Just Right: A Couple’s Trip on the Three Sisters Nordic Traverse

Written By: Willie McBride of Wy’East Wolfpack

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If you’re an passionate outdoor enthusiast who plans to be so into old age, finding a life partner who enjoys equals levels of “roughing it” can be daunting.  Even if you do find an eventual match, the early days of adventuring together can be a delicate balance.  On one hand, you want them to know what kind of potential craziness they might expect over the years; on the other, if you go too big too soon, you may scare them off and all is lost.  

I’ve experienced the drama from both sides.  Years ago I took a girlfriend to above 10,000 ft. in the Yosemite high country for her first night of backcountry camping, then scrambled straight up the side of 13,000 ft. Mt Gibbs the following morning.  To her great displeasure the scree and loose rocks grew steeper and steeper until there were tears and a smallish meltdown.  We eventually made the summit and down to camp, though I remember being certain she was going to dump me as we shuffled back to the car.  

Not having learned my lesson, we returned to Yosemite a short time later to navigate our way for 2 days through the infamous Tenaya Canyon.  There was extensive bushwhacking and more tears at key junctures.  I didn’t blame her of course, it was truly gnarly and I felt bad for it.  We made it out, barely, and I remember her saying she’d never been more tired or sore in her entire life.  Needless to say, our desire to embrace the discomforts of the adventure life did not match and the relationship didn’t last.  Ce la vie.

Of course, this isn’t just a “boyfriend-pushes-inexperienced-girlfriend-too-far” thing at all.  As I said, I’ve been on the other end many times: throwing a tantrum and shedding tears on my own after (another) fall while mountain biking; sputtering and exhausted while trying, and failing, to keep up with a former collegiate swimmer girlfriend.  

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Because of these past experiences, I was excited to discover the Three Sisters Backcountry Hut to Hut Nordic Traverse and to embark on the 3-day, 2-night journey with my girlfriend, Brooke Salisbury.  It seemed like a perfect, tough but not-too-hardcore adventure: a rolling 22 mile, point-to-point route from Dutchman’s Flat Sno-Park in the south to Three Creek Sno-Park in the north, with two comfortable huts along the way fully stocked with firewood, sleeping bags, food and beer.  Our backpack weight could be kept to a minimum then, allowing us to move quicker, enjoy the skiing more, and soak it all in without the extra burden.  The price of booking includes the huts and amenities, plus a shuttle from Three Creek to Dutchman’s to start the trip, so you end right back at your car.  I pitched the idea to Brooke and she enthusiastically agreed, which was already a good sign.  

Brooke is an accomplished trail runner and all-around athlete but had only gotten out on the cross country skis a couple times before we committed to the traverse.  It’s a tough balance: you want to challenge and push people but you don’t want to be unsafe or irresponsible.   I knew that Brooke’s lack of skiing experience would make it much tougher for her, but I also knew that with her fitness, grit, and natural ability she’d be alright.  

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We began under the watch of Tumalo Mountain and Mt. Bachelor and headed north toward the eastern flanks of Broken Top, warming up into the kicking and gliding motion of the nordic skis.  It’s definitely more difficult with packs on, especially if you’re still learning, but Brooke did her best and grew more confident and smooth with each mile.  We started on Sunday which meant that a group of eight people had left the day before and broken trail and set a nice defined ski track the entire way.  This saved us a major effort and allowed us to more fully enjoy the skiing.  Different conditions could have made for a far more arduous trip, which can then lead to any number of repercussions.

Three Sisters Backcountry provides a laminated map of the route, though the primary means of navigation is by following ribbons that they’ve set as season-long course markers.  Paying attention to the placement of the flags, even when an obvious track is present, is great practice for less experienced backcountry travelers.  Again, this traverse achieves an ideal middle ground; you’re in the backcountry, deep in the snowy woods and mountains, and yet there’s cell service at most points and a network of nearby snowmobile trails to facilitate a rescue if something really goes wrong.  Perfect training for being more comfortable and confident with being self-reliant in the backcountry.  Brooke got to experience a taste of true wilderness isolation without having to go too far beyond her experience and comfort zone.

We spent a restful first night in the Happy Valley Hut with the two other occupants who had reserved spots on the traverse: Amy and Daniel Brewster from Bend.  We obviously weren’t the only outdoorsy couple with the idea to spend a long weekend in the snow.  They brought even more extra stuff than us to supplement the pre-stocked food, making Brooke and I gaze longingly at some of their culinary creations.  They talked about their infant son at home and how, as new parents, this was their first official adventure getaway from the young one.  I realized then how wonderful it can be for any sort of couple—new ones, old ones, parents, non-parents—to escape together into the quiet and beauty of the outdoors.  

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The next day we knocked out another fun and rolling 8 miles to the Lone Wolf Hut in 4-5 hours, passing Wolf Lake and Lone Lake along the way.  The routine was the same for the two longer days: have a slow morning drinking coffee and eating food, packing up and cleaning the hut, then have a steady half day on the skis, arriving at the next hut around five, in time for cracking a beer, building a fire, and starting dinner.     

We soaked it up as best we could, enjoying being there together, sharing the deep word-less feelings that nature and beauty stir.  There’s something distinctly different too in pushing yourself physically and mentally in the outdoors with someone you love.  Adversity, in the right amount, brings couples closer.  Physical exertion strips away layers and leaves you more open and vulnerable and able to truly connect, to nature and those around you.  

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The final morning we got up at dawn and watched the sun rise over the Three Sisters—North, Middle and South—and the long, fortress-like wall of the Tam McArthur Rim.  We walked around in the fiery light, feeling like in a dream.  We knew later that same day we’d be back to the car, back to the city and all the noise and busyness, but that could wait.   We marveled at the glow of the sky and the peaks until the light dimmed finally into day.  After packing up and some final chores, we said farewell to the Brewsters, clipped into our skies and headed out.  

Brooke did her best skiing of the trip that third day and cruised along in the still-beautiful weather looking cool and confident but ready to be done.  I was ready too, which seemed perfectly as it should be: not too much, not too little, just right.  Brooke had gotten frustrated a few times and had to dig deep, but she also learned a lot and improved immeasurably.  Most importantly, we’d done it together, happily, and came out stronger and closer than before.  Since then, she’s even been scheming new adventures for us and nods excitedly when I offer my far-flung ideas.

I may have finally found the one…

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