This was simply a training mission, reconnaissance for a future longer, more arduous endeavor.
We made that decision well before the hike so we would not be tempted by the siren song of alpine beauty to push on ever higher.
The 5-mile round-trip hike to Moraine Lake last weekend was to give my 12-year-old son, Mason, an idea of what it might be like to climb to the summit of 10,358-foot South Sister.
And to remind me just how hard the trek really is.
It has been 13 years since I reached the top of South Sister, a popular climb in the Northwest because hikers can essentially walk to the summit of Oregon’s third-highest peak without the use of ropes, crampons or other technical gear.
While the trail to the top involves no technical climbing, it is tremendously steep and challenging. From its starting point near Devils Lake off Cascade Lakes Highway west of Bend, the trail gains nearly 5,000 feet in elevation over the six miles to the summit.
The trip to Moraine Lake is not even halfway to the top of the mountain, but the steepness of the short hike gave us a sample of what the summit climb might be like, should we return later this summer.
After a 30-minute drive from Bend, we parked just off Cascade Lakes Highway along Devils Lake, then crossed the highway to the Devils Lake Trailhead. (Next year, the South Sister Climbers’ Trail will be one of several limited-entry trails in the Three Sisters Wilderness, and hikers will need to purchase a wilderness permit in advance of their trip.)
At the start of the South Sister climb, the trail from Devils Lake took us seemingly straight up through a thick evergreen forest. We were quickly winded but soon adjusted and settled in.
Stretches of snow here and there clung to the trail, and we traipsed over them fairly easily in our hiking shoes.
After nearly 2 tough miles of steep climbing, we came out of the trees to a sprawling, desertlike plateau. South Sister dominated the horizon in front of us, its broad slopes still mostly covered with snow. Broken Top was just off to the west and just below us was Moraine Lake, beginning to unfreeze though mostly still covered by snow and ice.
Someone had pitched a tent on the ridge just above us, an idyllic camping spot.
We continued a ways up the slope, encountering several other hikers already descending. Some of them had skis and boots attached to their packs, as they had climbed South Sister earlier in the morning and then skied down the Lewis Glacier, the main glacier on the south side of the peak.
Even far below the glacier, much of the path remained covered in snow, as the route typically does not become mostly snow free until well into July.
Many Central Oregon endurance athletes make South Sister their own personal training ground when the trail is free of snow in late July, August, September and typically into October. Countless ultrarunners in Central Oregon take on the challenge of running up and down the peak.
After climbing above the lake for a half mile or so and coming across more snow, we decided to turn around and head back down the trail.
Most casual hikers agree that coming down South Sister is a greater challenge than hiking up. Even just the short jaunt down from Moraine Lake was jarring on my quads and knees.
The 5-mile hike required 2½ hours and we gained 830 feet in elevation. The full trek to the summit will be 5,000 feet and 12 miles total — perhaps as long as eight hours.
I was 29 the last time I had climbed South Sister. Maybe I should rethink this.
But Mason is ready. We’ll likely be sitting atop the summit later this month if all goes as planned.