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The Path Least Travelled: Finding a deeper stash at Thayer Glacier Headwall


Sublime Corn Turns on the Thayer HeadwallEvery year I write down a list of goals to accomplish in the outdoors. The past two years, climbing and skiing from the top of the Thayer Glacier Headwall on North Sister has ranked among the top five on the list. Last season, I was unable to check off the Thayer Headwall, but not for a lack of trying. I skied into the east face of North Sister three separate times, only to be denied access to the mountain's upper reaches due to avalanche conditions. One memorable occasion, after deciding the avalanche conditions were too dangerous, I witnessed two big slides tumbling down the east face while eating lunch a safe distance away.

The Thayer Glacier Headwall is a very natural and aesthetic climbing route. Looking out my window at North Sister, I have scanned the face with binoculars hundreds of times eyeing the potential for ski mountaineering. The route begins just above a tarn sitting at the base of the east face. It climbs the lower portion of an hourglass through a constriction, pinching down to only a couple ski lengths wide, before reopening. Instead of continuing up the upper hourglass, the route bends to the right aiming directly toward the summit.

Last Sunday, the three to four inches of corn over a firm base made for ideal climbing and skiing conditions. With crampons on my ski boots, an ice axe in one hand, and a whippet (a ski pole with an ice axe handle) in the other hand, I climbed to the top of the Thayer Headwall. Topping out at a saddle about 50 feet below the summit between Glisan and Prouty pinnacles, I took in the full-value views of South Sister and Bachelor to the south and Jefferson and Hood to the north.

The typical approach into North Sister's east side is via Pole Creek trailhead just west of Sisters. In the winter months, skiing access is questionable at best. The snow stopped our car seven miles and about 2,000 vertical feet short of the trailhead. Not to be deterred, my friend Chris (who joined me for the approach and skied another line) and I brought skate skis to cover the initial miles on the road. There's nothing like a little Central Oregon multi-sport adventure. We strapped our alpine skis and boots to our back and skated up the road. The firm corn snow was perfect for skating. The early morning light and mountain chickadees chirping with delight caffeinated my senses. At the trailhead, we ditched the skate gear and skinned into the mountain.

After reaching the base of North, we went our separate ways, staying in radio contact. From the saddle between the two summit pinnacles, I strapped on my skis and began carving perfectly smooth and sublime corn turns down the climbing route. After meeting back up at the base of the mountain, Chris and I retraced our tracks back to the car. Following our own tracks out was an effortless task allowing my mind to wander.

I began thinking about how life is traveling outdoors. Many of you have experienced following a faint trail to reach a wild destination. Initially the path is very clear. Suddenly you lose sight of the path and encounter a difficult stretch. You begin to second guess your decision to zig rather than zag, when suddenly the trail appears again. Everything is grand, on the straight and narrow, and you can appreciate the birds, trees, and smell of nature. Sure enough, later on, you loose track of the trail again. Now you find yourself boulder hopping or climbing hand over fist up a steep slippery slope. You know you are still heading in the right general direction, but have lost the path.

With confidence in your ability, you continue forward, always with the end goal in mind. That end goal might be to reach a secret lake to catch golden trout, to summit a mountain peak, to find the field of the elusive Edelweiss, to find that secret powder stash, or to find success and happiness. Whatever the task, with hard work and perseverance, the end destination can be reached. Then an amazing thing occurs. On the return, it is always easier to stay on the trail.

On Sunday we were able to retrace our steps on the way out, not thinking twice about route finding or getting lost. The same occurs in life. Retracing your steps and looking back through the years, the path becomes clear.

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