Ben Horan is a freelance writer and sometimes-guide based in Missoula, Montana, and blogs at www.thegentlemanatlarge.com. Tom Robertson is a photographer out of Missoula, whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications, and is currently surfing from bike tour to bike tour around the Americas. Ben, Tom, and two buddies rode bikes from Portland to Bend, OR, with trailers full of ski gear, in an attempt to ski as many volcanoes as possible in two weeks entirely under human power. Check out their adventure on Instagram #bike2skiOregon.
By the time we rolled into the Sisters Motor Lodge and splayed our tents, sleeping bags, and clothes across their lawn to dry, fat cumulus clouds had sprouted and grown to tower over the Sisters Wilderness. We had a cup of coffee and each wolfed a handful of characteristically excellent gas station tacos before dinner (we were eating quite a lot at this point), and turned in early with our sights set on skiing Middle and North Sister the next day.
You should know that the alarm on my cell phone is not your archetypal harsh ringing or buzzing sound. It’s a gentle bell-toned crescendo that doesn’t snap you awake into parasympathetic terror but rather eases you into the morning. It’s also easy to sleep through the first part of it, and the thing had been doing its damnedest for ten minutes by the time I actually woke up at 5:10am. A few minutes later Phil poured coffee grounds directly into his mug instead of the Aeropress, and we conceded that the trip was really beginning to take a toll. Nonetheless, we ate some oats and more candy and by the earlymorning gray were riding our bikes toward the trailhead.
The dirt road was soft, and the thirteen mile bicycle approach took two hours. We transitioned leisurely despite afternoon thunderstorms in the forecast, and by 8:30am were hiking through a recent burn and toward the Sisters, which were obscured by clouds.
We spent several hours walking on flat, dry soil before we could don skis. The experience was familiar, and not only from earlier in the trip, on Jefferson. We’d heard numerous harrowing stories about the approaches to some of the mountains we had in mind, but compared to backcountry skiing in western Montana, the approaches were dreamlike. They have trails in Oregon that go to where the skiing is! No bushwacking required.
Fun ski trips at home have given new meaning to my surname, and most friends won’t come out for a Saturday ski, citing the pejorative “Horan Adventure.” These kinds of adventures tend to include a great deal of creative route finding and good natured discomfort.
The creative route finding and good natured discomfort that we turned up in central Oregon was downright pleasant by comparison, and I felt a new kinship to that guy who keeps getting shot down in Catch 22:
“If you had any brains, do you know what you’d do? You’d go right to Piltchard and Wren and tell them you want to fly with me.”
“And get shot down with you every time you go up? What’s the fun in that?”
“That’s just why you ought to do it,” Orr insisted. “I guess I’m just about the best pilot around now when it comes to ditching or making crash landings. It would be good practice for you.”
“Good practice for what?”
“Good practice in case you ever have to ditch or make a crash landing.”*
*Taken from a free online version of Catch 22 which further fact-checking reveals is perhaps of dubious integrity or abridged, but you get the point.
Skiing in the Missions is great practice for if you ever have to ski in the Missions, or in other places where approaches don’t involve skinning from the car.
But eventually we did put on skis, and after looking west all morning to a mass of clouds which we suspected held mountains, we finally got a look around 11.
By late morning the day was already quite windy, and with a stormy forecast we doubted that our original plan, to ski the Middle and North Sister, was still in the cards. Even so, we scooted up the SE ridge on the Middle to find a cloudy, windy, and enjoyable summit with no view of North Sister and then leapfrogged holes in the cloud cover down the way we’d come up.
Later in the day we would have the opportunity to see an intuitive and straightforward ski line down the north face of the Middle and directly to the foot of the North, but lacking visibility we opted for the circuitous and not-at-all straightforward traverse of the not-totally-snow-covered moraines that flank the volcanoes. Two hours of boot packing and a little bit of semi-exposed fancy footwork allowed us to stand on the Quitter Summit of North Sister, near the base of the rocky summit pinnacle. Wanting for both ropes and daylight we called this the top (remember a summit is really only defined by how you draw your axes). It was about 6pm at this point, and rather than being struck by lightning we enjoyed a cloudless quiet snack before dropping back to the trail.
In spite of low expectations and tired legs at 0500, we were out for sixteen hours and made it back to pizza and beer at the Motor Lodge after dark.
In penciling this trip out, I was a little bit worried about the itinerary taking us through Bend so close to the finish. The plan was to stay in some fancy digsthere, then ride past Bachelor and finish up in the south end of the Sisters Wilderness. Mike had to leave us for things like “work” and “an infant son,” and so getting him to the airport aligned nicely with a short layover in town with creature comforts and soft beds. It also gave a premature sensation of closure on the trip, and riding toward darkening western skies and minus one compatriot felt less like triumphant culmination than self flagellation.
Our spirits rose while we approached the Fall Creek trailhead but were met halfway by torrential rain, hail, and lightning. Tom, Phil, and I sat drinking beer in a USFS outhouse, illuminated only by the glow of our phone screens while we looked at the weather forecast. Rain. Hail. More rain. Lightning. A local guy who said he’d like to ski with us texted a cancellation.
And so we pulled the plug and retreated to Bend. A glance the next morning confirmed that it was the right call: heavy storms in the Sisters would have kept us far from the top, but it was still an unceremonious end to a great trip (cue montage). We skied from (or from near) the tops of four volcanoes in an area we’d never explored. It’s one that I know I’ll be back to, skiing in the Sisters was particularly impressive, and I suspect that to catch Jefferson in corn is one of those Until The Dementia Gets You kind of memories. We rode for hundreds of miles along roads that seemed purpose built for bicycle touring, and found cinnamon rolls like they made them in the old country at KC’s in Detroit.
The trip was at once a release of nervous energy and ambition, and fuel for the fire. The terrain, difficulty, and company of these two weeks is the food of dreams, and another reminder of why we chase horizons.