Fat Bikes to Freedom on Oregon’s South Sister

Land of a Thousand Windlips

“I should have known it would rain,” I said to no one in particular. “Volcanoes never seem to respect a weather forecast.”

I was sitting in a Nordic ski lodge at the base of one volcano — the ski resort of Mt Bachelor — and en route to camp on another, known as South Sister, for four days. An 8.30am departure had turned into 9.30, then 10.30. Somewhere out there, maybe six or seven kilometres to the northeast, was our destination. It should have been visible. We should have been on the trail. We shouldn’t have believed the forecast that said it would be clear, with zero percent chance of precipitation and perfect spring sunshine. Josh Dirksen had organized the trip and promised ideal snowboarding terrain. “The Land Of A Thousand Windlips,” he had said. “Endless hip jumps.” Along with Dirksen’s dad Mike, Forrest Shearer, artist Adam Haynes and filmer Chris Edmonds, we sat and contemplated the drizzle. Never trust a volcano.

With plenty of daylight, a leisurely departure wouldn’t have been a problem – except for one thing: the approach. To get to the base of the climb requires wrapping around the back of the mountain on a 10km-long snowmobile trail. For this, we would be riding bicycles – known as ‘fat bikes’ – sporting five-inch-wide tires that run at very low air pressure. These are designed to handle pretty much any kind of overland travel, from sand to muck to snow. However, we’d soon learn that the effort required to pilot one down a snowmobile trail is highly correlated with the condition of said trail. Essentially, riding a fat bike through slushy snow is akin to paddling a boat through a lake of pudding – and that’s before you factor in the need to maintain balance.

At around 11am, fearing an increasingly laborious approach, we left. At first our fat bike rhythm was something akin to a drunk on a stolen ten-speed – pedal, pedal, tip – but we eventually got the hang of it and maintained an upright, if slightly askew, trajectory. Weighed down with splitboards, camping gear and four days’ worth of food, we were drawing quizzical looks from passing slednecks, but it was enjoyable enough on hard-pack. As the fog began to burn off, the sun cooked the trail further and turned what should have been a 45-minute ride into a two-hour slog. Eventually we made it – past the hills, past the lake, and on to the inconspicuous starting point for our climb.

“The views here are usually pretty spectacular,” Dirksen said as we hid the bikes in the woods and prepared for the climb. Damn drizzle; all I could see was a thick forest of towering Douglas fir hung with stringy, pale-green moss. “We’ll follow a creek up to this saddle,” Dirksen explained, “then it gets mellow for a while.”

Deep tree wells and the occasional steep pitch determined our course to the ridge, 800 vertical metres up. After a brief lunch break we made a start across a rolling plateau, emerging into a milk bowl of deep troughs (known as runnels) that had been carved out by heavy rain in the last week. Then, a glimpse of the summit through the fog: a massive crater ringed by a cliff band, a prominent rock spire, and two couloirs draining to the tree line. And there were those windlips: ridge after ridge after ridge, cornices piling off to the south and creating massive, right-side hips crafted by ancient lava flows and prevailing northwest winds.

We made it to camp by sunset. The clouds filtered down to the valley, revealing a bright and near-full waxing moon that cast soft blue shadows from the crater rim as temperatures dropped below freezing. Tucked into a brave stand of wind-worn evergreens, we had the South Sister to ourselves.

Dirksen hikes a jump - right after his bracing twently mile round trip for a fresh board. Beast!

There’s something about camping that allows one to sleep soundly. Maybe it’s the clean air, or the lack of distractions like street-sweepers, sirens, the Internet or your neighbor’s lawnmower. Or maybe it’s exhaustion. Whatever the case, I slept more soundly upon South Sister than I had in months, rising casually when the sun began to warm our tent at around 8.30am. And herein lies perhaps the best part of springtime splitboard missions: the lack of alpine starts. For anyone unfamiliar with those, let me explain: an alpine start entails rising at some ungodly hour, before the sun has even thought about cresting the horizon. During mid-winter self-ascent missions they are inevitable. Good lines require long approaches, and, for reasons relating to snow stability, quality of light, and the number of hours in the day, alpine starts become the norm. Frozen boots, frozen Clif Bars for breakfast, frozen fingers, frozen camera gear, frozen eyebrows – you get the idea. Meanwhile, let’s call this the ‘sub-alpine start’ – a springtime luxury. While temperatures had dipped below freezing overnight, the thaw was on as we prepared a leisurely cup of coffee or two and mulled over the day’s objective: “Head that way,” Dirksen said, pointing westward, “and find windlips.”

Skinning was easy on the morning crust. Within fifteen minutes, we were standing atop a warm-up line: a quick little hit into a small bowl full of runnels. Just enough to get the legs going, we figured. Dirksen dropped first, popping an ollie and carving heelside cross-slope. Then his board snapped; it turned out the runnels hadn’t thawed enough. Granted, Dirksen has an abnormally powerful heelside turn, and, as he put it, “I’ve probably broken fifty boards in front of the binding like this.” However, with it being the first turn of the trip – and deep in the backcountry – this presented a problem. It was a 30-kilometre round trip back to the car park, where he had thoughtfully left a backup board in his truck. Enter beast mode: Dirksen left around 11 am, saying he’d be back by 3 or 4, in time to ride the couloirs above camp. He made it sound routine; all those alpine starts while filming with Jeremy Jones for the Deeper/Further/Higher trilogy must have paid off.

With Dirksen’s departure, we turned our attention to a corner hit that was visible from camp, carving out a hip and hiking it for an hour under a high and hot sun. The elder Dirksen skied to the Rock Mesa Obsidian lava field below. A vast plateau speckled with the jagged black rock from which it derives its name, Rock Mesa is spotted with gaping craters that serve as reminders of South Sister’s first eruption around 50,000 years ago. Which leads me to a brief geography lesson: South Sister, at 10,358 feet, is the youngest and tallest mountain in the state-protected 286,000-acre Three Sisters Wilderness, and the second-highest mountain in Oregon. The locals call her ‘Charity’, while nearby North Sister and Middle Sister are known as ‘Faith’ and ‘Hope’ respectively. With her last eruption occurring just 1,900 years ago, and with magmatic upwelling and earthquakes in the last decade, she remains a volatile lady. We can thank Charity’s ongoing volcanic activity and prominent stature for producing an abundance of unique snowboard terrain.

By the time Dirksen returned – right on schedule at around 3.30pm – we had accomplished the following: built one-and-a-half igloos to rectify the ‘three dudes in one tent’ situation, consumed roughly one-and-a-half freeze dried meals per person, and developed at least three full-blown sunburns on our pasty, winter-stricken hides. Indeed, it was beach weather on the volcano, the vast expanse of white reflecting the high April sun and turning the snow from crust to corn to slush. Dirksen hardly seemed worse for wear, tucking into a couple packets of rice and chicken before promptly donning his splitboard. The afternoon’s goal? An hour’s climb to the prominent twin couloirs guarding the summit.

Indeed, it was beach weather on the volcano, the vast expanse of white reflecting the high April sun and turning the snow from crust to corn to slush.

Edmonds left camp first, loaded down with heavy film gear and planning to position himself in the most exposed situation possible, at a rock fin splitting the two lines. I followed shortly thereafter, climbing through a thin ribbon of wind-worn trees rising along the looker’s-right ridge. Alone on the ascent, a cascade of runnels drew sinuous lines below me for a vertical kilometre, tracing the natural fall lines through dozens of ancient lava flows.

And there were those windlips: ridge after ridge after ridge creating massive, right-side hips

An hour later, Dirksen, Shearer and Haynes topped out and dropped one at a time, working the steep runnels like miniature, slushed-out Alaskan spines. I traversed right to meet them at a jump Dirksen had spotted earlier. The in-run took some work, as it crossed a few hundred feet of runnels into the 20-foot high hip. Dirksen still had gas left in the tank after his hike back to the car, so he guinea-pigged the booter and blasted a triple overhead method. Shearer followed him off the lip, deeming the kicker worthy, then they dutifully hiked it until the sun dipped low and spread magenta hues across the lunar craters of Rock Mesa.

Can you pinpoint the worst run of your life? This run – well, this run will forever remain with me.

Can you pinpoint the worst run of your life? Before we left South Sister, I’d have been hard pressed to tell you about it. Usually, shitty conditions just blur into a glob of forgettable waste somewhere deep in the brain’s frontal cortex. But this run – well, this run will forever remain with me.

After the departure of Haynes and the elder Dirksen on the morning of day three, we had spent a mellow afternoon punting around some smaller wind lips, sessioning a little step-up, and riding a few lines in a small bowl above camp. It may have been subconscious, but I think we had an inkling of what we were in for on the way out. It began with an early wakeup, the earliest of the trip. Damn near sunrise. My boots were still frozen. Not an alpine start, but enough to remember that we were, in fact, backcountry snow camping. The reason for this early rise was a justified fear of soupy snow for the bike ride back. The snowmobile trail had been mostly flat or downhill on the way in, which meant we needed to beat the thaw or suffer the wallow-filled consequences. Thus I stood atop a steep and icy ramp of runnels wearing a fifty-pound pack. Swallowing my pride, I went into a sideslip, the shriek of metal edges on crust piercing the still morning air. A brief hike up and we were hustling across the plateau for the trees.

Oh, the trees.

They had deposited their winter’s worth of snow below their boughs, which had frozen solid in board-buckling clumps of pain. I sweated. I cursed. I tried to follow Haynes’s tracks from the day prior, envious of his late departure and obvious edge penetration. I flipped backwards into a tree well, before climbing out and slotting into Haynes’s track. I rode it out in a sketchy tuck for a dozen seconds, then hooked my edge and pitched forward onto my face. It was forty-five minutes of humbling brutality.

But you know what? It was fun. Maybe it was the immense challenge of descending a slope that would have been mundane in any other conditions, but alone in the trees I couldn’t help but laugh – this trip had begun with an unconventional premise, so it might as well have ended with an unconventional line. An ode to volcanic volatility. Fat bikes to freedom.

Dirksen funnels into runnels.

By Hook Or By Crook

As Colin explains, fat bikes have their pros and cons – but how do they measure up to more traditional methods of getting to the powder?

Snowshoes – The original way to negotiate the backcountry, snowshoes distribute your weight over a larger surface area so that you don’t sink as far into the deep stuff. They also have built-in crampons for tackling icy sections. Wood and animal-hide construction has given way to relatively lightweight modern materials, so they’re well worth tying to your pack when there’s a lot of pow to be had.

Splitboard – These are more popular than ever, and have come a long way since the uber-fiddly early versions. They’re not cheap, and require special bindings too, but certainly make long tours in the backcountry much, much easier than even snowshoes can. Jeremy Jones shot his trilogy of pow-chasing movies using just splitboards, so if you’ve got the puff then you definitely get out what you put in.

MTN Approach skis a favourite with pros from Xavier de le Rue to Bryan Iguchi, these folding mini-skis have permanent skins and pack nicely into a backpack. It’s not one for mega missions, given that your board will be on your back the entire time, but over short to medium distances they allow you to ride down on your normal stick rather than on a split.

Sled – Motorising the process has opened up a whole new world of powder; having a sled in the BC interior, for example, allows access to limitless options. They’re noisy and bad for the environment, though, not to mention expensive. Plus they’ve attracted a certain type of gung-ho douchebag commonly referred to as ‘slednecks’…

Heli – Getting whooshed right to the top of an untouched peak in mere minutes certainly allows the shred miles to really rack up, although at times it may feel like you’re spitting £50 notes right into the propellers. As an experience it rightly sits on many a shredder’s bucket list, but unless you’re minted then don’t expect to get used to it.

Snowcat – This looks a bit like something that would come out of //Thunderbird 2// during an arctic rescue mission. With caterpillar tracks and a spacious cabin, snowcats can take multiple riders to a safe drop-off point, then pick them up further down. Rinse and repeat, for as long as you’re able – when you get a good day for catboarding, it really doesn’t get much better.

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