Trip Report: Three Sisters Backcountry Nordic Traverse
By Perrin Boyd
[Apologies, the orientation & placement of some photos below is wonky and I just can’t figure out how to make them behave! Will work on it. – Sam]
The Three Sisters Backcountry hut-to-hut ski traverse is a self-guided 22-mile trek from Dutchman Flat near Mt. Bachelor traveling the eastern edge of the Three Sisters Wilderness boundary to Three Creeks Snow Park outside Sisters, Oregon. This great ski adventure involves three days of skiing with overnights in two comfy, fully stocked, self-service huts.
Six friends from Northfield, MN gathered the night before our trip for a feast and discussion of logistics. Kelly, Mike, Sofia and I now live in Bend, Oregon. Sam Demas, researcher for hut2hut.info, invited us all on the trek along with his wife, Laurel. It was an opportunity we could not pass up.
Since the Traverse starts and ends at different points, the trip began by taking care of logistics. Sunday morning Kelly and I drove to Three Creeks Snow Park. The road was quite snowy as we gained elevation, fueling both my excitement for the trip and my concern that Kelly’s Prius may not make it. Our hut host Shane met us at the Snowpark. Shane, enthusiastic, honest and very informative, provided us with maps, a multi-day weather report, estimated trail conditions and a GPS app. Shuttled back to Bend where we picked up the rest of the party, we then set off from Dutchman Flats to begin the 8-mile ski to the Happy Valley Hut.
The trip began Feb 5th following a month of heavy snowfall and cold temps. We unloaded our gear, donned waterproof layers and snapped into our skis to blustery gusts of snow and temperatures lingering around 30 degrees. Shane had predicted the trip would take 6-8 hours as we broke trail in heavy snow. The first few miles of the trail were clearly marked with blue diamonds. The initial section, beginning on the Dutchman Loop Trail, then following the Flagline Access Trail toward the Big Meadow trail, was relatively flat and protected by trees. Once on the Big Meadow trail we began a gentle climb. Ever thankful for the rented no wax-backcountry skis, we each experimented with climbing methods: Herringbone steps, side-steps, or just relying on the weight of our packs and scaled skis to forge straight up the hill. We all learned about the difficulty of rising from a fall in the ten foot deep powder. Reaching the base of Big Meadow we stopped for snacks and shared a moment of excitement as we entered the backcountry.
The back-country route to Big Meadow was marked by yellow or orange flags hanging from tree branches. Even though the flags were numerous, we lost the trail briefly. After a brief stint on a snowmobile trail, we encountered other skiers who redirected us to the juncture of Pete’s Trail and the Big Meadow Trail where we recognized the backcountry flags. Sighting the bright flags, we were back on our way. Group members took turns navigating, and breaking trail – which helped preserve everyone’s energy for the miles ahead.
The trail began to climb at a steep pitch. Progress was slow and fall-filled as we switched back and forth, rising higher and higher into wilderness terrain. The biggest challenge was escaping the soft deep snow following a fall. Recovering from a fall often required a team effort – the standing skier could either lift from the back, or grasp hands from the front while leaning back, or use poles. Throughout the day, as one of us took yet another fall, we laughingly labeled each other Turtles, unable to right ourselves.
The scenery was inspiring. We marveled at incredible snow sculptures precariously balanced on small trees or branches and at craters created by masses of fallen snow. At the top of the ridge, we were rewarded with a view across the open high plains. This section, gently skirting the slope, offered a reprieve from climbing. We all enjoyed the few short downhill runs, which brought laughter, as each balanced precariously to stay upright. Our trail crossed the snowmobile trail again into Falls Crossing, which apparently is a waterfall, but there was no evidence of it under the deep snow. The blanket of white below and the snow falling heavily from above hid this treasure of the wilderness, along with the spectacular views of Broken Top and South Sister.
Daylight began to wane. The group was getting tired. After vanquishing one more steep section, we spotted a snowmobile trail below on entering the Happy Valley drainage area. Double flags on branches indicated that the hut was near. It was 4:45pm and we had been skiing over 6.5 hours. The hut, nestled in the deep snow, was a delightful sight. The walls and roof were almost totally covered in snow. A path was cleared to the outhouse and wood was stacked inside for starting a fire in the stove. We began to settle in for the night.
The hut was a steel frame structure sleeping eight. Each bunk – 4 singles and 2 doubles — had a mattress pad and a warm sleeping bag. Well-designed to provide optimal room for hanging out, cooking, and drying wet clothing, the hut had high bunk beds, a wood stove on one wall, a propane lantern, 2 burner cook stove, a large prep area and a sink for cleaning dishes on the center island. The peak of the roof was a rectangular clerestory with high windows providing natural light. This was a nice feature since the lower windows were covered completely by the deep snow. The metal cabinets were stocked with basic cooking utensils, dishes, food and beer. We set to work creating yummy Mexican quesadillas for dinner. It was the perfect meal, finished off with bits of chocolate and tea. Windburn smiles radiated across our faces as we rubbed sore shoulders, fingered tunes on the “hut guitar” and did Acroyoga to stretch tight hamstrings. Once the fire was stoked and snow was melted for drinking water for the next day, we retreated to our bunks to dream of more fun the next day.
Rising to a chilly space (the fire had gone out in the stove) and 7 inches of fresh snow outside, we took our time preparing for the day. Breakfast — hearty oatmeal with all the fixings, coffee and hot chocolate – was followed by sandwich making and repacking gear. We pushed away from the Happy Valley Hut around 9:30 heading north toward Lone Wolf Hut in the heavily falling snow. The first 2 miles were a breeze; the recently packed snowmobile trail (Snowmo Trail #8) made breaking trail with skis pretty easy. Spirits were high with abundant chatter and laughter as we set off for another eight mile day.
We heard the hum of snowmobile engine in the distance. On approach, we noticed several adventurous souls with their machines. One man had gotten stuck in the middle of our path. The men kindly helped us around the snowmobile, inquired about our journey and wished us good luck. Even though hearing the snowmobiles broke the silence of our backcountry solitude, it was a nice diversion from the wind and cold. We reflected that all enjoy the outdoor wilderness in our own ways.
The final climb to Lone Wolf Hut was not particularly long or difficult. As hidden by snow and terrain as Happy Valley hut, Lone Wolf Hut finally appeared like a beacon against the wind. The ground immediately around the hut was icy and windblown; the outhouse path was covered with drifted snow. We entered our second hut and made it our home for the night — chopping and gathering wood, clearing a path to the outhouse. Today’s journey, finishing at 3 pm, took us a across 8-miles with a 1,500-foot elevation gain.
The Lone Wolf Hut was identical to the first, including a guitar hanging on the wall. We dug into the ample food supply, digging first into the salty snacks, beer and dried fruit. After the fire began to crackle, the weary travelers set up a massage train to loosen weary shoulders and settled in for naps and reading. Around 5 pm Shane, Jonas and Anna, the hut owners and local ski guides, came calling to talk a bit about the huts and their business. We laughed, learned and thoroughly enjoyed our nearly hour-long conversation with these talented, interesting people. They were open, but also careful to protect the “magic” of their success. Clearly they have worked hard to develop a respectful, successful relationship with the local forest district and we were benefiting from years of good work on their part.
We ended the day with hearty conversation, a bowtie pasta feast followed by tea, chocolate, cleaning dishes and melting snow for the next day’s ski. Any attempt to go outside required bundling up to battle gale force winds. Trips out were short and efficient. Drifting off to sleep, we all silently wondered if the hut could withstand the heavy gusts. But by morning, all was peaceful and calm. Several inches of new snow blanketed the ground. Snow flakes fell, gentle and quiet.
In no hurry to end this adventure, we made eggs and fried potatoes for our send off breakfast. It was delightfully satisfying. Due to a slight knee injury from “postholing” (stepping into very deep snow) near the outhouse, we opted for taking the snowmobile trail directly back to the parking lot. This route was shorter (about 3-4 miles?), significantly less taxing than the ski trail but still incredibly beautiful. It was a clearly marked, steady downhill glide to Three Creeks Snow Park. Just before Three Creeks Campground we passed turn offs for The Snow Creek Trail, followed shortly by the Meadow Trail and then Jeff View Trail. Each are Nordic trails accessing the wilderness at Three Creeks Snow Park. Finishing our descent, we arrived at the parking lot in less that 2 hours. We started at an elevation of 6,500 ft. at the hut and ended at 5,200 ft. On the way down we met Liz, the fourth owner of the huts who was out skiing with her two playful, rambunctious dogs.
[Note: The official ski trail out on the final day is 6 miles long. Unmaintained, these trails are ideal for backcountry skiers who want the peace and gentleness of classic skiing in the forest. Although we skirted by on the east, the trail winds through a burnt forest, crosses snowmobile trails and meanders past a shelter before arriving at the parking lot.]
Our cars were deeply covered in snow, but thankfully the road had been cleared. We piled in and headed to Sisters Coffee House for a warm drink before heading our separate ways. After such a magical experience coming back to “reality” was jarring. We all realized the gift of this winter escape was something we would love to repeat another year, possibly when we were able to experience the spectacular views and explore the area near the huts more. Oh yes, and then there is the lure of Three Sisters Wilderness Tam MacArthur Rim Yurts for exploring the alpine terrain with Shane, Jonas, Anna and Liz as our guides. This area is a fantastic winter playground for anyone who is up for adventure. Journeying into the Three Sisters Wilderness area of Central Oregon with friends is a recipe for true joy. Add the 3 days of falling snow, simple but thoughtfully constructed huts and well-marked trails and you have a magical adventure.
TIPS FOR TRAVELERS:
- This trip is not for beginners or those only accustomed to groomed trails. It is for physically fit, experienced backcountry skiers with good navigation skills.
- Split kindling in advance so you can quickly start the fire in morning. The stove will go out unless it is fed occasionally throughout the night.
- Bring along some booties/slippers for use in the hut.
- Read the website carefully for useful information on whats included in the huts, ski selection, food, etc.
- Bring along (or rent from the owners) a GPS unit (mobile phone app with owner provided PDF works fine) and compass; hut owners will provide a map. You will need maps even though the trail is well marked.
[Photos by Perrin Boyd, Kelly Scheurman, Laurel Bradley, Sam Demas, and one courtesy Three Sisters Backcountry.]