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

Posts Tagged ‘backpacking’

Broken Top Photo Adventure: Oh Dear (Deer), Another Photographic Failure.

Landscape photography is an unpredictable adventure.  Sometimes, everything goes as planned and other times, nothing does.  This story is about the latter.

It was late summer in Central Oregon, and while the flowers in many of our lower meadows had already burned up, I knew that I could still find some huge stands of monkey flowers in the higher elevation meadows on the north side of Broken Top Mountain. I had been to the meadows a few years earlier, but had problems nailing the focus on this dramatically vertical shot. Armed with a new camera and a wider angle lens, I figured I could go back and perfect the photo if I was given a second chance.

Monkey flower bloom on the north side of Broken Top Mountain in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area

Monkey flower bloom on the north side of Broken Top Mountain in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area

I carefully studied my topography map, and calculated that the quickest way into the meadows would be to find the streams running out of Broken Top Glacier somewhere near the Park Meadow trailhead and then follow them cross-country until I got above the tree line. Based on the sun’s recent positioning, I also figured that I should be able to get some decent evening and morning light, and therefore, I planned on hiking into the meadows in the late evening and setting up camp so that I would be there for sunset and sunrise.

I drove up to the Three Creeks Area, and as I steered my Jeep onto the narrow, rutted road leading into the Park Meadow trailhead, I found three backpackers hugging the side of the road. Knowing that it was a long way to the trailhead (and guessing that they must be from out of town), I stopped and asked them if they wanted a lift. They were somewhat surprised to hear that they weren’t actually on the trail yet, so they happily climbed in. On the drive to the trailhead, I learned that they were here visiting for a few days from Idaho, and that they had read somewhere that Park Meadow was a nice hike. I tried to be polite, but I also felt somewhat compelled to explain to them that the Park Meadow trail is perhaps one of my least favorites in all of Oregon. While the meadow itself is beautiful, the approach is absolutely horrible. Hikers are basically stuck in the woods on a deep, dusty, horse-trodden trail for 4 viewless miles until they finally reach the meadow—which this late in the year probably wasn’t even going to have flowers.

I reviewed several other trail options with them during the drive, and explained that I had found a new way into some different meadows which were equally pretty. I invited them to tag along with me if they wanted, but I also warned them that the route would be almost entirely off trail and that I wasn’t actually 100 percent sure where I was going. They quickly weighed their options and decided that since they only had one day of their vacation remaining, a dusty viewless hike was probably going to be better than getting lost in the wilderness with some stranger. I can’t really blame them for that.

Backcountry photo of Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Mountains (South Sister, Middle Sister, and North Sister).

Backcountry photo of Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Mountains (South Sister, Middle Sister, and North Sister).

The Idahoans and I wished each other luck and then we parted ways at the parking area. I was still thinking about what a nice conversation I had with them when my views opened up from the back side of Broken Top all the way across to the Three Sisters Mountains. I had walked less than a half-mile, and I was already getting good views confirming that I had indeed made the right choice. In another mile or so, I found the stream that I was looking for and began my cross-country trek up to the meadows.

The stream was much prettier than expected. There were Indian paintbrush and monkey flowers flanking both sides of the stream and although this was not my primary destination, I knew that the scene was just too beautiful to pass up. I swung my backpack around, unloaded my tripod, and then tip toed across the water to a large collection of flowers situated in the middle of one of the upstream forks.

Indian Paintbrush bloom along a cascading stream in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Indian Paintbrush bloom along a cascading stream in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Recognizing that the sun was dropping low on the horizon, I snapped a few quick pictures and then started hiking briskly up toward the meadows. When I arrived in the meadow, I saw the same large stands of monkey flowers that I had found on my last visit. I hurried over to them so that I could get my camera set up before the light faded, but unfortunately, the closer that I got to them, the more confusing the whole scene became. The stands of monkey flowers were at least 3 feet across, but all of their blooms were gone. I just stared at them for awhile, dazed and wondering why in the world someone would pick all of the flowers from the bushes when it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t the first one to find the flowers. Deer had obviously gotten to the stands before me and they had eaten every last bloom off of my precious bushes. I searched around the area and found a few small stands of flowers that the deer had apparently left behind for a midnight snack so I did the best I could with the scene and then started adjusting my plans.

Sunset photo from the north side of Broken Top Mountain in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Sunset photo from the north side of Broken Top Mountain in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Knowing that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to spend the night in this area, I decided that I would hike across the high alpine meadows and then drop down into Golden Lake, which is a somewhat secret spot located above the Park Meadow area. The hike was longer than I remembered and by the time that I started my descent into the meadows around Golden Lake, the sun had already sank into the ocean on the backside of the mountains. I set up my tent in the pitch black darkness and quickly fell asleep, exhausted and somewhat frustrated that the day had not worked out as planned—but also hopeful that when the morning arrived, I would be able to shoot Broken Top mountain reflecting in a calm Golden Lake.

The next morning, I awoke with a chill. I stepped outside into the below zero temperature and shivered over to the lake’s shore only to find that my reflection picture was not going to happen either. The lake’s surface had frozen solid over night. Determined to find something worthy of shooting, I worked my way down the lake’s outlet stream to a spot that has been reliably good to me in the past, but again, I found that the normally abundant monkey flowers were mostly missing.

Photo of Broken Top Mountain near Golden Lake in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Photo of Broken Top Mountain near Golden Lake in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

The light that morning wasn’t really as good as I wanted either, so I went back to camp, swallowed a few cups of coffee, and then started working my way back to the Jeep via the dreaded Park Meadow trail. The hike out was at least as bad as I remembered and by the time I reached the parking area, I began to wonder whether I had sufficiently described the disappointing nature of the trail to the backpackers that I met on my way in. Then, as I approached my vehicle, I could see something scrawled into the dust on my back window. As I got closer, I could see that it was the panhandle shape of Idaho and that it had a huge smiley face in the middle of it with a note that read “We had a wonderful time. Thanks for all of your help.”

That’s when I remembered just how lucky we are to live in Central Oregon. We have so many wonderful hiking options here that even some of the places that don’t rank among our favorites will still be considered beautiful by people who live in other areas of the country. I climbed smilingly into my vehicle and then realized that actually, I had managed to have a pretty good time too. I didn’t get the money shot that I was hoping for, but I was lucky enough to spend another night in the mountains and that’s nothing to complain about—even if it requires a hike down the Park Meadow trail.

Posted by Troy McMullin

NOTE: After my trip, the road leading to the original Park Meadow trailhead was closed. Hikers are now required to park along Three Creeks Road and walk down the rough, dusty road to the old trailhead. The new trailhead location adds about 2.5 miles of suffering to what is already a very arduous hike, and I suspect this decision will significantly reduce the number of people willing to hike on this trail (or ever recommend to anyone else). If you’re not happy about the new trailhead location, I strongly urge you to contact the Forest Service and let them know how you feel.


Photos from Eastern Oregon and the Wallowa Mountains

The stars recently aligned in a strange and unexpected way. My wife (Julie) and Mike Putnam’s wife (Debbie) both planned trips to take the kids out of town during the same time period, and in an unprecedented move, Mike and I actually got organized enough to plan a vacation of our own. It just so happened that one of our favorite musicians (Josh Ritter) was playing a concert at the Egyptian Theater in Boise so we talked a few more friends (Mike Croxford and Jake Bell) into joining us for a road trip across the Idaho border and then we all headed up north to the Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon. The Wallowa Mountains—also known as the “Oregon Alps”—are quite different from the mountains we have in Central Oregon. While the Central Oregon Cascades are formed by a chain of distinct volcanoes, the Wallowa Mountains are an honest-to-goodness mountain range, like the Rocky Mountains, Sierras, or North Cascades.

Although we had some idea of where we wanted to go when we got there, we didn’t actually formulate a complete plan until we were a few miles outside of Joseph, Oregon. After looking at the map and several guide books, we decided that we would start the trip by heading into Aneroid Lake via the trail along the East Fork of the Wallowa River. We started hiking from near Wallowa Lake in the late afternoon and arrived at Aneroid Lake just before sunset. Mike and I quickly dropped our backpacks and started scouting for sunset pictures. Unfortunately, the light was a little quicker than us and it faded before we found a decent location. We spent the rest of night swatting at mosquitoes and watching Jake catch trout with his newly purchased Snoopy Zebco fishing rod.

Fisherman extraordinaire, Jake Bell with lunker Brook Trout caught at Aneroid Lake in the Wallowa Mountains

Fisherman extraordinaire, Jake Bell with lunker Brook Trout caught at Aneroid Lake in the Wallowa Mountains

The next morning, Mike and I rolled out of the tent about 5 a.m. and headed off in opposite directions in hopes of finding good locations for sunrise photos.

Photo of sunrise over the meadow at the south end of Aneroid Basin in the Wallowa Mountains of Northeast Oregon

Photo of sunrise over the meadow at the south end of Aneroid Basin in the Wallowa Mountains of Northeast Oregon

Mike started circling the lake in a clockwise direction and I took the counter-clockwise approach. Mike shot the image above in a nice big meadow at the south end of Aneroid Lake and I took the image below from the north shore.

Sunrise reflection on Aneroid Lake in Eastern Oregon’s Wallow Mountain Range.

Sunrise reflection on Aneroid Lake in Eastern Oregon’s Wallow Mountain Range.

After the sun got higher, we spent a few more hours fly fishing and then we packed up camp and started heading for Tenderfoot Pass. The hike up and over Tenderfoot Pass went without a hitch, and after a short break at the top, we continued along the trail toward the top of Polaris Pass. I’ve been to a lot of pretty places in Oregon, but I think the view from Polaris Pass is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen. The entire Wallowa Mountain range spreads out before you, with Cusik Mountain and Glacier Lake off to the left and Eagle Cap Mountain and the Lakes Basin off to the right.

Photo from the summit of Polaris Pass in Eastern Oregon’s Wallow Mountain Range.

Photo from the summit of Polaris Pass in Eastern Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness

It’s a spectacular sight, and one that is relatively easy to stay and stare at because, as it turns out, there isn’t really a trail down the back side of Polaris Pass. Oh sure, it looks like there’s a trail on the map and the guide books talk as if there’s a trail there, but don’t be fooled. There is nothing even closely resembling a trail, at least not at the very top. You can see that a trail starts several hundred vertical feet below the summit, but unfortunately there’s no obvious way to get down to it. Determined to find a route, the four of us started precariously making our way down the steep rocky slope, taking short careful steps and always keeping an eye downhill at the edge of the cliffs that were sure to be our death should we slip. We slowly zigzagged our way down the rock slides for the better part of an hour before we finally got to solid ground and were able to remove the handfuls of boulder-sized rocks that had collected inside our boots. The grade eased considerably once we got below the rock slides, but the trail was still fairly spotty and was frequently overgrown with bushes and a huge display of wildflowers. There were meadows clearly visible in the base of the valley a few thousand feet below us, but even after several additional hours of hiking, it seemed as if we weren’t getting any closer to them. The trail would run the entire width of the ridge, and then drop by maybe two or three inches with each switchback. It was unlike anything I have ever seen, and we all started thinking that we were never going to get to the bottom.

Photo of Mike Putnam, Jake Bell and Troy McMullin hiking down the back side of Polaris Pass.  Photo by Mike Croxford.

Photo of Mike Putnam, Jake Bell and Troy McMullin hiking down the back side of Polaris Pass. Photo by Mike Croxford.

After more than 10 miles of parched hiking with no fresh water source, we finally arrived at a stream and were able to re-stock our water bottles. Everyone soaked their sore feet in the stream for a while, and then we continued down the evil, never-ending collection of switchbacks until we eventually made it to Six Mile Meadow and set up camp for the night. The next morning, our group took a short hike up to Horseshoe Lake and while the rest of the guys hung out swimming and fishing, I decided to forge ahead for another 11 miles of hiking so that I could see the other parts of the Lakes Basin. I have wanted to see Mirror Lake and the Lostine Valley ever since I moved out to Oregon, and even though I was fairly exhausted from the prior day’s adventure on Polaris Pass, I felt like my trip wouldn’t have quite been complete if I didn’t’ get to visit this part of the Wallowa Wilderness Area.

 Photo of the author, Troy McMullin, backpacking near Mirror Lake and Eagle Cap Mountain in Eastern Oregon.

Photo of the author, Troy McMullin, backpacking near Mirror Lake and Eagle Cap Mountain in Eastern Oregon.

The Lakes Basin definitely held up to the hype. The area contains a beautiful collection of granite-lined lakes and meadows, all set up against the base of Eagle Cap Mountain. Just past Mirror Lake, the trail either drops down into the classic U-shaped, glacier-carved Lostine Valley or returns via the Hurricane Creek drainage. I spent some time exploring each of these areas, and I’m not really sure which one is prettier. They are both fantastic.

Image of Eagle Cap Mountain from the Lostine Valley in Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountain Range.

Image of Eagle Cap Mountain from the Lostine Valley in Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountain Range.

After several hours of backcountry bliss, I started making my way back to Horseshoe Lake. I drug myself into camp just before sunset, and just in time to try out some of Mike’s freshly-caught (and Cajun-spiced) trout. While I was gone, Mike apparently set the world record for the most trout ever caught in a single day . . . while Jake’s Zebco was not quite as prolific this time around. Luckily, someone in camp stayed focused on our photography mission and Croxford was able to document the entire experience with his trusty camera.

hoto of Mike Putnam landing a lunker at Horseshoe Lake in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountain Range.  Photo by Mike Croxford.

hoto of Mike Putnam landing a lunker at Horseshoe Lake in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountain Range. Photo by Mike Croxford.

We all turned in early that night, and then Mike and I got up the first thing the next morning to scout for sunrise photos around Horseshoe Lake. We split up again so that we could cover more ground. Mike set his sights on a nearby pond that had a nice collection of lily pads and I stayed along the main shore side trail. There’s no shortage of scenery in any direction within the Lakes Basin so it didn’t take too long for us to capture a handful of new stock photos for the Pacific Crest Stock site.

Photo of the Wallowa Mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness at sunrise

Photo of the Wallowa Mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness at sunrise

Sunrise reflection on Horseshoe Lake in the Lakes Basin of Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountain Range.

Sunrise reflection on Horseshoe Lake in the Lakes Basin of Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountain Range.

Then, we packed up camp and started heading back out to Jake’s truck via the long dusty trail that follows the Western Fork of the Wallowa River. Having covered more than 40 miles in 4 days, it’s probably no surprise that we talked incessantly that morning about what kind of food and beer we were going to have when we finally got out of the woods, and sure enough, our first stop involved a pitcher of Red Chair IPA and a couple of half-pound hamburgers from the Embers Brewhouse in downtown Joseph. We then made our way over to Terminal Gravity Brewery in Enterprise, Oregon and finally to Barley Brown’s Brew Pub in Baker City, Oregon. After that, we did a little breaking-and-entering (not really, but we definitely surprised an unsuspecting house-sitter in one of our friend’s houses in Baker City), and then we headed back home the next day . . . putting an end to one of the best road trips I’ve had in a long time.

Posted by Troy McMullin


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.”