Monday, October 3, 2011

Three Sisters Circumnavigation

The full album of pictures can be found HERE

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
Woke up on Saturday to clouds and the lightest mist.  Not great, but thoughts were that it'd burn off by sun-up.  Had tea, ate a bunch, and was on the trail at 0705.  I brought with me a lot of stuff for this 99.9% wilderness, 100% unsupported 50-miler:

- 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
- Compass
- Lighter
- 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
 Hit the junction with Scott Pass trail and descended, seeing the "climber" trail LB took by accident.  I also reminisced about taking "the kids" here back in 2005 and taking Scott Pass trail instead of PCT, and the "Jimmy" that was scarcely averted! 

Scott Camp trail to the left, the climber to the right...
 Nice downhill along Scott Pass, but roughed up a bit by horses.  Passed the false trail junction, through burned forest, finally to the junction of Green Lakes trail, on which I'd run all the way to its name-sake.

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.
 I rolled along, but now beginning to conserve water.  Bad move.  I began to feel a little worse.  Now three hours in, I took my first S-cap, dissolving in my mouth first.  It didn't taste good, which is a sign that I wasn't very low on salt.  Uh-oh.  Mistake #2.

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
Saw the Green Lakes just before 1100.  Before making it to water level, I stopped at a volcanic creek feeding the lakes.  It was small, frigid, and looked awesome.  I drank here, then completely filled my pack - there's no way I'm making it to Obsidian on 20 oz of water.  My body temp dropped during this refuel; does not look like it's gonna warm up.  I hope it doesn't rain...

A feeder stream to the Green Lakes. More unfiltered water.
I descended to Green Lakes and kept rolling, still feeling sluggish in the legs and increasingly so in the gut.  Not good.  By the time I traversed the gorgeous plateau with dotted lakes, it was time to fertilize the pumice.  Relieved, I began the descent down Fall Creek trail, feeling hardly better than before the pit-stop. 

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. 
Moraine Lake
After crossing the South Sister climber, the trail bombs down to Wickiup Plain - a desert-like pumice field at "7 o'clock" on the map.  The gut got much worse.  Another pit stop, but little relief.  I was struggling.  The weather remained cloudy and cool, and the south wind persisted.  My only solace was knowing I'd have a tailwind coming in just a few miles. 

Wickiup Plain
The PCT cut-off trail connected the remains of Moraine Lake trail and the PCT.  Through the Plain, it was a double-track of pumice dust and more wooded descent before spitting out finally onto the PCT.  "The home stretch!".  It was 1300.  I told Britt I'd be back between 4 and 6.  I had no idea how much mileage to go, but I knew: A.) the mileage was off, anyway, and B.) I was sick of getting out my map.  So off I went, battling debilitating gut-rot and shuffling along as best I could  Miserable. 
PCT at Wickiup Plain, "the home stretch"
The trail in this section, all PCT, was, in retrospect, pretty incredible: periods of wooded rollers with many short to medium meadow crossings - some grassy, but others rocky and pumice.  It made for terrific running -- if you had a fresh gut and legs -- but for me, they were unappreciated.  For me, it was all about getting to Obsidian area, a very popular hiking area -- for its beauty and relative ease of entry (only 5 miles one way from OR 242).  It was here that there'd be fresh spring water, and familiar turf - I'd run this stretch of PCT several times in the past decade, including my first-ever "real" trail run.

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 passed several more beautiful but unappreciated meadows before finally, finally hitting Obsidian!  Yes!  I snapped a single pic of the falls, resisted the strong physical urge to fertilize yet again, and made my way to the source of the spring to dump the saline for fresh Oregon spring water. 
The falls!
From here: ten miles back to a warm tent, a warmer truck, and beer.  I plotted:  "OK, it's a nice downhill to Glacier Trail, then a tough hiker-uphill in the woods, then lava up to Opie Diddock, then a bunch of downhill again, then a half-uphill to Yapoah, down again, a slight up to Scott Pass, then all downhill!  Just three climbs!"  It was that easy.  I left Obsidian buoyed with pure water and the hope of familiarity and a plan.

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
From there, a terrific descent through woods and gentler terrain -- I was finally feeling OK, so I really opened it up, approaching Minnie Scott Spring.  No stops, just flying, over very brief ups and many steeper downs until bottoming out at the fog-filled Scott Meadow.  I was about 5 miles away, but...I couldn't hold it, so I had to fertilize again.  I lucked out this time: to wipe, I had "alpine wild flowers" (already deceased), but by then, my backside was far too raw to appreciate the delicate leaves. 
Scott Pass trail junction, in Scott Meadow
After Scott, one last significant climb, up and over the side of Yapoah, then some legitimately fun snaking through lava to Scott Pass and the home stretch!  It was 1700 with 3ish miles to go. 

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. 
Tough, tough run: second-hardest of all-time.  You could say I messed up my gut with too much salt.  And I did.  But it was a more nuanced one: mistaking dehydration for salt depletion.  And, arguably, I "ruined" this run by having such a terrible stomach for the bulk of it.  I could've trimmed an hour simply by cutting out two S-Caps.  But it was a terrific experience: 50 miles, unsupported, in the wilderness, with a little spice of adversity. 

The full album of pictures can be found HERE.


  1. beautiful scenery man. congrats on "gutting" it out;) our WS voyage will go a lot smoother, I hope. see ya soon.

  2. Impressive, and beautiful scenery. You'll have to consider an Appalachian Trail trip in the future. Enjoy the WS weekend coming up - hope to see you soon.

  3. Hey,
    I’m planning on taking this on early summer. Is there any way I can connect with you to get more information about your route?