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A solo summit of South Sister

South Sister towered over me at 10,358 feet tall, and I couldn't stop staring at its reddish slope covered in patchy glaciers.

The Three Sisters are the gems of Central Oregon, with their snowy peaks glistening in the sun like diamonds. The highest, South Sister, is the third-highest peak in Oregon. The only thing standing between me and its peak was the mountain's perfect reflection resting upon Green Lakes. My friend and I sat with our feet in the lake, our toes touching the tip of the mirror mountain while our eyes stared up at its true form.

In that moment, I was confronted with an overwhelming desire to stand on top of the South Sister.

I still had one day left in the Bend area. I ran the idea by my friend, but was disappointed to hear she had to work the next day. If I was going to make it to the top, it would have to be alone.

The next morning, I drove to the trailhead at Devils Lake campground, spotted a trailhead sign that read "Lake Moraine Trail," the first leg of the summit trail, and took off. My mind buzzed with excitement as my eyes took in the serenity of the forest. Meanwhile, I was unknowingly walking in the wrong direction.

It turns out that the Lake Moraine Trail runs both north and south from Devils Lake, a detail I may have noticed had I not been hiking solo. About 45 minutes down the trail, I finally consulted my map and compass to confirm that I was headed in the wrong direction. Frustrated and confused, I ran back to the trailhead and approached the first group of hikers I could find. They graciously pointed me across the parking lot to another sign that read "Lake Moraine Trail," and above it, "South Sister Summit Trail." I was so embarrassed. In addition to proving myself oblivious, I was now an hour and a half behind schedule.

Without further thought, I started down the trail, this time in the right direction. The first section of the summit trail headed upward through hemlock forest. My detour had only made me more motivated, and I barely noticed the steepness of the ascent. Once I broke out of the woods, the trail continued straight ahead while the way to Lake Moraine split off to the right. The mountain stood majestically in front of me, and each step carried me a little closer to the top.

The second stage of the trail consisted of a rolling path with open views to the left and right. With my eyes on the prize, my spirits were lifted as I passed returning hikers who all seemed to carry a sense of satisfaction.

The hike greatly intensified as the trail began to switch-back up the mountain. I looked back to see a pillar of fresh smoke arising in the hills to the south. It was the one disturbance in an otherwise perfect and clear, blue sky.

The third leg of the trail turned to steep, slippery rock that forced me to watch my step. Past the tree line, increased sun exposure and elevation drove me to consume lots of water. The gravelly ascent led to a crest that featured a crystal-blue lake, part of a melted glacier.

At that point, the top seemed so close. The way up was a red cinder ridge paralleling Lewis Glacier. However, this final section was the steepest yet. My pace slowed into a one-step-at-a-time motion. The struggle to remain stable atop the slippery cinder finally came to an end as I took the final step onto the pseudo summit. I could hardly believe my eyes. The actual summit lay across an enormous, flat glacier covering the top of South Sister. I decided not to traverse the glacier and instead followed a path that skirted it. There was still some snow I had to walk through, but I was so excited I took off running through it.

When I reached the summit, I stopped dead in my tracks. I had arrived.

Being on top of the mountain was indeed satisfying. It felt like a mission accomplished, but also a dream come true. I sat in the windy, alpine air staring at the Middle and North Sisters, and behind them Mount Jefferson. To the South lay Broken Top and Mount Bachelor. The pillar of smoke was now a wall of thick haze that reached all the way to Bachelor. I drank in the dreamy view until I couldn't take anymore in.

The descent required concentration on foot placement, but once I exited the cinder ridge and the slippery gravel, it was a way of unwinding both physically and mentally. I trekked back through the forest and finally reached the parking lot with plenty of time to spare before dark. I, too, carried with me a sense of satisfaction.

Sophie Stiles lives in Medford.

Sophie Stiles enjoys the view from the summit of South Sister. - Courtesy Sophie Stiles