4/12: Middle Sister, NE Face Direct

The Northeast Face Direct, as shown in the invaluable guidebook, Oregon High, is a line that has long eluded me. Skinning up the Hayden Glacier, as so many have done, it’s impossible to not notice this 200ft ice (and often mixed) step leading to a huge couloir above.

I’d headed up there twice with the intention of climbing it. Once was last year, alone; I’d brought a rack and rope to self-belay if necessary, but the couloir was under a constant barrage of spindrift and the crux steps looked very mixed. This year, Artem and I went up, ended up attempting the Emde-Ablao next door, and called it a day after bailing from that.

The NE Face Direct is the big gash down the center of photo. The Emde-Ablao is the next ice route left; thin and likely “out” for the year.

After climbing the Emde-Ablao with Sam early March this year, I felt that I had somewhat jumbled up the logical progression of routes on Middle’s impressive North Face. I still knew I really wanted to climb that line, and yesterday, with seemingly favorable conditions but no beta on the state of the route, I drove up without expectations to Pole Creek to scope it out.

A 2:30am wakeup call got me out of bed and skinning, from the trailhead proper (!), by 4:10am. The navigation out of Pole Creek is always confusing in the dark, despite having done it countless times. Huge dirt patches snuck up on me, as did the always-plentiful downed trees. In a few weeks it’ll be dirt for the first few miles; this really started to feel like the end of winter.

Despite some navigation issues and committing to a new approach path I’d never taken, I emerged above treeline on the base of Hayden less than 2 hours in… a personal record for me! Carrying the psych on, I charged upwards without stopping to around 7.5k where I pounded a caffeine gel and watched the alpenglow light up the face.

The real Morning Glory Wall.

I was at the flat base just under 3 hours from heading out and got ready under the warming sun. The route looked very manageable; I was mostly worried about the quality of the ice and the occasional rocks and ice pellets that were flying down it. Steep snow up the apron and crossing a totally filled-in shrund brought me to the ice. I ended up taking a small rock to the shoulder before even climbing but was pretty unfazed.

The first step was around 20-30ft of WI2/+ or so, pretty easy. Another very short step of WI2 brought me to the exit step. This was steeper, perhaps 80-90 degrees, but only 30 feet long or so. I committed, knowing full well that I had no backups beyond getting over it. By that point it was very warm; there was no wind, and the ice felt sweaty. The quality of the ice was strange; lots of delamination and some trouble getting the picks out of the wet, squeaky ice. Occasional snice picks, and occasional kicks in areated snow had me focusing as well.

The crux… kinda steep!

It was over soon enough and I charged up the snow slopes above, heading more or less straight up. I climbed another easy step of ice (avoidable) and joined the merger of the East Arete with the North Ridge for an easy walk to the top. I checked the time… only 4:30 had passed since leaving Pole Creek!

Note the broken boot buckle… smh.

The faster I was going, the faster I wanted to go… and I had some business to take care of back home. So I walked down the ridge back to my skis and headed out immediately. I skinned high up the skier’s left shoulder between the drainages of Middle and North, and now set up nice and high in the basin below the Thayer Glacier, I enjoyed a nice, fast albeit occasionally icy and bumpy ski back to within a few hundred meters of the trailhead.

I was out of there before 11am, having rolled this route in 6:45 car to car and ready to start my day in the real world!

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