22 Dec Hut to Hut Ski the Three Sisters
I tried to avoid looking at the dirty snow that ringed the parking lot. It was not just sprinkled with cinders from the snowplows and gravel trucks, but also had alarmingly large patches of dirt showing where the snow was rapidly melting. We unloaded our gear from the shuttle van and walked 100 yards, carrying our skis to where the snow started, to begin a three-day ski adventure on the eastern flank of the Central Oregon Cascades.
Earlier that winter, I had assembled this group of hearty skier friends to sign up for a self-guided ski tour offered by Three Sisters Backcountry. When I booked the trip, I envisioned that for a long weekend in mid-March, we’d be breaking trail through fresh snow, gliding through powder and digging ourselves out of the hut each morning. Last winter proved to be quite different, with very warm temperatures and low snowpack, so instead of venturing into a deep winter wonderland, we were anxious to see if there was enough snow to ski on.
Three Sisters Backcountry Inc. is a Bend-based company that offers a variety of snow and ski recreation and education opportunities. Formed in 2006 by avid skiers and outdoorsmen Jonas Tarlen and Shane Fox, the company first offered certified avalanche safety courses teaching backcountry snow riders about critical safety measures while in avalanche country. In 2009 they installed two winter yurts at Three Creeks Lake at the base of Tam McArthur Rim. These yurts allow multi-day access to steep terrain for the hardcore backcountry skier seeking an “earn your turns” style of backcountry skiing.
In the winter of 2014-2015, Tarlen and Fox built and installed two more huts, strategically placed along the east side of the mountains. The huts, named “Elk” and “Lone Wolf,” allow backcountry skiing from Dutchman Flat to Three Creeks Sno-Park, over multiple days and varied terrain, traversing the east side of Broken Top, Ball Butte and the Three Sisters mountains.
Our first day was balmy with clouds in a high overcast sky and our skis crunched over the snow as we made our way across the starkness of Dutchman Flat. We were immediately heartened to see that there was indeed plenty of snow, so any worries of hiking on our ski trip faded as we cruised along, checking our map on occasion to make sure we were headed in the right direction. With stable weather and stellar visibility, we opted to explore the high country, skiing across wide plateaus with huge views of Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top and South Sister.
The snow was perfect—beautiful and fast, allowing for smooth kicking and gliding. Gentle, rolling hills had us smiling and whooping it up as some of us pointed straight down the slopes and some tried for mellow s-turns. Stopping for lunch near a stand of gnarled, weather-beaten white fir trees, I thanked my friends for coming along on this new adventure.
The entire route is roughly 22 miles and is self-guided, meaning you need to find your own way each day, and be able to handle any challenges along the route. Three Sisters Backcountry provides maps with a suggested route and handheld GPS units to keep you on track to get to the huts each day. While the suggested route roughly follows along the Metolius-Windigo Trail, skiers are free to explore as they wish, depending on weather and conditions. Since that was the first year of offering this tour, the route was not signed, but they have plans to mark it this winter.
We were fortunate to have Tarlen tag along for our first day of skiing. His job is to ski all winter, so he made the rest of us look like rookies. By the time we descended through the trees to the first hut, we were ready for a beer. Good thing, because the huts are stocked with cold cans of GoodLife beer and plenty of food. This allows skiers to not be burdened down with large packs while skiing. “We really want people to not have to ski with a heavy pack during the day. Skiers only need to carry their clothes, first aid supplies, and on-trail food and water. It makes for much more enjoyable skiing,” explains Tarlen.
When I first saw the Elk Hut in a little clearing amongst the trees, it was hard to believe that we were miles from civilization. The one-room shelter was beautifully hand-built by Tarlen and Fox, with eight sleeping bunks, bright and airy clerestory windows, a full cooking set-up and a toasty wood burning stove. The bunks have sleeping bags (skiers must bring their own sleeping liners) with cushy mattresses. The separate outhouse, a few yards away, has it’s own creative wood and metal work.
We sat outside in the spring-like weather, drinking beer, passing flasks of whiskey and taking turns melting snow on the wood stove for water. Some of us skied to nearby slopes to make some turns before darkness set in. We were content just to be in the woods in the winter, and so excited that we still had two more days left—yippee! We feasted on tacos and burritos that night and turned in as complete darkness set in the mountains.
The light outside had that unique winter glow to it when we woke up the next morning. I bolted up on my bunk and looked out the window squealing, “It’s snowing!” After days, even weeks of no new snow, good fortune brought us a light dusting of fluffy stuff for our second day of skiing. The route took us further north for about another 8 miles, following a similar contour along the mountains. The skies cleared for another gorgeous blue-sky day and we spent all day exploring the open plateaus, gentle slopes and glades mixed with big hemlock forests. We reached the Lone Wolf hut in the afternoon, bodies tired and hungry and ready for a rest.
Tarlen points out, “This trip is definitely suited for skiers with strong fitness and an appetite for adventure. Skiing this route is different than a Nordic spin around a Sno-Park.” The terrain is not groomed, and while you might see tracks from the previous group, there is a good chance that you’ll be making your own trail. Having the proper ski setup makes for a better, safer experience. Tarlen and Fox recommend wider, metal edged, scaled touring skis with either a three-pin binding or a robust backcountry NNN (New Nordic Norm) binding. This gives the ability to handle varied conditions, from firm crust to deep powder.
The Lone Wolf hut is situated just northeast of Three Creeks Lake and has a view of the North and Middle Sister. From the hut windows, the peaks seem so close you’d think you could touch them. Identical to the Elk Hut, Lone Wolf Hut is also stocked with snacks, dinner fixings, local brews, plenty of firewood and a nearby outhouse. As part of their permit agreement with Deschutes National Forest, Three Sisters Backcountry removes the huts in the early summer, then puts them back in the fall, just in time for the ski season. You would never know it, but the huts are designed as two halves, each half fitting on a flatbed truck, allowing them to transport them each season.
The final day, some of us opted to ski to the lake and back. Normally, the last day’s route would take you six miles on the Three Creeks Sno-Park cross-country ski trails and down to the parking lot. The snow was quite thin for this last day of the tour, so Tarlen offered us a ride in his pickup truck for part of the route back to the parking lot.
Since this is a point-to-point tour, Three Sisters Backcountry handles the shuttle from one end to the other. On the first day, our group assembled at Three Creeks Sno-Park in our own vehicles. After a brief orientation with Tarlen and Fox, we piled in a van (provided by Cog Wild Mountain Bike Tours) and shuttled to Dutchman Flat. At the end of the tour, our vehicles were waiting for us at Three Creeks. Post-ski celebratory beers and burgers at Three Creeks Brewery was the obvious way to cap off this mini-vacation before heading home.
Skiers must make reservations with Three Sisters Backcountry, and the ski tour is only allowed as a three-day tour from south to north. This prevents any conflicts at the huts and allows skiers to fully enjoy a solitary experience. While there may be a group one day ahead of you or a group one day behind you, it’s unlikely that you will see many other skiers along the way. The huts can be booked on the weekends with a full group of eight. During the week, skiers can reserve a bunk at each of the huts, with a minimum of two people per reservation.
Even when winter in Bend seems less “wintry,” remember that the mountains hold secret stashes of snowy goodness. Tarlen, of course, knows this. “Last winter, everyone was bummed out about the lack of snow in town. But up here, it was some of the best skiing I’ve ever had. There is always good snow to be had. You just have to go and check it out.”
A quick glimpse at booking your own tour:
Three Sisters Backcountry offers a 3-day, 2-night hut-to-hut ski as soon as there is enough snow.
2015-2016 Winter Tours
Mid-week tours beginning on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday: 2 guest minimum, 8 maximum.
Price: $225 per person (with less than 8, you might share the huts with other skiers)
Weekend tours beginning on Thursday, Friday or Saturday: 2 guest minimum, 8 maximum. The huts are reserved exclusively for your party.
Price: $1,800 per group
Includes: Shuttle to the start of tour, two overnights at the huts, sleeping bags and mattresses, full kitchen and cooking gear, woodstove, firewood, outhouse, food, beer, coffee, tea and maps. Drinking water comes from melting snow on the stove.
See threesistersbackcountry.com for more details.