Birthday Mountain 2010: South Sister, Oregon

My birthday tradition is to climb a mountain every year on my birthday, preferably somewhere new. For my 30th birthday last year, I climbed up Gunung Agung in Indonesia, despite an injured ankle and a guide who was so sick that he fell asleep behind a pile of rocks at the summit. This year, I had planned a trip to Nepal with my brother, but because I re-injured my ankle in Bangkok and had bronchitis not too long ago, I took my doctor’s advice and bowed out of Nepal. Instead, I decided to visit the Pacific Northwest and try my hand (foot?) at climbing South Sister. Joining me was Peter West Carey, travel and wedding photographer and all around nice guy.

Climbing South Sister: My Birthday Mountain for 2010

My usual plan is to camp out at the summit, to watch sunrise on my birthday. The camping regulations for South Sister weren’t very cooperative:

climbing south sister in oregon

However, having camped out (illegally) on the Great Wall of China, I still hoped we would be able to do the same atop South Sister. We decided that we’d explain the birthday mountain to the ranger if we were found out, then explain that I came all the way from Canadia for my birthday mountain in Oregon and plead with him to let us camp. Luckily, none of this was necessary as we were one of several people (and one dog) camping atop the summit.**

** 2019 note: In case this joking tone wasn’t clear, being Canadian doesn’t exempt me from illegal activities, and were it today I would have tried to get permission ahead of time instead of snuck up the mountain, or not done the overnight at all. A reader pointed out that this is not responsible behaviour and I agree; it was a long time ago, and like other mistakes I’ve made on my travels I’ve learned a lot along the way.

climbing south sister in oregonPre climb, Peter and I in the sun

Unfortunately, our navigational skills were not perfect and initially we took the wrong trail up the mountain. It wasn’t until we came across an intersection a mile up that we realized we were headed in a very roundabout direction, and the 3 horses that passed by us at that moment only solidified our mistake. We turned around, went all the way back down and found the proper trailhead for Take 2.

The first part of the trail took us sharply upward in a thick hemlock forest, with switchbacks over 1.5 miles (with no mountain in sight). Emerging from the dark forest, we were treated to a vast plateau with the turquoise water of Moraine lake to the right and Broken Top mountain in the distance.

Moraine Lake, halfway up South Sister's trail during my climb
Moraine Lake, halfway up South Sister’s trail

In front of us: the rest of the South Sister climb:

From halfway up, still quite a long way to go to the summit of South Sister!

Following the Moraine lake plateau, the trail got steep rather quickly and snow patches from the Lewis glacier dotted the slope.

Hitting the first of several snow patches climbing South Sister mountain
Hitting the first of many snow patches on South Sister’s climb

This was a perfect time for rest, water and – my favourite – “resting the gimpy leg”:

climbing south sister - 8,400 ft up
At 8,400 ft

Though the trail was replete with other hikers (and many dogs), we also met some other friendly animals along the way:

Friendly chipmonk on South Sister
Friendly chipmonk on South Sister

Following the snow patches, the trail looped steeply uphill with mostly grey scree and loose, rust-coloured rock to conquer for the next few hours. One step forward, two steps back. When resting my ankle midway up the last section of the trail, we met 3 people on their descent who said the last 500 feet took them 1.5 hours to crawl up, slowed down by both the altitude and the dusty rock. Having made it to the very top, gasping at 10,000 feet, we turned the corner of jagged rock to come upon a beautiful glacier field encircled with a thin rocky trail:

Summit crater on South Sister Oregon
Summit crater

We pitched the tent at the rim of the crater, with only inches between the peg and the drop off of a cliff on one side, and the glacier on the other. Despite the throbbing in my ankle, I was thrilled to have made it to the top.

Summit crater on South Sister Oregon

On the horizon, the shadow of the mountain itself looming over the valley below:

Shadow of South Sister over the beautiful view from the summit.

And what better way to celebrate a marshmallow enthusiast’s birthday than with actual marshmallows? Peter pulled a bag of mallows out of his pack and I was one happy camper:

Marshmallows at 10300 feet
Marshmallows at 10300 feet

Not everything atop the mountain was in the view: these beautiful yellow flowers caught the late afternoon sun perfectly, nestled between the lava rock atop South Sister:

Beautiful flowers atop South sister

And as dusk fell and the moon rose over the glacier, the temperature dropped and the sky deepened. A perfect way to usher in a sky full of stars and a glimpse of the Perseids meteor shower. After dark, a lightning storm to the south provided a great backdrop to an already beautiful scene: meteors, lightning, a sky brimming with bright stars and copious marshmallows. Couldn’t have asked for a better evening.

Moon rising over the summit of South Sister mountain in Oregon
Moon rising over the summit of South Sister mountain.

The next day, the sunrise was viewable from the tent at 5:30am and lit up the sky in a joyous array of colours.

Sunrise at 10,300 feet atop South Sister mountain in Oregon
Sunrise at 10,300 feet atop South Sister mountain in Oregon

From the top, a long way back down:

Descent after climbing South Sister

The descent definitely hurt the ankle, but took far less time than the ascent (though there were many more mosquito bites). Several people on their ascent wanted to know why we were heading down so early and were surprised to hear we camped out on the summit. A terrific way to spend my birthday morning, and I’m thankful to have seen Central Oregon from such great heights. Special thanks to Peter for traipsing across state lines to climb with me, and to Jessica for hosting me in Portland.


26 thoughts on “Birthday Mountain 2010: South Sister, Oregon”

  1. That’s such an excellent birthday tradition! For how many years have you been doing that?

    Just make sure that you rest your ankle now so that you can keep up the tradition next year…

  2. Sounds (and looks) fantastic! Happy belated bday. Although I do wish you’d had to use the “I’m from Canadia” excuse! Haha. Cheers.

  3. I love this post, Jodi. It’s a fabulous idea, climbing a mountain for your birthday. I’ve thought of climbing/hiking a mountain, but I’m pretty sure I would pass out before I got to the top!

    The photos are breathtaking and such wonderful keepsakes. Happy Birthday, Jodi. I hope this next year will be the best yet.

  4. Wow, what a great way to celebrate a birthday!! The view was stunning, thanks for sharing the gorgeous photos! Meteor showers too? Unbelievable! I’m lame when it comes to climbing mountain. Not good with slopes and breaths. But this post got me think, I maybe should exercise more and give this a try!

  5. Happy belated birthday, Jodi! I guess I don’t need to express my wish that it was happy, it looks like it was incredible.

  6. Love this! Makes me think of my climb up Mt Zeus in Greece. It’s been too many years since I’ve climbed a mountain…..

  7. Wow, so pretty. I forget sometimes how beautiful the states are sometimes.

    This really wants to make me move to Oregon. Just have to convince the wife of it…

  8. Looks like it was a totally fantastic hike for your birthday – so glad you kept your tradition alive! Love the vision of you getting chased after by chipmunks and of course, you stuffing your face with marshmallows!

    Hope you keep it up for many years to come. Hugs!!

  9. What an awesome adventure! Brings back lots of memories of my rock climbing days, and sleeping in a hammock on the side of a 900 ft. cliff. I wanna be young again!

  10. What an extraordinary way to celebrate your Birthday!!! Your pictures were stunning. That lake is such a gorgeous color, wow. I’m glad you still went despite your poor ankle. Hope it feels better now? Happy Birthday!!!

  11. Thanks for all the comments & birthday wishes!

    @earl: Been many years, and many mountains around the world. My favourites were Cotopaxi in Ecuador (2002), Emei Shan in China (2004) and last year’s Agung climb. This mountain was terrific as well. Happy to have started this tradition, and it has made for fun August planning over the years.

    @Ahimsa: these guys were very tiny (I just cropped in the picture). About the size of my hand, and with a cute stripe running down their backs. Video coming soon!

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  13. Although I know you were really disappointed about having to cancel the Nepal trip, I’m really glad that you kept up the tradition of a birthday mountain trip. The photos are absolutely gorgeous. Like Kyle said, sometimes we forget how beautiful the United States and Canada really are.

    I’ve got my birthday coming up next week…not a lot of mountains to climb in Prague, but we’ll think of something : )

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