Stock landscape and outdoor adventure photos from Oregon, Washington, and the Pacific Northwest

Oregon Stock Photos from the South Face of Three Fingered Jack

The climb up to the South Face of Three Fingered Jack is one of those ruggedly difficult hikes that is better measured in hours than miles.  I have attempted to summit this ridge many times over the last few winters, but Mother Nature has always intervened in one way or another to keep me from making it to the top.  My first few attempts were thwarted by disastrous route choices in which my journey ended abruptly at the bottom of cliffs that could not be navigated, and my next several trips ended a few feet from the summit when clouds or storms moved in that either covered the mountain or tried to blow me off of its edge. I tried again a few weeks ago (see previous blog entry), but the conditions were too difficult on that day and it ended up taking me much longer than anticipated.  After many hours of tough climbing, I was forced to turn around less than a mile from the top. 



View of Mount Washington and the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, looking south from the ridge below Three Fingered Jack.

View of Mount Washington and the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, looking south from the ridge below Three Fingered Jack.



Determined to finally make it to the summit before sunset, I drove over to Santiam Pass and started hiking around noon.  My ultimate goal was to be on the summit for sunset pictures, but honestly, the conditions didn’t look that great from a photography perspective, and secretly, I was really just hoping to finally make it to the top . . . even it mean that all I could do was scout around for future photo expeditions.  Because I couldn’t camp on the summit overnight, I also knew that being there for sunset meant that I would need to hike out long after dark. While packing up my gear, I decided to bring skis with me figuring that skiing back down the slopes would save me precious time on my return trip.  That decision was probably a good one, but the added weight from my skis and boots came with consequences. Consequences that occurred to me as I took my first step and felt my snowshoe sink through the soft, Spring snow.  The whole idea of snowshoes is that they help distribute your weight over a greater surface area, which allows you to float on top of the snow rather than post-holing through it.  Each snowshoe has a certain weight limit though, and once you throw a heavy pack onto your back and start hiking through warm, mid-day slush, all bets are off on whether or not the snowshoe will actually be able to hold up its end of the bargain.  On this day, the snowshoes did not necessarily work as designed.  They functioned fine some of the time, but I could never allow myself to get fully confident in them because every fourth or fifth step, the snow would give way and I would suddenly feel my weight dropping into a knee-deep hole.    

The added difficulty from repeatedly sinking through the snow was further compounded by the fact that there is no trail leading to the summit.  There are occasional views of the mountain during the approach, but for the most part, it’s just a gamble on whether or not you are actually heading in the right direction.  Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I have done the hike enough times in the winter to know that the most direct route is not the correct route.  Through repeated trial and error, I have learned that the best way to reach the summit is to hike several miles to the east before ever attempting to go north toward the mountain.  Heading straight toward the mountain only ends in frustration at the fore-mentioned cliff band, while looping around from the east allows you to get on top of a ridgeline that winds its way to the summit.  After about two hours of climbing through open glades, I finally made it to the top of this ridge where I was greeted with a partial view of Three Fingered Jack.



View of Three Fingered Jack’s Pinnacles and the dreaded ridge line running up to it.

View of Three Fingered Jack’s Pinnacles and the dreaded ridge line running up to it.



When looking at the picture above, it is important to remember that distances can be incredibly deceiving in the mountains.  It’s kind of like being in Las Vegas and thinking that the casino “just over there” is within walking distance.  Anyone who tries to walk around in Vegas soon realizes that the casinos there are so massive that the distances between them become nearly impossible to judge.  Even after an hour of walking toward the casino that you thought was just a few minutes away, it seems as if you are no closer to it than when you started.  That’s what it’s like in the mountains, except that the mountains are even bigger than casinos, and sadly, there are no cocktail waitresses when you finally get there.

Although it doesn’t look like it would be possible, the summit of that snow-covered ridge in front of Three Fingered Jack is almost three hours away.  And those last three hours are some of the most difficult and challenging hours of hiking that you will find anywhere.  One of the features that makes the hike so difficult is that the route to the top is littered with hundreds of strange and impossible-to-navigate snow formations.  Winter storms fill the backcountry with winds blowing at incredible speeds, and over time, these winds sculpt the snow drifts into all sorts of bizarre shapes.  There are snow fields on this ridge with huge waves of snow that look like something from a Dr Seuss movie.  Each wave is like a 12-foot ocean swell that is frozen in place.  And there will be one wave after another, with no way around them but to backtrack and find a new route.  The photo above shows one example of what I’m talking about.  It also demonstrates how the waves are topped with huge cornices of snow.  These cornices are incredibly unstable and can break off and bury you without a sound if you make the foolish mistake of trying to climb up and over them rather than going around them.

In addition to all of the extra time and effort that it takes to backtrack around the snow swells, it becomes almost impossible to maintain a decent pace because the general pitch of the climb increases dramatically near the top.  After seeing the cornices precariously perched on the open-side of ridge, I decided to make my approach from within the tree line shown in the left-hand side of the photo above.  I chose this route because I was fairly concerned about avalanche conditions on the open, wind-packed side and because the trees gave me something to grab on to when the pitch became too steep to otherwise climb.  I spent the next few hours rhythmically working my way up through the trees.  Basically, I would make a series of kick steps into the vertical face of the ridge until I had a solid foot hold, then I would drop down to one knee for added stability in the snow while reaching my opposite hand up to the nearest tree branch in an attempt to pull my body up the hill as far as possible, all of the while trying to keep my skis (which were strapped to the outside of my backpack) from getting tangled in all of the other low-hanging branches.  Trust me, it was about as much fun as it sounds . . . but eventually, I made it to the top.



 Winter Photo of the West Face of Oregon’s Three Fingered Jack Mountain Covered in Ice and Snow.

Winter Photo of the West Face of Oregon’s Three Fingered Jack Mountain Covered in Ice and Snow.



I was immensely relieved to have finally made it to the summit.  Unfortunately, high clouds had moved in from the West and partially covered the sun, and there were gale force winds howling along the top of the ridge.  No matter, though.  I was on top and that was all that mattered to me at the moment.  Since the clouds were producing flat lighting conditions when I first arrived, I spent some time exploring along the top of the ridge in an attempt to find some interesting foreground compositions. 



 Photo of the author, Troy McMullin, scouting for photographs below the pinnacles of Three Fingered Jack.

Photo of the author, Troy McMullin, scouting for photographs below the pinnacles of Three Fingered Jack.



I eventually found a spot I liked and set up my tripod.  Then, I sat down and took a well-deserved rest while listening to The Tallest Man on Earth on my iPod and hoping that the sun would eventually break through and give me some warmer light on the mountain.  Unfortunately, the light never got better than “lukewarm” and after an hour or so of waiting in the wind on top of the ridge it looked like my chances for a good sunset photograph of Three Fingered Jack were diminishing. 



Winter photo from high up on the shoulder of Oregon’s Three Fingered Jack Mountain.

Winter photo from high up on the shoulder of Oregon’s Three Fingered Jack Mountain.



Rather than waiting for sunset and then needing to ski out at midnight, I decided that it would probably be best for me to start my descent early.  I followed my snowshoe tracks back down below the avalanche line and with the sun setting behind Maxwell Butte, I changed out of my snowshoes and into my ski boots.  I had some doubts about this decision after the first few tele-turns flooded my sore leg muscles with lactic acid, but over time, I eventually grew numb to the burning pain in my legs and I started enjoying some of the best (if slightly wobbly) glade skiing that I have done in years.  I survived a few close encounters with trees on my return trip, but overall, it was a very enjoyable ski and it suddenly seemed worthwhile to have packed my heavy skis and boots all of the way to the top.  I arrived at the Jeep about an hour after sunset, and even though I didn’t quite get the photos that I was hoping for, I was filled with the satisfaction of knowing that I finally made it to the top.  And now that I know that I can make it to the top, there’s nothing stopping me from trying it again.  I’ll keep you posted.

Posted by Troy McMullin

NOTE: If you want to see more pictures from this day, you can browse our “Cascade Mountains” gallery or search the main Pacific Crest Stock photography site for “Three Fingered Jack.”

7 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. Greg

    Awesome pics!! Nice to see you finally made it! Is it a lot quicker skiing back down? ;-)

    Jun 08, 2009 @ 6:41 am

  2. Troy McMullin

    Definitely faster with the skis . . . assuming you don’t any hit any trees.

    Jun 08, 2009 @ 6:49 am

  3. admin

    Great Photos and great post, as always. I’m jealous I did not get to make the trip with you. Despite the suffering, it sounds fun. One question. When you go on these long solo day hikes/climbs, do you bring the same number of stuffed animals that you typically take on an overnight trip? From our previous backpacking trips, I’ve always been astounded by the number of “Groovy Girls” and Winnie the Pooh characters that you can fit into a two person tent. I suppose it is nice to have creature comforts but eliminating some of them might lessen your pack weight considerably on these day trips. Just a thought.

    Jun 08, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  4. ForestWander Nature Photography

    Wow! Wee!

    This is as usual outstanding work…

    I love the exposure and colors.

    Jun 08, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  5. michael croxford

    Troy, Very cool! You bring the reader’s senses into the story as always. The pics are stunning and I especially like the first panoramic self portrait. You,too,could be a model!

    Jun 08, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  6. Troy McMullin

    Thanks everyone. This was an awesome day in the mountains. I feel incredibly lucky to have been there that day, and I’m very grateful for all of the positive feedback. I truly appreciate it.

    Jun 09, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

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