue while climbing up, up, up.

The lake on the other side of the saddle:
The trail was really straightforward, and the snow wasn't too much of a problem because it was sun-softened. However, I was really glad I had my trekking poles for extra stability.

Mount Bachelor in the background, Moraine Lake in the right, middle:
The last pitch before the false summit was the trickiest of the day. It was very steep and covered with deep snow. Fortunately, a week of heavy traffic left lots of boot-packed steps. Again, I was very glad to have my poles.

Once we reached the false summit, the wind became really intense out of the north-northwest. Instead of tromping across the crater, we opted to go counterclockwise around the rim to take in the views of Bachelor and Broken Top. We took a breather in a large stone tent shelter, grabbing a snack and water before hiking the last bit to the true summit.
The view from the top was fantastic! It was clear all the way past Mount Hood, though a few slight clouds concealed the Washington mountains. To the south, we could see past Mount Thielsen.

Middle Sister and North Sister:
Bracing against the knock-you-down wind:
Broken Top:
Summit survey marker:
Looking south across the crater at the false summit. Notice the boot pack across the snow:
West of the crater:
Standing on the real summit block:
Broken Top:
The wind was too strong to hang out too long, so down we went.
Almost back at the lake. Broken Top:
We were just up there!
We returned to camp to rest for a few minutes:
New boots did great!
We packed up and hiked out, tired, dirty and HUNGRY! Good thing Deschutes Brewery is a great place to refuel before driving home. Pulled pork for Brad and veggie pizza for me:
A trip to remember, that's for sure! :)

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