BEND — All I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears, and the sound of my ragged breath as I crunched through the snow and ice that covered the trail, trudging slowly up the unforgiving terrain. Above me was a rich blue sky; below was a wide view of snow-covered mountains and valleys that was postcard-perfect, but not a view I could enjoy – I was too busy trying to force my leaden legs and burning feet forward.
One step at a time.
That was my mantra as I summited South Sister on Nov. 18. A twelve and a half mile hike with a 52 percent grade; five and a half of those miles climb 5,000 feet in elevation, and the summit peaks at 10,358 feet.
I can say with certainty that hiking South Sister was the most physically and mentally-demanding experience I’ve put myself through. I was not at all in the shape I should have been, which added to its difficulty, and I vastly underestimated how hard the hike would be going into it.
At one point, I slumped down on the trail and started crying, completely overwhelmed and exhausted. Ahead of me stretched the miles back down to the trailhead, and I began to seriously wonder how I was going to make it back.
I suffered mild altitude sickness, gnarly blisters on my heels and one pinkie toe, and sharp, stabbing pain in my kneecaps on the descent. On the way up and on the way down I kept questioning why the heck I decided to put myself through this.
What’s more: South Sister is a relatively easy hike for a mountain, if you compare it to Mt. Hood or North Sister. So I suffered a lot on a mountain hike that shouldn’t have been as hard as it ended up being.
To add some backstory to this crazy endeavor, my friend and I had hiked 10 miles in the Mt. Jefferson area the day before our summit, and I ended that day with two quarter-sized blisters on my heels.
Later that evening, we went to REI to gather a few supplies for our 5:30 a.m. start on South Sister, and one of the shoes specialists told me my hiking boots were a half-size to a full size too big, hence the blisters.
But on I went the next morning to attempt South Sister. I wore two pairs of wool socks, a pair of sock liners, and stuffed another pair of socks around my Achilles tendon to try and mitigate my heels rubbing against my boots. It kind of worked – enough that I felt okay to go on.
Summiting South Sister was a brutal experience; the way up was intense, but the way down was even worse because of how steep and jagged the trail was, a few miles of which were packed with snow.
If I could have, I would have leapt with joy when we finally made it back to the trailhead.
Funnily enough, the next day, as I hobbled around and iced my swollen knees, I began researching what it would take to climb Mt. Hood.
There is just something about being on the summit of a mountain that looks out onto unparalleled views, and you’re out of breath and standing on legs that can barely hold you up, that’s addicting.
I don’t think I have ever felt more empowered or accomplished than I did on that day. Because it gets you thinking: What else can I do?
I pushed myself to my physical limit that day, and in retrospect, I may have pushed myself too far. But part of the experience is learning about your limits, and being OK with calling it quits when you need to.
Here are a few tips to follow if you ever decide you want to put yourself through this:
1. Be in good hiking shape
This was a pretty easy hike for being a mountain hike, and it was still hard. People hike at higher altitudes in California and Colorado all the time, but I was not used to the altitude, and I was not in good hiking shape, which probably attributed to how much my body hurt afterward. So do not attempt this hike unless you have a solid hiking background and some cardiovascular training to go with it. This hike is not for beginners, and it can get dangerous due to the altitude and steep terrain. If I only had one piece of advice to give, this would be it. Also, don’t hike 10 miles the day before summiting South Sister. Like, what was I thinking?
2. Eat constantly while you’re hiking
Because you’re climbing at a higher altitude, your body has to work that much harder. For every 1,000 feet you climb, you should be eating something. You might not feel hungry but your body will thank you later. Altitude sickness can range from nausea (which is what I had, and trust me, when you’re trying to climb a mountain you don’t want to feel nauseous) to dizziness and shortness of breath. So eat and drink like crazy. Stuff some protein bars, dried fruit or trail mix into your pockets for easy access. Also, adding in some electrolyte tablets to your water isn’t a bad idea.
3. Research what you’re getting into
South Sister is one of the hardest hikes in Oregon, not too far behind Mt. Hood. Depending on the time of year, you might need crampons and an ice axe. Make sure to bring layers. It’s annoying to take layers on and off throughout the hike but it gets cold up at the summit, even during the summer. I don’t think I can emphasize this tip enough. Research and bring more than you think you’ll need of everything: Clothing, gear, food and water.
4. Plan for worst-case scenarios
Obviously you can’t predict the outcome of the hike, and most people ascend and descend safely, but when dealing with exposure and the elements, you have little say as to what could happen. Bring a first-aid kit. Bring headlamps. Bring an emergency blanket. Bring extra food. Plan out the trip ahead of time, and then plan to be up there for longer than you think0. Our nine-hour trip took 13 hours.
5. Know your limits
It’s OK to need to turn back and not finish the hike. It really is. I am a proud, stubborn person, and come hell or high water, I was getting to the top. But, like I said earlier, I don’t think finishing this hike was the smartest decision. Be honest with yourself. The mountains will always be there.