The Three Sisters Circumnavigation has been on my to-do list for at least a year, when I first found out it was possible. It helped that LB did it a few weeks prior, so I was able to pick his brain beforehand about some logistics and route-finding.
On Friday night Britt and I drove up to Lava Camp Lake, just off OR 242, and only meters from the PCT and the start of the loop. The plan was to run at day-break, and for Britt to come pick me up when finished. When, exactly, was less math and more luck. LB had guessed (and T-Bag and "Jesus" confirmed via GPS) that this loop was in fact 50 miles, and a slow 50. LB did it in 15 hours, albeit quite leisurely. Since I'd done 50 on the WS trail through the canyons, walking all the ups, in <11 hours, I figured on 9 to 11 hours for this loop without any huge climbers.
|Camp, Friday night|
- Nathan hydration pack with 70 oz capacity, filled
- Backcountry first aid pack (small, maybe 3/4lb)
- 1 Half sandwich
- 8-12oz mixed nuts
- 8oz dried fruit (apricots, cranberries)
- 1 Clif Bar
- 2 GU packs
- 1 gel flask w/5 GU packs therein
- 4 Nuun tabs
- 8-10 E-caps
- 8-10 S-caps
- Three Sisters Wilderness map
- Black Diamond Sprinter headlamp
- Steripen Adventurer water treatment wand
- Camelbak Delaney Plus belt + empty bottle (for filtering water and other carriage)
A lot of stuff, indeed, but all necessary for an enjoyable and safe wilderness outing. And all, surprisingly, quite comfortable split between the Nathan pack and the waist pack. I also had along a jacket and a skull cap that I wore in the AM, intending to doff when it warmed up. It never did.
I slowly ascended the ridge to the Mathieu Lakes, feeling pretty good. It was about three miles' worth of "lollipop stick" to the actual loop, which I'd run clockwise (E -> S -> W -> N). I had some new gait techniques to work on, so I focused on those while chipping away at the uphill. I was thankful that it was cool, but hopeful the fog would burn-off. The typical views from Scott Pass were shrouded in fog, which was slightly disappointing, but perhaps a "different kind of beauty".
|A normally awesome view of North Sister|
|Scott Camp trail to the left, the climber to the right...|
The first half of Green Lakes was deceptively tough: terrain alternating between loose volcanic sands or rough rock, and a relentless 2-3% uphill grade. That, plus >6,000' elevation made for some sluggish miles. Mid-way through this section I came across a dried creek bed resembling Alder Creek. It were here that LB pointed out as his location of his "Solo / Fast" that he and Dan-O were undertaking at that very moment: 36 hours of....sitting in the woods, not doing anything. Including eating. I didn't yelp or going searching along the creek bed, but in a show of solidarity, I did leave a marking.
Fueling: I set my watch for 25 minutes to beep for gels, which has seemed to work well. I also took water then, but not much. I didn't feel the need to drink, given how cold it was. But a couple hours in, I was feeling sluggish. I took an E-cap and felt better.
Finally the climbs ended momentarily and we got some of our first consistent views of North Sister. Cool. Then the first of several creek crossings. All of them were bridged with logs, so the feet stayed dry. On the second creek, I stopped, intending to treat some water, just in case I needed it. Moreover, I was in the mood for non-Nuun liquid.
Mistake #1: I got out my Steripen and turned it on. It came on for 3 seconds, then switched off, never to turn on again. F. No filtration. I'd have to wing it. There were several mountain springs on this loop -- pure, nature-filtered water that comes literally from the base of the Sisters -- all of which you can tap directly at the source. However, the two I knew of were on the other side of the loop 30 miles away. My 40 oz of nuun was not going to last that long. So I filled the bottle and carried it, to drink just in case.
|Unfiltered water source, #1 - probably the most suspect, if any.|
My legs felt a little better, but soon I was approaching Park Meadows and the climb up to the ridge over Green Lakes, one of two high points topping 7,000' on the route. I felt very tired and sluggish, walking for the first time all day. Walk-jogging, I finally crested to a plain that, presumably, was the pass. The sun teased me a bit with a couple appearances here, but quickly was lost in a wave of clouds and strengthening south winds. Saw the first of several hikers here before beginning the descent to Green Lakes.
|Park Meadow, approaching the climb up to Green Lakes|
|A feeder stream to the Green Lakes. More unfiltered water.|
Saw several more hikers -- including a pair with a rifle (apparently hunting is legal in this wilderness area) -- and then came across a trio of horsemen, who asked about my run. It pained me to tell them, because it forced me to vocally admit what was in front of me: "I'm running the whole loop, about 50 miles, and I'm not quite half-done". I was not feeling good. At all.
By the time I got to the junction with Moraine Lake Trail, which would take me West to the PCT, I was nearly dizzy. There, while walking and eating my sandwich, I make a fateful decision: another S-cap. Mistake #3.
I walked a ton of Moraine Lake Trail, which climbed back up the ridge to its namesake lake. I shuffled the flats and walked nearly all ups, even the slightest ones. I drank water, but at this point my pack was its usual light-Nuun mix. More walking, more misery. Really, this bad, only 20-some miles in? Guess I'm really not fit.
|PCT at Wickiup Plain, "the home stretch"|
Contemplating my situation, it finally occurred to me what happened: I mistook dehydration for salt shortage. I'd over-salted, like I did at AR. So now I was stuck on a long stretch from Wickiup to Obsidian with nasty gut rot, without a reliable water source, and with my only fluid being, essentially, saline. Without a salt-washout, I'd be doomed to 15 minute mile pace (or slower!) for those last 20+ miles. Moreover, the weather was not good: maybe 50F and windy. I was cold, having never doffed my jacket or hat. If I slowed, I would only get colder. Much colder.
So, on the second creek I came across, I hiked up trail - away from any horse evidence - and filled my gut and my bottle with water. The gut still hurt, but I pressed on. An hour later, I came across another creek, almost passing it before taking out my map. I had a long way to go, and, still behind, needed more water. Another fill.
Those next miles were the toughest. Officially, this run became my second-hardest run of all time. I was praying to get to Obsidian. I thought about how T-Bag got to Obsidian, and bailed down the Obsidian Trail - a smooth 5-mile descent to the highway, rather than finish the final ten miles. This plan crossed my mind many times over as I inched my way north.
|Linton Meadow: beautiful, but unappreciated|
I quickly descended to Glacier Way, which is a direct hiker trail to North Sister, ascended more to the base of Opie Diddock, then began that "Long, Lonely Climb of Lonelieness". It was actually pretty surreal because of the thick, fast-moving fog that enveloped the pass. This section is nothing more than some lava rock slightly leveled into something resembling..."not a pile". I power hiked the rocky switchbacks with a nice wall of "tail-fog" pushing me upward. I could feel the gut rot and salt-overload finally ebbing; the powerhike climb felt good, and I was anxiously awaiting the runnable flats. I ran as best I could on this stretch, which was essentially a trail made of volcanic ball-bearings of various sizes, with just enough friction to not freely spin beneath your feet. I only stumbled once, though, and kept my feet, before descending once more.
|The Climb up the lava-tastic Opie|
|Yes, there's a trail in there. Maybe six switchbacks up this saddle.|
|To compare to ideal conditions, check out LB's second-to-last picture|
|Scott Pass trail junction, in Scott Meadow|
In a bizarre move, I found myself with full bars on my camera phone, so I texted Britt to say I was almost home. Another view of South Mathieu then a long descent to Lava Camp, where I opened it up as best I could to the finish.
I got to the Lava Camp TH at 1725. Total time: 10h20m.
The full album of pictures can be found HERE.