South Sister (Climber’s Trail) – August 2010


This was our very first solo family alpine camping adventure. We’d been on several outings with my sister and her boyfriend over the years, and this year Scott and I decided we were ready to use Sarah’s GPS, filter our own water, manage our food and gear and get our kids up to the summit of South Sister without any experts along to guide us.

At age 9, Elizabeth had 3 prior big hiking trips under her belt, and this would be her 6 year-old brother’s 2nd trip out west.

South Sister

Our plan called for us to hike in via the Soda Creek Trail near Bend, Oregon to Green Lakes and set up camp at one of the numbered campsites. We were heading in on a weekday, so were reasonably confident we’d have no trouble finding an available site. We’d filter water that evening, enjoy a nice meal with our new camp stove and play some Uno, dig our toilet spots, and enjoy the stars. The next morning, we’d get up early and summit South Sister via one of two climber’s trails. We had looked carefully over the route with Sarah and Adam in the days prior, and been fully schooled in the use of her GPS to track ourselves. This route joins the main hiking route near a glacial lake, where we’d begin the steady ascent to the top on the trail of red rock. After a brief stop at the top, we planned to descend down the main hiker’s trail and return to our campsite for another cooked meal and more water filtering. If this went well, we planned to take Xander up Broken Top the next day. Elizabeth and I made it nearly to the Broken Top summit 3 years prior with Adam and Sarah. We both chickened out of the brief required rock climbing part near the summit. Our family thought we could get to that same spot. After Broken Top, we would hike out via the shorter, more popular Green Lakes trail back to our car.

Soda Creek

Slogging up the Soda Creek trail
Slogging up the Soda Creek trail

By this point in our two-week trip, we’d learned that Elizabeth wasn’t very keen to hike this summer and her brother was thrilled to be out on any trail. Loaded to the gills with gear, we departed the parking lot in 95-degree heat. To get all of our gear up, I had a pack on my front and back. Not too many miles into the trip, we were having words about whining. There were a lot of little stream crossings, some good elevation change for kids with packs, and the heat made for slow going. Xander embraced every stream crossing and enjoyed most of this trek, while his sister complained a lot about the dust, the heat and the elevation change. However, at 9 and a half years old, she was carrying a 16-pound pack, and Xander was only responsible for his hydration backpack. We knew once we made camp and got settled that morale would improve for her and we’d all enjoy the lovely scenery of Green Lakes.


Upon arrival, our first order of business was to find a campsite that was appealing to everyone. We quickly found an area that was very close to the climber’s trail we’d be taking the next morning. The evening low temperatures would be here before we knew it, so it was time to head to the lakes to filter water, and to make sure we were dressed in our long underwear, hats and mittens so we were ready for the cold. We had some trouble with the water filter we’d borrowed from Sarah and Adam. It got some debris caught in it, and stopped working. Luckily we’d managed to filter a lot of water, and we had a backup sterilizing plan of using iodine tablets. We enjoyed a delicious simple dinner of macaroni and cheese and settled into our tent for the night. I’m very scared to sleep in tents, and rarely sleep at all when the family is camping. A few hours into the night it became comical how many times I left the tent to go to the bathroom “just one more time” before settling in. Thankfully everyone else got some rest, and I must have fallen asleep for at least a little while!

The Ascent

Crossing that first stream
Crossing that first stream

The next morning was chilly. We were ready with water, all of our gear (it would start out cold, warm up midday on the mountain and we’d need all that cold weather stuff again at the summit), water, lunch and snacks. The most precarious spot was 5 minutes into our climb when we had a stream crossing. No one fell into any streams on the first day, but something about this crossing made me nervous. We all made it, so no wet feet for the ascent!

It wasn’t long before we were heading straight up South Sister. Early in the climb, we had to cross a snowfield. We didn’t have crampons and the snow was still very hard packed. It was difficult to dig in, and we really missed having Sarah and Adam along to help keep everything even keeled. Scott did a very nice job of making holes for feet, and while we had a couple of close calls (slips), we all made it across. At 6 and a half years old, Xander was so little that it was tough for him to really get his feet in and stay on that hard packed snow, and Elizabeth was afraid of the exposure on this stretch. Between here and the glacial lake where we enjoyed our lunch we didn’t snap many pictures. Much of this time was spent feeling nervous about the exposure, the route and being really cold. During this time, you cannot see the true summit of the mountain, only a false one which makes you feel you are much closer than you truly are. We had some tense moments when Elizabeth was so afraid of the exposure she couldn’t move forward or backwards, but pretty soon we found ourselves at the lake enjoying lunch.

Xander near the glacial lake
Xander near the glacial lake

At lunch, while sipping from our hydration packs, we realized we hadn’t brought our iodine pills! We saw other people refilling water from the lake, and suddenly we realized we might run out of water. Xander and Elizabeth each only had 1 liter on their back, while Scott and I had 2. Xander’s water was nearly empty from constant sipping and Elizabeth’s tube had a slow leak so she was low as well. Our lunch also wasn’t very appealing. We were tired of sweet things and we had peanut butter and jelly on very “bready” bagels, trail mix and assorted dried fruit. Our only savory item was a bag of baby carrots, which we really enjoyed!

At the summit!
At the summit!

We continued to trudge up the mountain, and it was right after this lake that the our route re-connected with the main hiking trail. From this point onward it would be a straightforward hike, and a crowded one at that. Every point of our route would be visible, and in many ways it would become more challenging being able to see exactly where we were headed. However, we’d hiked this trail with Sarah and Adam the prior summer and we knew exactly what to expect. It is a slow but steady climb to the top with variable temperatures, a lot of wind, but not too much exposure. Before long we were enjoying a summit view all the way up the chain of the Cascades. While at the top, I remembered some of my favorite hikes in Germany with my family when my father would say “do you want to go to the top of the next mountain?” From a young age I have been crazy giddy at the idea of reaching a summit and my answer was always “Yes, let’s go!” with no thought to whether we were prepared to do so. Here, I found myself wanting to disregard all common sense and head north to the next summit. It looks SO close when you are standing on the top of a neighboring peak. However, common sense prevailed and we began our descent after crossing through a lovely snowfield to get back onto the main trail.

Beginning the downward trek
Beginning the downward trek


The kids crossing the snowfield
The kids crossing the snowfield

It wasn’t until mid-way down that we realized our downward trek wasn’t gaining us much time, and we were going to run out of daylight. We’d taken the main trail back because we were worried that Elizabeth wouldn’t be able to handle the exposure of the downward traverse on the climber’s trail, so we were in for an 11-mile day. Our water supply was dwindling, and while we had plenty of food, the only food that would also quench our thirst was our half empty bag of baby carrots. Feet were beginning to hurt, and everyone was feeling dusty, hot and tired. When we passed Moraine Lake and merged onto the Green Lakes main trail, I asked Scott to run ahead a few miles to the campsite to filter water before dark. We had brought all of our filtered water, and the iodine method takes some time to work. We’d need water for drinking and for cooking dinner soon. He was reluctant to leave us, but I assured him that I know this trail well and that we’d be fine. The kids and I got into a nice hiking rhythm and while we were really thirsty, we knew we were fine. We settled upon a pattern of eating one carrot every 20 minutes or so in order to feel less thirsty! We came upon a junction at some point in the trail and Scott had left us a bag of Craisins and a scratched a note in the dirt telling us we were close. Before long we were back at the campsite. It was nearly dark, and Scott had water boiling for us to enjoy our pre-packaged meals. We’d bought some “just add water” meals to enjoy on this second night. I don’t think any food has ever tasted this good!!

That night the kids were tired. Our feet were tired. And, we realized from our time on the climbing trail that Elizabeth was really afraid of exposure. We struggled to get her up Broken Top when she was 6, and we realized that this time would probably be just as challenging. So, we decided to wait for another trip to tackle Broken Top for the 2nd time. Our 2nd day would be a casual day hike, followed by breaking down camp and heading out via the Green Lakes trail.

Xander and Scott on the way down the mountain
Xander and Scott on the way down

We chose to use this hike as our qualifying climb for Mazamas membership because we all did it together with no help (except for getting prepared before we went, and we are most grateful to Sarah  and Adam for that help) and we were able to take a “route less traveled” for a big chunk of the ascent, making it feel more challenging. We learned A LOT on this climb including:

  • Carry water sterilizing gear at all times!
  • Pack a variety of food options. PB&J may sound good pre-hike, but by the 3rd meal it doesn’t taste very delicious. Sarah told us this, but we didn’t listen!
  • Do bring cold weather gear. We’d learned this on prior trips and we were prepared on this trip.
  • Bring a change of underwear! We were so concerned about weight that we left that out, and that was pretty uncomfortable by day 3 – especially for the ladies.




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