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[TR] South Sister - Silver Couloir 05/25/2020

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Trip: South Sister - Silver Couloir

Trip Date: 05/25/2020

Trip Report:

Images: https://imgur.com/a/5vQUocK 

9 PM start
11 PM pass North / Middle sister climbers trail on Camp Lake trail
12:45 AM Camp Lake
5 AM base of the climb
7 AM heading down from North Face Couloir
8 AM top of Silver Couloir
8:45 AM Summit

Thanks ScaredSilly, Drocka, et al. for your trip reports on South Sister. Maybe you could name the route you took The Fin for the rock near the bottom of the route.


My intention was to climb the North Face Couloir. https://imgur.com/a/aPEHYwd showed good snow coverage over the rock bands. I’d watched the radar in the middle of the week for South Sister when it was forecast to get 7.5 inches of snow and it seemed like it rarely got any. My brother’s old skiing and climbing friend skied Mt Bachelor on Friday and said there was 1 – 1.5 feet of new snow on top of a solid base. One day of sun, Friday, was surely not going to consolidate that. Brother skied Mt Hood on Saturday and said there was decent climbing conditions. Hmm, well, it was forecast to warm up on South Sister in the next week so I figured I may has well try now as it probably wasn’t going to get any better the rest of the season.

Drove down Saturday afternoon and was on the trail by 9 PM. Started out in a sun hoody, warm gloves and an ear band, added a hat an hour in, fleece top three hours in and then finally a thin wind jacket after getting out of the trees. It was cool with little wind. The approach from Pole Creek was the normal dusty trail for the first few hours with lots of logs and a few downed trees giving way to snow and non-dead trees later.

The lower snow was compact and easy to walk on, the new snow, higher up was, as expected, not consolidated. Most of the way over this was fine, nice to have some cushioning when walking in mountaineering boots. As I climbed out of Camp Lake the unconsolidated snow got deeper, maybe six inches and I put on crampon.

It was still very dark, new moon that morning, when I checked Gaia to find I’d slightly overshot the turn to start climbing up to the route but was able to go up a bit and traverse left to get there. Heading up the canyon, the snow just got deeper and was still not consolidated. I stabbed the axe down to the hilt with my right hand, pushed the blade of the tool as deeply as I could with the left, kicked in hard and pretended things were going to be fine even though nothing was solid but the snow was holding my weight.

Getting up the first rock band was no problem and to the bottom of the second, not much more than traversing right and left to take the best route. The start of the second band required getting over a couple of, not too large, rocks. To my surprise I was able to get a solid tool placement above the rocks and hoisted myself up while pushing off another rock.

The upper part of the second band was a different story. The rocks were bigger, steeper and partially covered in ice. I swung the tool hard twice into the exact same spot on a rock covered in ice and got nothing more than an inch-wide divot, no penetration at all. I tried a couple of other spots and reaching around the rock to see if I could hook something but it was too large. Looking up at the final rock band, I resigned that even if I could get above the immediate rocks, there is no way I’d be able to climb to the top this way. My original hope was that the snow just to the right of the final rock band face wouldn’t be too steep and I’d find a way up. Not a chance, there was hardly any snow on the rocks, just a wall of rock and boulders covered in ice.

After down climbing a bit, I traversed left, staying close to the rock cliff, and went up the Silver Couloir. This was as advertised, a straightforward steep snow climb. The last 10 feet were very steep and kicking in was more like kicking in my entire lower leg. The lower angle slope to the summit ring had a bunch of unconsolidated snow too but there were areas that were actually firm.

After talking to the only group on the summit, I headed southward along the rim and started heading down. The snow was now sticking to my boots and gaiters making massive clown shoes. Not too long later I see a guy on the summit ridge in a Grivel helmet. He says he just climbed the Silver Couloir too. He thanked me for making steps and asks to exchange info so we could do the N Face Couloir next year. Any other time I would be like, heck yeah, that sounds great but I’m completely defeated and want nothing to do with that thing and think no one should climb it without a top rope or years of ice climbing experience. Shoot, I was way too literal in my thinking and missed the chance of finding a great climbing partner. He even offered to makes steps down the North Ridge which he did and I followed but he was long gone by the time I got over there.

The walk back to Pole Creek TR was like experiencing a dream where all my movements were slow and painful. I just tried to keep moving and think I’ll get back eventually. The thought of chocolate covered almonds made the idea of driving 3+ hours home bearable.

I’ll remember this one for a while. Maybe do a route on the Prouty side next?

Gear Notes:
Helmet, crampons, axe, 2 tools (only used one)

Approach Notes:
The normal dusty trail for the first few hours with lots of logs and a few downed trees giving way to snow and non-dead trees later
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Nice job on getting to the north side of the hill. Lots of effort, just wish the routes were longer. Gotta bring skis though as that is really the way to go.

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