Editor's Note: The below story depicts a personal trip that was not associated with Adventure Outings. While we encourage people to push themselves we also encourage them to do it safely and with proper preparation and experience. That being said...enjoy the story!
It all started with an idea to do something epic and new for Thanksgiving break. We were thinking Utah or Colorado, but the drive would have taken away time from the trip itself, so Oregon it was.
Anthony: Three Sisters Wilderness seems pretty cool. Theo: I’m down, let’s do the whole eight days there. Anthony: Sure, looks like it snows too, but no big deal. Theo: Cool. Wanna do the 50 mile loop? Anthony: Sounds great.
Just that easy, we established our idea. An 8-day, 50-mile backpacking trek around the Three Sisters mountains in Oregon. We would follow the Pacific Crest Trail on one side of the range and cruise through the forest on the other side. With spectacular views of these majestic mountains from all angles, we started to get really excited. We just needed the right gear for cold temperatures and snow and a lot of food. Three friends vs. the Three Sisters.
After the long drive, our first day of hiking started at a snow park at the base of Mt. Bachelor. Initially, we headed out four miles on a snow-covered road. We could see Mt. Bachelor pretty much the whole hike that day, which got us excited. It was clear and sunny, but almost no clouds. This was a pretty difficult day only because we were getting used to our 70-pound packs and the clunky snowshoes. We saw many cross-country skiers and hikers on the road, which made us feel not so alone. Yet the people became less and less prominent as we got closer and closer to the first night’s camp. Once at camp, not a soul was to be seen. We quickly ate the Chipotle burritos we got earlier that day and tried to keep warm. We knew it was going to be cold that night by looking at the completely frozen lake next to camp but we weren’t expecting it would be below zero.
We woke up the next morning to EVERYTHING being completely frozen. Our water, boots, food, gloves, gaiters, and tent were all solid ice blocks. It only managed to get us more excited at the challenges to come. We started on our 8-mile snowshoe hike along the PCT, stopping very early to tend to frozen toes. This hike was a lot of uphill for so early in the morning. Thick forests eventually opened up to a wide snow-covered meadow with the South Sister mountain in plain sight. The trail was still visible, but we got excited to walk straight across this sea of snow. After lunch, we came across more wide-open ranges of snow with majestic mountains in view. These 8 miles were starting to catch up to us, and they felt more like 15, so we set up camp in a flat tree-covered area. This was to be our favorite campsite of the trip because of the secluded location and the nice clear weather. We got to camp with completely saturated boots and socks and quickly got a fire going to dry out our soggy clothing and wrinkly feet.
Day three was a lot more uphill. We began to question if we could do the entire 50 miles at this point. We’ve been going around the range clockwise. At this point, we were barely halfway to the northernmost part of the loop. We entered a region called the Obsidian Limited Entry Area which the PCT ran right through. Any hiker can pass through this area as long as he or she stays on the PCT trail. To camp overnight here, you need special permits, so we knew we couldn’t stay here. This made us feel a little rushed with our hiking because we knew the sun would set soon. As soon as we got out of the Obsidian area, we rushed to find a place to set up camp. Luckily, we set up a fire which was essential to dry our soaked hiking gear yet again. When it was dark, it felt like midnight, but a quick glance at a watch showed it was only 6 pm… it was gonna be a long night. Thirty minutes after cozying up in the tent, it started to snow... and snow… and snow.
We woke up to a whole new landscape. Our campsite was covered, we knew we couldn't get a fire going this morning. The song “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” got stuck in our heads to start the long day. As we started hiking, we noticed the trail was becoming less and less visible. This made us very worried that we couldn’t find out how to cross the high-elevation mountains that lie ahead of us. Then, we lost the trail. Visibility was cut to nearly a hundred feet. We were on high and rocky mountains with the wind blowing and the snow still dumping. The weather forecast had only called for a mere 1-3 inches of snow, not over 3 feet. Slight panic started setting in when we found ourselves trapped on high rocky terrain overlooking 50-foot cliffs. Anthony decided to consult his GPS app on his iPhone, which we were saving for emergencies only. We finally had to backtrack our steps and get down into the safer trees where the deep downhill powder made for a tricky time snowshoeing. We finally somehow found the trail and rushed to cover as much ground as possible. In the rush, we managed to lose the trail again forcing us to get the GPS out again to find the trail. The snow was still coming down and our steps were going deeper and deeper. After only covering 3 of the 7 miles we needed to that day because of the zigzagging on the mountain, we finally had to stop. We found the flattest area on an exposed hill with a few spotty trees everywhere. We rushed to set up the tent and set up a tarp over one of the doors so we could cook dinner. This is when the wind really started to pick up.
This night was one of the worst nights we ever had in our lives. For hours and hours, we lay awake listening to the loud cracking of the tarp in the wind, howling of the wind over the trees, the tent being whipped around, and the snow building up. The stress of waiting for the tarp to fly away, or the rain fly to rip off was real. The sides of the tent started to pile up snow so much that our heads were being crushed from the weight of the snow. In the middle of the night, we realized the tarp that was set up over the door had completely collapsed. We opened the door to see our boots and stoves were buried deep under a foot of snow. This much cold, wind, and snow really got us panicking. We still had eight more hours before the sun would be here and needed to get some sleep. The howling wind and the slowly collapsing tent prevented us from getting the sleep we desperately needed. As soon as day hit, we realized this was no longer a backpacking trip. It was a rescue mission.
We considered the possibility of trying to call for a helicopter to get us out of this war zone but the blizzard that was around us made air rescue impossible. We had the strength and willpower to get out ourselves. We got some food and a little water in us to build up our spirits. We knew we couldn’t do another 30 miles in 3 days in this type of snow, especially without seeing the trail. We saw on the map that if we kept going North, we would eventually hit Highway 242 that would lead us to the town of Sisters, OR.
The first few steps on day 5 were waist-deep. Only another 5 miles to the road, we thought. But 5 miles in this blizzard could take days. We were exposed on the side of the mountain. The snow had finally stopped but 30 MPH winds were flinging ice into our eyes. We had to get out of this exposed area and get to the tree line. The only problem was what lie between us and the treeline; a vast sea of snow-covered lava rock ridges. Each step was a risk. Either our foot sank several feet from the loose snow, or it rolled off a rock at a weird angle, putting enormous strain on our ankles. As the crow flies, we only need to cross 3 miles of this insane lava rock, but because of the uneven ridges, we had to elaborately snake our way around dangerous cliffs.
Yo man, do you see the compass? It was just around my wrist.
Our hearts stopped.
I don't see it. We need to find it else we are going to walk aimlessly for hours or even days!
We started to freak out and look around. We hoped it fell recently, so we wouldn't have to retrace our steps too far. Hopefully, it wasn't buried in the snow or we may never find it. We look back and our tent mate was carrying it in his teeth. We all shared a huge sigh of relief as one of us tied it to their body.
With each delicate step, we were getting closer and closer to the tree line. As we began to master this difficult ballet in snowshoes, we began to worry about our water. We were all extremely dehydrated and the only drops of water left in our bottles were frozen. We needed to eat snow as we danced our way across the rocks. The exact second we made it to the tree line, the clouds started lifting, the wind stopped, and the sun greeted us will the warmest smile. We knew we were going to make it. Another few steps into the forest and the trail appears out of thin air, confused that we hadn’t been following it. With our spirits high, we paraded down the trail. With a stroke of luck, we find a frozen lake with a little stream running to it. The water had never tasted so good. Only 30 minutes till dark but only a mile until the road. It was one of the fastest miles we ever traveled, fueled by our adrenaline. We reached the road just as it was getting dark and set up a quick camp. There were no tire tracks on the road, meaning it had been closed for the winter. We had some warm food before trying to get some sleep.
The freezing cold and massive painful blisters on our feet prevented us from getting a good night’s sleep, but the excitement of getting out of there was enough. We woke up at 4 am on day 6 to get on the road as quickly as possible. Using the light of the full moon, we hiked along the snow-covered road. It was extremely calm and peaceful as we sloshed our way through the snow. We had 17 miles until Sisters, but it was all downhill and along flat ground. A few miles in, we found snowmobile tracks in the snow and after a few more miles, we found car tire tracks. After about 10 miles, snowplows had cleared the road. After another few miles, we stopped for a snack. We hear the faintest sign of a car approaching and made sure to flag it down. Around the corner comes the tiniest little pickup. A man and his young daughter roll down the window and we ask for a ride. He says “We’re about to go get a Christmas tree but if you’re still here on our way back, I guess I can give you a lift to Sisters.” We keep moving down the road to try and find another car that could give us a ride. Not a single other car shows up. After another mile of hiking, we hear the tiny truck come rolling down the road. “Mind the tree”. We throw our packs in the back and jump in. As we slowly cruise down the road, we had the most peaceful and relaxing view of the Three Sisters mountains. We got to Sisters and were so relieved to be out of the wilderness. We thanked the man for giving us a ride and he casually says “It was 6 degrees outside when I picked you up.” We hadn’t even noticed. Nothing could bring us down now. He said “Happy Thanksgiving” as he drove off. After all the crazy past few days, we had all forgotten it was Thanksgiving.
But we were still an hour’s drive from where our car was parked. We stuck out our thumbs on the side of the road and hoped someone could get us at least to Bend, Oregon, which was halfway. Within less than 5 minutes a big ol’ pickup pulls over. A logger and his girlfriend were on their way to Bend and figured we could use a lift. We threw our packs in the back and jumped in the back seat. They cranked up the heat for us and we could finally feel our faces for the first time in several days. We had the most pleasant conversations with these two as we got closer and closer to Bend. They were the most wonderful people to spend Thanksgiving morning with. “Why don’t we drive you all the way to your car? We don’t mind being a little late to our Thanksgiving dinner.” That offer was the final bit of relief that we needed. No more uncertainty of if we will make it back to our car. We finally knew we were making it back home. We got back to the car only to find it had over a foot of snow covering it. We quickly brushed it off and hit the road looking for a hot meal. Burritos it was, of course.
You may think we’re stupid for putting ourselves in such a dangerous situation, and we definitely agree. We wanted something challenging, yet this was more than we bargained for. This whole endeavor obviously did not go as planned, yet this is what made it adventurous. True adventure isn’t all smiles and laughs, it includes adversity and uncertainty. Enduring such hard days with little comforts, such as clean water and even a flat surface to walk on, makes you appreciate what you have and how important it really is. It is so easy to forget how luxurious and easy modern society has it. So, this Thanksgiving we were thankful for clean water, generous people, and especially fossil fuels for getting us the hell out of there.
Written by: Anthony Gordon, Theo Myers, and Kevin Hand