Bend’s Mitch Thompson sets new record for climbing Three Sisters
By Mark Morical / The Bulletin
Mitch Thompson climbs volcanoes like Spiderman scales a burning skyscraper to rescue a damsel in distress at the top: He does not take the time to soak in his surroundings. He just wants to reach the summit as fast as possible, then move on to his next challenge.
In addition to his speed-climbing expertise, Thompson runs extremely fast, is superbly fit, and knows the Three Sisters Wilderness like he knows his own backyard.
The 39-year-old Bend man used his climbing, hiking and running skills, and his supreme knowledge of the Central Oregon Cascades, to set a record last Friday for the Three Sisters marathon.
He climbed and descended all of the Three Sisters — North, Middle and South — in 6 hours, 39 minutes. The fastest known time for the feat before Thompson’s mark was clocked by Max King and Kevin Grove, both also of Bend, who in 2006 completed the traverse in tandem in about eight hours.
Thompson set the record solo — his only evidence three cell-phone photos, one taken atop each summit — so the climbing community must take him at his word. But that has not been a problem.
Map of Mitch Thompson Sisters Climbing Route
“I’m sure it’s true,” says Robert Speik, a longtime voice in the Central Oregon climbing community and creator of the Web site www.traditionalmountaineering.org. “His (Thompson’s) physical gifts are to be admired, and probably (are) not equaled. His balance and athleticism, and aerobic capacity, and will to do it are unbelievable.”
An avid mountaineer and former professional mountain biker who was raised in North Carolina, Thompson moved to Bend 15 years ago from Boise, Idaho.
“The first thing I did when I got to Bend, I climbed South Sister,” he recalls.
Since then, he says, he has climbed every major volcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc from as far south as Brokeoff Mountain in Northern California to as far north as Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia.
Thompson says that four years ago he and a friend climbed eight peaks in Central Oregon’s Cascades — Mount Jefferson, Three Finger Jack, Mount Washington, North Sister, Middle Sister, South Sister, Broken Top and Mount Bachelor — in four days.
Two years ago Thompson, along with King, climbed all three Sisters, plus Broken Top and Bachelor, in a record 15½ hours.
That was the time Thompson set out to break last Friday. But he changed his mind at Pole Creek Trailhead — a few miles south of the town of Sisters and the place where his trek began.
“My intention was to do the five (peaks) faster, but the three is kind of the standard,” Thompson says. “A lot of people do it (climb the Three Sisters) to see how fast they can do it.”
Thompson stresses that the “official” time is from “car to car,” from when he exited his car at Pole Creek to when he entered his wife’s car at Devils Lake at the base of South Sister.
“If you get in a car, ride a bike, or get any help, then it doesn’t count,” Thompson explains.
From Pole Creek Trailhead on Friday morning, Thompson climbed the southeast ridge of North Sister, then took the “bowling alley” route — named for the considerable rockfall in the area — up the middle of the peak’s west face. The route goes along a 5,000-foot drop, and eight climbers have died in the area, according to Speik.
“You’ve got to make good decisions — that’s the whole key,” Thompson says. “I’ve climbed those mountains so many times that I know shortcuts. I used one to get to the ridge on North Sister.”
North Sister is widely regarded as the most technically challenging of the Three Sisters, and most who climb it use gear such as crampons, ice axes and rope. But Thompson wanted to remain as light and fast as possible, so he did not take along any such gear.
“In no way would I suggest climbing it without climbing gear,” he warns.
After the steep, exposed climb, Thompson reached the summit of North Sister at 8:51 a.m. He had started at 7 a.m.
He then descended the south ridge of North Sister and headed up the north ridge of Middle Sister. He topped that summit at 9:56 a.m., then hiked down Middle Sister’s south side, past Chambers Lakes, before ascending the challenging — and seldom climbed — north ridge of South Sister.
“To me, the fastest way is not necessarily the easiest,” Thompson explains.
He reached the summit of South Sister at 12:37 p.m., then descended the commonly used climber’s trail, reaching Cascade Lakes Highway at Devils Lake by 1:39 p.m.
Along the flatter sections of the trek, Thompson simply ran as fast he could.
“I was extremely close to hitting the wall right as I reached the highway (to finish),” he recalls.
The Three Sisters marathon is about 16 to 18 miles, Thompson estimates, with 9,500 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Thompson is a paramedic hyperbaric technician at Bend Memorial Clinic, where he helps patients with various infections heal faster through hyperbaric oxygen therapy (a procedure to increase oxygen levels in the body). He works 12 to 14 hour days, three days per week, and is left with four days a week to hike and climb.
Other well-known summit-to-summit speed traverses, according to Thompson, include the Palisades Traverse in California’s Sierra Nevada, the Teton Traverse in Wyoming, and another in the north Cascades of Washington.
“All three (traverses) have more technical climbing and take longer than the Three Sisters,” Thompson says, “but this is what we have in our backyard.”
Speed traversing is becoming increasingly popular with elite endurance athletes and climbers, of whom the Bend area has droves. Who knows how long Thompson’s record will last?
“I imagine somebody else will take this on,” Thompson says, “and try to break it.”
A look at the gear Mitch Thompson used for the Three Sisters marathon:
- CamelBak with 100 ounces of water
- Two small bottles of Gatorade and a Coke
- Clif Shot Bloks, GU Energy gel, peanut butter sandwiches
- Cell phone
- High-top Montrail trail-running shoes
- Shorts, Coolmax T-shirt, lightweight waterproof jacket
Published: August 28. 2009 4:00AM PST