North + Middle Sister: Skiing Thayer, South Face & Diller

North + Middle Sister: Skiing Thayer, South Face & Diller
Xavier exfoliating on return to the dirt-mobile

April 19, 2024:

  • An unusual day of Type I fun with Xavier Campos, linking up ski descents on North and Middle Sister near Bend, OR.
  • Skied Thayer Headwall on North, cutting it short ~halfway to bootpack up to North Sister's South Face; then skied Diller Headwall on Middle.
  • Perfect corn on the South Face (aside from the top 100') and Diller.
  • Total 7k' vertical / 13 miles over 8 hours.
Check out the full Instagram story.

Note: I may get commissions for purchases from links in this post.


After three months pretending to leave Jackson, I finally hit the road. E.g., whiplash in January (Ford Stettner #2), March (Skillet) and April (Trifecta). A final two weeks in Jackson for Teton Trifecta with Connor and Jackson Hole closing weekend, then I drove west to Bend, OR.

Originally, I planned the direct 15 hours to LA via SLC / Vegas. But a visit with Xavier Campos & family in Bend (see Williamson / Ford Stettner #1) and some volcano skiing had been on the wish list. So on April 15th, I set my GPS to Bend via Boise, ID, quick visit with a friend from high school who moved from Anchorage. After some Bend type I fun (and type II, knowing Xavier, e.g., Williamson), I'd continue to Crater Lake, San Francisco, then follow the PCH to Venice Beach. On the 17th, volcanos emerged on the horizon.

Xavier and I floated Mt. Hood's North Face and / or Rainier's Liberty Ridge. To start, we landed on Hood for Friday. Following some spicy Thai at Wild Rose that night and shake-out run at Shevlin Thursday morning, we double checked Mountain Forecast. Wind gusts of 35mph+ at upper elevations. Memories of a subzero night on South Teton fresh on my mind (Trifecta first attempt), and Xavier's experience with exposed volcanoes, we pivoted.

Only an hour's drive north, we could link a few descents on the Three Sisters. Xavier hadn't yet skied Thayer Headwall on North Sister or Diller Headwall on Middle Sister. Bonus: (1) 5am wake-up and a full night's sleep, versus a few hours in the back of Xavier's Subaru at the Hood trailhead, and (2) donuts from Sisters Bakery on the way home.

Quick WinCo stop for supplies, loading up on trail mix after 30 minutes exploring the bulk bin section (WinCo virgin). Then, I snagged a lightweight axe (CAMP Corsa) a la Facebook Marketplace. (Recently sold my absurdly hefty Raven.)


I pulled together my standard light kit. (Not even close to a light kit by Xavier's skinny skimo standards.)

Type I Fun

At 5am, alarms shook me off the futon on I-5 (nickname for the hallway between visiting parents, the baby's room and the master bedroom). Xavier had been up for an hour+, after a 4am daddy shift with his (almost) 1yo daughter.

We planned to approach from Pole Creek Trailhead, or as close as possible before snow blocked the road. We hitched Xavier's sled to his Subaru to spare us a couple miles of flat hiking. I toasted / buttered a bagel to pair with the trail mix.

First light crept over the horizon as we hit the road.

Route overview, starting with North (7k vert; started my watch late)

Silly Sledding

To the west, sunlight crept down the Three Sisters as we approached their eponymous town 30min north of Bend. Following the USFS road to Pole Creek, we reached our first snow, driving over 3-4 patches over a couple miles. At 5k' and still ~two miles from the trailhead, deeper, untracked snow stretched out of view.

We pulled over, organized gear and unloaded the sled. I picked up Xavier's pack, a school bag compared to my hefty Mammut. Skinny skimo life. A reminder to rotate some lightweight options into my touring kit.

A van pulled up, rocking 22 plates. The three skiers laced up trail runners as we jammed our feet into touring boots and strapped skis to the sled.

We bounced over chunky, refrozen snow for a few hundred feet. Then a dozen feet of dirt, more snow, some dirt and a bit more snow. After a mile, we reached uncovered, south-facing USFS road, no snow in sight and another mile to the trailhead. The sled started feeling silly.

Against the advice of any mechanic, we drove over another quarter mile on dirt / gravel, hoping for snow around the bend, then gave up to spare tracks and skis. My Tundra would've made it to the trailhead, even over softer snow later that afternoon. Trail runners would've been the next best option. (Don't doubt 22's.)

We hiked a half mile in ski boots, finding snow within a hundred feet of the official trailhead. By 6:40am, we "skinned" toward the Sisters, looming in the distance, hopping logs and bare patches on sunny aspects. After a mile and ~500' vertical, we reached northerly slopes with consistent snow.

An hour and a half with some ups and downs through the burn area. I started in a fleece, soon dropping to sun hoody / base layer and then just the hoody as the sun climbed in the sky. The snow refroze overnight and softened in the morning sun. Hardly a cloud in the sky and no wind. By 8:30am, we reached meadows beneath the Thayer Glacier moraine. Xavier's boots pinched his heel, hot spots forming, so he let them air out for 15min.

Xavier and I split my headphones for Kissinger's World Order. We listened to the United States chapters, after I put a dent in the book on my drive.

Just before 9am, we cleared the moraine at 7.6k', looking down on still-frozen Cirque Lake and up at the Headwall.

1) North Sister: Thayer Headwall

We skinned to the sluff run-out beneath Thayer Headwall and transitioned for the final bootpack. Digging through my pack, I realized my buttered bagel was MIA. Fig bars and trail mix it was.

Thayer Headwall faces east, lending to a comfortable morning bootpack without crampons. By 9:45am, we hiked up the sluff and over the bergschrund. Sheltered from wind by the South Ridge, the slope was an oven, some relief after 9.5k'.

At 11am, I caught Xavier at the final ridge just below 10k'. He paced at least 20min ahead throughout the bootpack. Clock ticking, we skipped the summit, added a fleece and transitioned to ski. Warming on the headwall increased wet slide risk. One-by-one we skied the top, southeast choke. Corn, but still icy in patches.

At the base of the choke, we cut hard right, hugging the cliffs. We'd traverse to the South Ridge, then ski the South Face, closer to the Middle's North Ridge approach. After scouting options and reviewing FatMap / Caltopo, Xavier recommended a short bootpack to avoid cliffing out on the Headwall.

2) North Sister: South Face

At 11:30am, we released pins, set skis into the snow tails first and clipped them to our packs. The slope wasn't too steep – maybe 30 degrees – but it was exposed and axes were stashed. A dropped ski would ruin the day.

By 11:45am, reached a roof at 9.6k' and transitioned back to skis for a final traverse. We billy goated over some rocks on the South Ridge, reaching a connected snow patch opening into the South Face.

Just before noon, Xavier dropped in. His skis chattered over icy patches for the first ~200 feet. Southerly slopes only saw direct sun for a couple hours, still firmer than easterly. One of the beauties of volcano skiing apparently: when one slope gets too hot, rotate west, then reverse course in the afternoon. Perfect corn all day.

Speaking of volcanos, Xavier skied to a backdrop of Middle, South, Bachelor and Broken Top (skier's right to left). A chain of giants stretching to the south.

I dropped onto the Face, skis chattering on the first few icy turns. After a fast ~200 feet, the snow softened to perfect, untracked corn. I opened up some GS turns (or my best attempt as a non-racer) chasing Xavier to 8.3k'.

As we refueled and stretched skins over our skis, another group passed from Middle. Reversing our course, they skied an east-facing route (maybe Diller), now headed to North for one more descent.

3) Middle Sister: Diller Headwall

By 12:15pm, Xavier skinned south onto Hayden Glacier, then north toward the Middle's North Ridge. The other party disappeared behind us on the South Face as I chased Xavier. After 800' vertical of skinning, we reached the top of the glacier at 9.1k' and transitioned to bootpack.

At 1pm, on that shaded and wind-exposed North Ridge, we found our first wintery conditions. A thin layer of low density, wind-board. Small ice particles, maybe from freezing rain. Patchy, dense corn from the morning sun. Fleeces on.

As we hiked, Spanish trash talk rang out of our radios. Our clearest line of sight was to Eugene straight west; maybe a smaller town in between. Fluent (Latin roots), Xavier considered talking back.

Over my shoulder, volcanoes stretched north: Jefferson, Hood and St Helens (barely visible). By 1:30pm, we summited Middle, more volcanos stretching south: South, Broken Top and Bachelor. Flat plains to the east and west.

At 1:45pm, we looked into Diller Headwall and traversed 50 feet north for an easy drop in. Xavier took the lead, linking smooth, quiet turns down the face. Out of view, and thinking he stopped safely to skier's right, I dropped in.

After a minute, Xavier called out on the radio, "Stop skiing!" A river of sluff almost swept him off his feet. It gathered momentum faster than I expected, just as Xavier turned into the fall line. I should've waited for confirmation he was clear. I held until he dropped over the bergschrund and cleared the run-out zone. Close call and a good lesson on my end.

We skied perfect corn all the way down Diller. I pulled out of the fall line a few times to dodge my own sluff. Above the bergschrund, I watched a small, seemingly endless sluff river channeling into the apron below. I dropped a couple feet from the bergschrund, meeting Xavier at the base.

Double Helix, Log Hopping, a Dirtmobile and Donuts

The best skiing lied ahead. I synced to Xavier's turns, creating a double helix down Diller / Hayden Glaciers and into the meadows below. We traversed due east of North Sister, then transitioned to skin over a ridge. The duo we passed below South Face descended a tight chute on North to our west.

After traversing a snow bridge over Soap Creek, we transitioned back to skiing. By 2:30pm, I chased Xavier through the burn area, slaloming between the bare pines. After another 30min of skiing, skating and log-hopping, we reached the trailhead. This time, snow delivered us five feet from the gravel road.

Skis shouldered, we hiked to the sled, looking very out-of-place with no snow in sight. Xavier's boot pinching was too much to bear, so he walked barefoot over the final ~500ft of gravel.

By 3:15pm, we strapped skis, dead-lifted the sled to face the north and hopped on for a silly half-mile ride on gravel, a plume of dust in our wake. A rare day of type I fun almost in the books, our only concern was Sisters Bakery: closing at 4pm.

I weighted the front of the trailer as Xavier ramped the sled, brakes stopping a few inches before my torso. Boots and bags tossed in the back. My boots still reeked from Trifecta. A few liner cycles in the washer (with scent killer) finally exterminated the bacteria colony later that week.

We made it to Sisters Bakery with 5min to spare, grabbed a couple donuts and cold kombuchas, then drove home for 5pm dinner.

After Sisters, we planned another Hood North Ridge attempt once winds calmed, tentatively Monday night. Monday afternoon, after a few nights of mediocre sleep, Xavier texted, "How high are your motivation levels right now?" Just like that, he broke the seal. We each dreaded the big day, but wouldn't be first to call it quits. For two hours, we kicked the can back and forth, waiting for someone to say, "Let's just watch Three Body Problem and crash." I broke the stalemate.

Just after I hit the pillow at 9pm, Xavier sent screenshots of the new wind gusts and two words, "Forecast improved." At 6:45am Tuesday, more texts of the webcams. Followed by, "What if we do it tonight by full moon?" One more webcam screenshot at 9:30am. We regretted not pulling the trigger. But my body thanked me for a full night sleep on I-5.

Sisters kicked off a full week of type I fun in Bend. Bar crawl from Cross-Eyed Cricket to J DUB / Astro later that night. (I sandbagged a sleep-deprived mommy and daddy through line dancing at the Cricket. Nanny out of the country for a month.) A weekend brisket at the Campos residence. More runs along the Deschutes and Metolius – Xavier on a marathon training plan. Ice plunges, saunas and hot tubbing. A few more bar crawls, brunches and a half-day skiing Bachelor.