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December 9, 1999

Peak Performers: The Obsidian 'Princesses' are king of the hill when it comes to hiking

The Register-Guard

NO WONDER these women have the world at their feet. They are, after all, Princesses.

Obsidian Princesses. And they form a long, thin line of female mountaineering blue bloods in Lane County.

It's a line that traces its way back through two world wars and a Great Depression, to 1929. That's when Florence Ogden Sims climbed the North Sister with members of The Obsidians outdoor club, completing the trifecta of summiting each of the Three Sisters.

Susan Sullivan

Susan Sullivan playfully dons a tiara and gown after reaching the summit of the Middle Sister this past summer.

Photos: BRIAN HOYLAND / For The Register-Guard

The previous year, the Obsidians club had created a separate organization to honor men who successfully climbed the North, South and Middle Sisters, each of which reaches more than 10,000 feet above sea level.

These accomplished mountaineers, for whatever reason, called themselves "Chiefs." It was only fair, club members agreed after Sims matched their feat, that any woman who climbed all three peaks also deserved special status.

So, in a ceremony held immediately after the climb in a meadow on Hinton Creek near the South Sister, Sims was initiated and given the name Princess Blue Waters. Legend has it she wore a gown made of grass for the occasion.

Seventy summers later, Susan Sullivan summited the Middle Sister on an Obsidian climb and thus qualified to become the 136th Obsidian Princess. She was dubbed "Princess Crevasse."

The newest princess, ironically, may be the club's most accomplished climber. Sullivan has extensive mountaineering experience and has climbed internationally - including peaks in South America that make the Three Sisters look like Spencer Butte in comparison. She had summited the Middle Sister several times previously - but never on an Obsidian-sanctioned climb. And only Obsidian hikes count toward the club's three-peak and 10-peak awards.

Sullivan marked the occasion of her qualifying climb, with tongue firmly in cheek, by pulling a tiara and ballroom gown from her backpack and donning them while posing for a summit photo.

"I decided to have a little fun with it," she says. "It was kind of a spoof."

At the end of the millennium, it would be easy to poke fun at this business about chiefs and princesses with names like "Cherokee Rose" and "Alpine Anemone." It all seems anachronistic at best, downright silly at worst.

up Middle Sister

Obsidian club climbers descend an ice field on the Middle Sister last summer.

But you cannot easily dismiss the pride the Princesses have in their shared accomplishments - and in each other.

"It's just a mutual admiration society, I think," says Judy Smith, who in May was initiated as Princess Blue Iris. "What makes it so genuine to me is that the older ladies climbed when there weren't modern techniques like the nice crampons, the insulated boots, the Gore-Tex coats..."

And the admiration the Princesses feel for each other must be true and enduring. Why else would women who climbed 30, 40, 50, even 60 years ago continue to show up for Princess meetings?

"Some of these older women really care about each other because they climbed together - it was a real bonding experience for them," says Janet Jacobsen, who was inducted into the group in 1982.

"I'm still proud of what we did," says 91-year-old Vera Heidenreich of Eugene, the oldest Princess to attend the recent meeting at which Sullivan was initiated.

"You feel so exhilarated ... you have a real feeling of accomplishment because you've put in a lot of effort."

Heidenreich became Princess Wild Rose in 1936, the 29th woman initiated. She vividly remembers details from her climbs.

"One of the women in the group came down with mountain sickness and wandered off the trail in a rather dangerous spot," Heidenreich says.

Hiking and mountaineering in Heidenreich's era tended to be a social activity.

"They climbed in larger numbers in those days," she says. "It was quite a bunch of us that climbed the North Sister together, something like 30 of us."

Today, of course, federal regulations ban any group larger than 12 in wilderness areas.

"It was very primitive," Heidenreich says. "We didn't have all the rules and regulations for safety and so forth that they have now. The leaders have to have more training now ... we actually got lost coming down off the North Sister - it was quite a jolt to realize we were coming off Collier Glacier and headed the wrong way ... our leader was quite chagrined."

1942 climb

Climbers and hikers didn't have high-tech equipment while tackling Cascade peaks in 1942.

Photo: The Obsidians archives

Photos from the Obsidians' archives show climbers with hob-nail boots, for the men, and knee-high riding-style boots, for the women. Only a few people in a group might have ice axes.

"They were the real heroes," Jan Anselmo (Princess Cherokee Rose) of Oakridge says of the early-day members of the group.

"They didn't have all the high-tech gear that we have now ... I have such respect for those women and what they did. It's just incredible."

Climbing all three of the Sisters is still an accomplishment worthy of respect. It's not something a common hiker is going to pull off.

"I would say it's quite a challenge," says Doug Nelson, the Obsidians' climb chairman. "This is not something your average citizen in the street is going to do."

Many hikers and climbers have summited on South and Middle Sisters. But the North Sister, along with Mount Jefferson, is considered one of Oregon's most difficult peaks to climb.

In fact, several women have qualified for the Obsidians' "10 peak pin" on the same North Sister ascent that qualified them for membership in the Princesses. The award goes to climbers who have made it to the top of 10 Oregon peaks - Hood, Jefferson, Washington, Thielsen, McLaughlin, Diamond Peak, Three-Fingered Jack and the Three Sisters.

Mount Jefferson and the North Sister each involve "some relatively easy, but technical, rock-climbing and some snow- or ice-traversing," Nelson says.

All mountaineering in the Cascades is inherently difficult because "the Cascades are notoriously loose" in composition, Nelson says. "That adds a degree of danger and difficulty you have to contend with."

Anyone interested in climbing the Cascade peaks can find experienced company through the Obsidians, which typically schedules about two dozen climbs a year.

The club also offers "a very good basic mountaineering class for a very good price," Nelson says. The annual "climbing school," as it's called, is put on in conjunction with the City of Eugene's River House Outdoor Program each spring, usually about mid-April.

Few new climbers, however, begin with the goal of becoming a chief or a princess.

"I first climbed the South Sister in 1986 and remember saying, `Why would anybody want to climb a mountain twice?' " Jan Anselmo says. "The next thing I knew I'd climbed all 10 peaks. It's one of those things I just sort of started and just couldn't stop. I've probably climbed the South Sister a dozen times now."

And, no doubt, felt like king of the world every time.