Three Sisters

21-Sep-02 (List Finish Trip)

By: Reiner Stenzel


Three Sisters is a nice peak to finish the SPS List. From Courtright Reservoir it is an easy dayhike and close to the trailhead there is a fine campground for the list-finish party. On Fri night most of the 28 participants arrived at Trapper Springs Campground on the west side of Courtright Res. (8184’). The attendants were Barbara Berne, Gary Bowen, Craig and K-9 Katie Connally, Darrick Danta, Randall Danta, Wally Drake, Steve Eckert, Rick Gordon, Leslie Hofherr, Delores Holladay, Pat and Gerry Holleman, Ted Lenzie, Susan, Bill and K-9 Kaweah Livingston, Mike McDermitt, R. J. Secor, Helen Shen, Elena Sherman, Dave and Barbara Sholle, Jan StAmand, Ryuta Stenzel, Scot Sullivan, Bob Suzuki, Asher Waxman, and Ron Webber.

Hunting season started at midnight and it was not exactly peaceful. On Sat, 7 am, we walked 10 min to the Cliff Lke trailhead, signed in and took off 30 mm later. Safety in numbers prevented a hunting incident. We hiked 2 hours to Cliff Lke (9438’) where we regrouped before leaving the trail. It was a picture-perfect summer day. During the break, Leslie took a quick dip into the lake and Ryuta caught a trout. We proceeded along the south shore of Cliff Lke, climbed up a chute to the plateau above the lake and headed XC to a spring from which a small creek runs into Island Lke. At the spring, about 0.3 mi NE of Three Sisters, we regrouped again, directing the trailing party by radio. The spring produced cold clean water for drinking and for cooling our five champagne bottles. The last effort was the ascent into the saddle between higher Sister 1 (10,612’) and lower Sister 2 (10,438’) and to scramble over rocks and through gnarly whitebark pines to the summit. Partly happy, partly sad I opened the register box of my last SPS peak. While signing in with a #247, Randall popped the first cork and the party on the summit started. We had cheese, crackers, smoked salmon, various dips, chocolate and, of course, plenty of champagne to toast with. Randall sang in Bavarian, I toasted to all my sisters, and R.J. kissed them. We took many pictures, including the formal ones of list finishers and section chairs. The view from the summit was alone worth the hike. On this cloudless day we could see a 180-degree panorama of Sierra peaks from the Kaweahs in the south to the peaks in Yosemite to the north. The San Joaquin Valley baked in 100-deg haze but the Coastal Range was faintly visible. Below us were several blue lakes. The Sisters Ridge has at least four rock outcroppings (or little sisters) which I climbed on an earlier occasion. Likewise, nearby Dogtooth is a fun cl 3 scramble (actually, the lower tooth is ci 4-5). The group, spread out over the rocky summit area, enjoyed the cloudless summer day for a long time. After promising more partying, I convinced everyone to descend by 1 pm. The tigers rushed to beautiful Cliff Lke and took a long break to wait for the trailing party. Some took a refreshing swim in the lake, and Ryuta pulled out six more trout. After regrouping we hit the trail and hiked down at an individual pace, arriving at the campground between 4-5 pm. The day before, I had reserved 5 adjacent campsites so that we had a nice area for ourselves. We had constructed a hot shower under trees, prepared plenty of firewood for the evening.

As the sun got lower we started with happy hour, cold drinks and hors d’heuvre. I fired up the coals for my Dutch oven to prepare a big pot of beef stew for dinner. Everyone contributed with so m a n y delicious foods, appetizers, salads, main dishes, fresh trout, deserts, fruit, and abundant wine, beer, soft drinks, even marshmallows to roast over hot coals. As it got dark we all sat around the campfire and it was my turn to tell stories about my climbing experiences and adventures. For this purpose I had prepared 247 pictures on my laptop which turned out large and bright enough for everyone to see. So here is the essence of my story:

I grew up in the “old” country, hiked as a boy throughout Germany and especially liked the Alps. I learned to ski in Austria while staying with a youth group in backcountry huts. In the mid-sixties I came to Caltech for further graduate work. The first time I traveled to the Sierras I fell in love with it. But outdoors activities were limited in the busy years of graduation, newly married, starting a career and raising a family with three kids. I climbed Mt Fuji during my honeymoon in the late 60s, Mt Whitney on a Sierra crossing in the 70s. In the early 80’s my son joined the Boy Scouts and I became an Assistant Scoutmaster leading many of their outdoors activities. To become more proficient I took the Sierra Club’s BMTC course in 1986, taught it next year, followed up with AMTC, became an M - rated leader in 1988, and climbed some 22 SPS peaks that year. At the same time I joined the Ski Mountaineers Section, learned the telemark turn, and began leading T-rated ski trips. During the years of the mountaineering insurance fiasco I acquired the taste and confidence for solo climbs. I also joined the CMC and lead their trips. Undoubtedly, the SPS List stimulated my climbing activities. Although I never imagined to finish the List I continued to climb new peaks and in time passed from basic to senior to master emblem. After some 200+ peaks it dawned to me that it was possible to finish the last 40 peaks as well. Last year I got the list “fever” and climbed 32 peaks, among them some tough class 4-5 peaks like Devil’s Crags, Norman Clyde, Palisades Crest, T-bolt and Disappointment. For those climbs I gratefully acknowledge the company of expert leaders like R. J. Secor, Ron Hudson and Greg Vernon. This year I only had to finish some distant “orphans” and to plan the party.

Now some special things to mention about my list finish: I enjoy two activities in the mountains, climbing and skiing. In the first half of the year I lead many ski mountaineering trips for the SMS. Many of these trips involved climbs of SPS peaks on skis. To my knowledge I have skied more SPS peaks (37) than any other list finisher. Some SPS peaks we skied straight to/from the summit (Ritter, Goddard, Trojan, Birch, Tinemaha, Dana, Silliman, Basin, Bago, Morgan, Pickering, etc.), others we skied to the summit block or a steep ridge and climbed the rest (Alta, Brewer, Matterhorn, Whitney, Red&White, Perkins, Powell, Thompson, State, etc.). I have skied across the Sierra Nevada three times (High Route, Cirque Crest, Onion Valley-Mineral King) and hiked the John Muir Trail in summer time, climbing SPS peaks on the way. Experiencing the mountains in all climates is very special. Ski trips offer unique sceneries, exhilarating ski runs, but challenges from route finding, weather and avalanches. There are no mosquitoes, no bears, hardly any humans, one can ski across lakes and glide over talus and scree slopes. However, in summer time one enjoys better weather, easier climbing, green meadows, wildflowers, swimming, fishing, and eating off the land. Both seasons offer wonderful experiences. Thus, I like both skiing and mountaineering. I have led many joint SPS/SMS trips to promote skiing among climbers and climbing among skiers, in short, ski mountaineering. I am trying to establish a ski mountaineers list of peaks, passes and traverses. It will partly overlap with the SPS list so that there is interest in joint activities.

To return to my climbing experiences, I have soloed half the List including some exciting peaks (North Pal, Mid Pal, Darwin, Sill, Bear Creek Spire, Charybdis, Cathedral, Clark, Glacier Ridge, Abbott, and snow-covered ridge on Russell). I have led groups up to 15 people (Powell and Thompson, 5/28/00), but also enjoy to share adventures with one partner. On all lead trips I had only one unpleasant experience, an unpredictable person who signed out, got himself into a near-fatal accident (lightning stroke on Bear Creek Spires), forced us to search at night, activate a Search and Rescue Team, only to find that he survived a night under snow near the summit. Once, I got myself into a typical beginner’s trouble on North Guard, i.e., climbed off route unroped into cl 4-5 terrain. Only twice I aborted a planned climb (fresh snow on Abbott, cornices on Triple Divide). I have had no accidents on 247 peak climbs (was born on a Sunday). But I have had some close calls such as a near-strike from a tumbling table-sized boulder released by climbers above me on Winchell, skiing across a snow slab which fractured, riding out a sizable wet snow avalanche on Ritter, surviving a blizzard stuck on a pass, breaking through snow into a hole to the chest with skis and pack on a 4 day solo ski trip, getting hypothermic after swimming to a distant islands on a cold lake, and standing face-to-face with an upright bear with my foodbag between us. My nicest experiences include walking through fields of wildflowers on climbs of northern Sierra peaks (Disaster, Stanislaus, Sonora in July), skiing T-bolt’s North Couloir on firnglider skis in June, watching the colors of the sky at sunrise after spending the night on top of Whitney, sunbathing at the sandy beaches of Benson Lke, eating sautéed King Boletes with fresh trout, blueberries for desert. My longest trip was the JMT, 19 days, 250 mi, 50,000’, and 7 SPS peaks. My longest day hike was to Mt Lyell, 25 mi, 5000’. The largest ascent in one day was 8000’ to Colosseum via Sawmill Pass (9/22/0 1). Most peaks per day were three (N Guard, Brewer and S Guard, 10/15/88, and Rogers, Foerster and Electra, 6/26/99). The most exhilarating climbs were Devils Crag #1 and Norman Clyde; the least interesting ones were Granite Chief and Kern Point. My latest climb of the year was Owens Pk in December (12/ 29/99), my first one in the year was Alta Pk in February (2/12/00). Outside the Sierras, I climbed and skied in the Alps (Haute Route Zermatt-Chamonix on telemark skis), Canadian Rockies and Selkirks, Norway, climbed Mt Fuji, skied Mauna Kea, and, of course, Lassen and Shasta.

Now, after finishing the List, I began to reflect on the most obvious questions: Why did I climb the List? What do I do after it? Well, I climbed it because I simply like climbing and skiing, the physical and mental challenge which it requires, the reward of summiting, I enjoy the nature, the freedom, friends to share it with, photography, etc. The List was my guide, not always my goal, but I am grateful to have done it since it led me to so many beautiful places in the Sierra. Finishing the List is no reason for me to retire, rather to search for new goals. On my mind is an SPS “Extension List” of some 50 worthy, but unlisted peaks (The Sphinx, Farquhar, Starlight, Polemonium, Fin Dome, Feather, Caltech, Mary Austin, Woodworth, just to name a few). In contrast to the main list this one should be flexible and any comparable peaks would qualify. I am also happy to repeat some fine SPS peaks and help others to climb/lead them. On the ski mountaineering side, I would like to complete 50 Sierra peaks on skis. I also would like to establish a suitable list for ski mountaineering. I think all these goals are worthy, not too far-fetched, and may be accomplished in my 60’s with the help of good friends.

Last but not least, I would like to thank Gerry Holleman for co-leading this SPS/SMS trip and all participants to share the fun on the summit and the party.


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