I started a recent blog entry with the words, “I always hike with the hopes that there will be a story to tell.” Well, here’s a story that I was never hoping I would have to tell. It’s one in which my trusty old Canon 5D camera was sent plummeting off of a 200-foot cliff to its death.
The day started off like many other photography mission days. It was a beautiful Spring morning, and my loving wife had given me clearance to spend the entire day hiking, biking, skiing or doing whatever I wanted to do. I noticed some great cloud formations stretching across the northern skyline, so I decided to take my trusty friend into the desert canyons near Crooked River Ranch to take pictures. I had scouted these areas several times earlier in the year and I was calculating that the deserts should be pretty close to reaching their peak (i.e., as green as they get and full of balsom root flowers). Based on the positioning of clouds, I figured my first stop should be Steelhead Falls on the Deschutes River. This deep desert canyon has lots of interesting hoodoo formations and traditionally good flowers about this time of year. Add in a good collection of cumulus clouds overhead, and its pretty hard to beat. Unfortunately, when I hiked into the waterfall, I found that the balsom root and Indian paintbrush were still on the early side . . . and, there was a fierce wind moving through the valley, which meant that I had virtually no chance of capturing any decent photographs of flowers anyway (because they would all be blowing around like mad).
I did the best I could with the situation at hand, and then decided to move a few miles farther downstream to the Camp Scout Trail. The Camp Scout Trail is a recently opened section of trail that descends through a steep, rugged canyon to the lushy confluence the Deschutes River and Wychus Creek. I’ve been there a few times since it has opened, and I think it’s one of the best desert hikes in Central Oregon, especially in late-April and early-May. After a level half-mile section, the trail opens up to dramatic, big-Western-style views.
As I followed the trail downstream from the fork, I was pleased to see that the balsom root flowers were much farther along in this area than at Steelhead Falls. I scouted around and took about a dozen photographs that I was very excited about, but then the wind started gusting again and it became clear that I was not going to get any more good photographs from this area. Rather than hiking the entire 3-mile loop, I decided that I would wait and bring the family back here a different day for a more extensive photographic experience.
I hurried back the Jeep, and then drove a few miles down the road to some other new trails along the Crooked River canyon. The Lone Pine Trail, Otter Bench Trail, and Opal Canyon Loop Trail are located just past Crooked River Ranch. Like Steelhead Falls and Camp Scout Trail, they offer incredibly scenic views, but parallel the Crooked River instead of the Deschutes River. My plan was to hike a short ways up Lone Pine Trail for a few quick photographs and then come back and mountain bike the 7-mile Otter Bench/Opal Canyon Loop network.
I left the Jeep and started up the Lone Pine Trail on foot, oblivious to the tragedy that was about to happen. At the first good viewpoint of the canyon, I dropped my backpack and unloaded my camera and tripod as I have done hundreds of times before. I started to compose the shot through my viewfinder, but then realized that the photograph I really wanted to get was going to require me to move a few more feet to my right . . . which, unfortunately, was going to put me dangerously close to the edge of a 200-foot cliff. I nervously inched toward the edge of the rock knowing that the cliff dropped off immediately behind me and to my right. With barely enough room to turn around on, I leaned over to check my lens and saw a bunch of debris clinging to its center. I carefully maneuvered around the tripod leg and started to reach for my backpack to get a clean lens cloth when a surge of wind came gusting up the canyon. The strong wind caught the lip of my cap and as I reached both hands to my head to keep my cap from blowing away, I saw that the wind had also caught hold of my camera. I looked back just in time to see my dear old camera and tripod go somersaulting off the cliff.
It was like one of those moments you see in the movies where everything is moving in super slow motion. Imagine a slow frame-by-frame scene with me on top of the cliff lunging for the foot of my tripod as it tumbles out of view and my mouth opening wide to scream “Nooooooooooooooooo!” That’s pretty much how it happened. After witnessing the unfathomable, I just dropped to my knees in disbelief and hung my head . . . unable to look up. After a few moments of dumbfounded silence, I rolled to my side and then crawled over to the edge to see if I could catch a glimpse of my camera’s corpse on the rocks below. I expected to see it and my tripod in a mangled heap of carnage at the bottom of the cliff, but I didn’t see it anywhere below.
Always an optimist, I decided that I would gather up the rest of my gear and then try to find a way down to the bottom of the canyon to re-collect any pieces of my camera gear that were still intact. It didn’t take long for me to locate a game trail that worked its way down a steep rocky outcropping and into the rattlesnake-infested area at the bottom of the cliffs that I had been standing on a few minutes earlier. As I approached the scene of the crime, I noticed a piece of carbon fiber legging that once belonged to my tripod. A few feet from that piece, I found the rest of my tripod. The tripod was no longer usable in any way, but all things considered, it had actually taken the fall quite well. One piece of the leg was missing and the ball head had broken off upon impact, but otherwise, it looked much better than expected.
My next task was to try to find the camera. Given that the camera is much heavier than the tripod, I figured that it had probably ricocheted farther down the slope. After a few more minutes of searching, I spotted my camera wedged underneath a twisted section of sage brush about 50-feet below the place where my tripod had come to rest. The entire right side of the camera had split open during the fall, and my $1500 lens had disengaged itself somewhere during the tumble. I knew there was no way that my lens would be salvageable, but in trying to give myself at least one small nugget of hope, I thought that maybe, perhaps, through some small miracle, that I might be able to at least re-use my polarized filter, which was attached to the lens before it fell. I searched high and low, under each and every brush pile looking for my lens, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Using my best CSI skills, I backtracked and zig-zagged the entire area between where I found the tripod and where I found the camera, trying to cover every imaginable scenario. Just as I was about to give up, I caught a glimpse of that signature “L series” red circle. At nearly the same moment that I spotted my lens, it dawned on me that the lens cap was in my pocket before my camera blew off the cliff, which of course, meant that there was no way the polarized filter was going to survive the tumble. Sure enough, the filter was scratched beyond belief.
I then thought about all of the nice photographs that I had taken earlier in the day at Steelhead Falls and Scout Camp Trail, and let out a little smile thinking that since I had found my camera, I would at least be able to get those photographs off of the memory card. But even that small feeling of relief was short-lived because as I looked closer at my camera, I realized that the memory card had also ejected itself sometime after impact. I spent another 30 minutes looking for that tiny (but precious) memory card before I finally had to admit that it had been nearly a complete loss. With one fleeting moment of indescretion, I had lost my camera, lens, filter, memory card, and tripod.
And so with that, I packed all of the different pieces into my backpack and started hiking back to the Jeep, thankful that I still had a perfectly good lens cap in my pocket. . . and that it wasn’t me that had blown off the cliff instead.
Posted by Troy McMullin
I always hike with the hopes that there will be a story to tell, but even under the most optimistic scenarios, there’s never any guarantee that the experience will actually be worthy of its own blog entry. This entry is an example of what happens when I go out on a photography mission, and miraculously, everything goes as planned. No mountain lions, no getting trapped high up on a cliff wall, and no sliding out of control down a steep backcountry slope. Just a simple, well-timed hike into a beautiful area to take pictures, and then an uneventful hike back out. Boring, but productive.
If you want to see more photos from my recent adventures, check out the New Images gallery on our main Pacific Crest Stock photography site. This gallery contains several hundred new images that Mike and I have taken over the last few months.
Posted by Troy McMullin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
As I try to find new locations to add to my photography collection on Pacific Crest Stock, I’ve begun to realize that careful preparation and a good working knowledge of cameras and compositions can only help a nature photographer so much. Really great landscape photography seems to rely just as heavily on steadfast persistence (i.e., going back to the same location over and over again until the conditions are perfect) and/or a whole lot of luck (i.e., having great conditions on the first trip to a new location). On one recent trip to Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Newport Oregon, I got very lucky.
While driving over to the Oregon Coast, I mentioned to Julie (my loving wife) that I had been hoping to get some photographs of Yaquina Head Lighthouse for the last year or so, but that my timing had not worked out yet. I told her that the images I was hoping to capture would have a warmly lit lighthouse with big fields of flowers in the foreground and interesting cloud formations in the sky. I knew that capturing these images would require me to be there in early summer (when the flowers are peaking) at either sunrise or sunset (to have the proper lighting) on a day with no wind (so the flowers aren’t blowing around during long exposures) and great clouds (to fill up what would otherwise be dead space in the sky). I could easily prepare for the first two components, but the rest of it was really up to luck. Because Julie and I live in Bend, Oregon (a high elevation mountain town more than 3 hours away), there was really no way for me to know if the flowers along the coast were even blooming yet (much less, peaking), and there was absolutely no way that I could control other key factors, such as the wind and clouds. All I could really do was hope for the best and try to be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity that presented itself.
On our first day at the beach house, I woke up early and stepped outside to check sunrise conditions. There were great cloud formations all around and no winds blowing. These were seemingly perfect conditions, except for the fact that I was standing outside our place in Pacific City and the lighthouse is located in Newport, which is about 45 minutes away. Although I really had no way of predicting what the conditions were going to be like that far way, I was fairly excited at the possibility of getting the lighthouse pictures that I had wanted and I quickly started weighing my options. As I contemplated whether or not to make the trip, I remembered that our kids had been very excited the night before and that they had stayed up much later than normal. I also saw that Julie was still sleeping on the couch with our 18-month-old daughter, and that neither of them moved a muscle as I clumsily banged around in the kitchen trying to fill up as many coffee cups as I could carry. All signs pointed to a late and lazy morning for the McMullin family, which was great for me because it meant that I should be able to get down to the lighthouse and back to the beach house before anyone even noticed that I was gone. I packed up my coffee and camera gear and started my sunrise drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.
As I left Pacific City, I noticed that the streams and fields were incredibly still (which confirmed there was no wind blowing), but that the cloud formations I had seen earlier were already beginning to change. By the time I drove through Lincoln City (about 20 minutes later), the skies had lost most of their big fluffy clouds, and I started to wonder whether it was going to be worth it to keep driving. Then, I figured I was already hopped up on coffee and that the worst thing that could happen to me was that I would end up taking a peaceful, quiet drive down the coast to a beautiful cliff-side lighthouse where the sun would end up rising in a cloudless sky. With that in mind, it seemed sort of ridiculous for me to turn around at this point, so I continued driving up and over the cliffs surrounding Devil’s Punchbowl toward Newport, Oregon.
As the highway dropped back down to sea level, I could see Yaquina Head Lighthouse off in the distance. The lighthouse appeared to be shrouded in fog and there were no signs of the cumulus clouds that I had seen earlier in the morning. That sight was a bit disappointing, but I’ve been around long enough to know that you just can’t predict what the weather is going to be like on the Oregon Coast, so I kept driving with the hopes of at least scouting out the flower scenes around the lighthouse. In my mind, I was thinking that if the flowers were in good shape, then I would see if Julie and the kids wanted to come back to the lighthouse around sunset so I could try again (NOTE: This is the persistence part of the equation that I was talking about earlier).
I arrived at the lighthouse shortly after sunrise and found exactly what I was hoping for . . . huge stands of wildflowers all around, great clouds overhead, and no wind. Pulsing with excitement (and perhaps a little too much coffee), I jumped out of the Jeep and started running around in circles trying to find as many interesting compositions as I could before the sun warmed the skies and the clouds faded away.
I had never been to Yaquina Head Lighthouse before, so I wasn’t exactly sure where to go first. I shot the images above within a few minutes of arriving, and then I backtracked and started scouting for more distant shots of the lighthouse.
Because Yaquina Head Lighthouse is a very special and popular place, there are only certain areas around the lighthouse where visitors are allowed to go. Most of the really great photographs would require one to climb over a fence and ignore numerous signs pleading with people to stay on the designated paths and cleverly pointing out things like “Our wildflowers grow by the inch, but they are killed by the foot.” As badly as I wanted to scout around on the other side of the fences for a unique composition, I knew that I couldn’t do it with a clear conscious and that I didn’t want to damage any of the wildflowers that were blooming so happily along the cliff tops.
I stayed on my side of the fences and shot a few more pictures of the lighthouse before venturing down to the rocky beach below. I quickly scouted a few hundred yards up the beach, but unfortunately, the clouds had already started migrating out to sea by the time that I found a scene interesting enough to photograph. Oh well, I have never been one to complain, and I certainly wasn’t going to do it on a day in which I had already been blessed with tremendous luck. The following picture doesn’t benefit from the great cloud formations that the others have, but I’m still drawn to it because I think it does a nice job of capturing the enormity of the scene and I like the way the ocean waves, cliffs, and lighthouse provide a nicely balanced composition.
Satisfied that I had successfully captured Yaquina Head Lighthouse in all of its glory, I hiked back up the cliffs and started my return trip. I glanced at my watch as I was climbing in the Jeep and noticed that I was running quite a bit later than expected. That’s also when it occurred to me that I had left in such a hurry that morning that I forgot to leave Julie a note letting her know where I was going or when I would be back. Julie and I have been married long enough that I figured she could easily guess that I was out somewhere on a photography mission, but I didn’t want her to be worried (or mad), so I figured that I better check in with her to see how things were going with the kids and to let her know that I would be home as soon as possible. When I called her, she wasn’t the least bit upset. In fact, Julie was genuinely excited for me. She told me that she couldn’t wait to see my pictures, but that everything was running smoothly at the beach house, and for me not to feel like I needed to hurry home.
I hung up the phone thinking “How did I get this lucky?” Although it’s always nice to have fortuitous photography conditions, my phone conversation with Julie reminded me once again that none of it would be possible without the unwavering and loving support of family. Nature photographers spend a tremendous amount of time out in the field, and our families are often either left behind or reluctant participants in all sorts of crazy adventures. We couldn’t possibly thank them enough for their contributions or tell them frequently enough that they are truly one of the best kept secrets of our success. Like I said earlier, luck is one of the key ingredients to good landscape photography, and perhaps “lucky in love” is one of the best types of luck that any photographer can hope for. In this regard, I’m a lucky, lucky, lucky man.
Posted by Troy McMullin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
It was a simple plan, really. Backpack into the base of Three Fingered Jack for a little snow camping, and hopefully get some good sunrise photos. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a bloody tree-riddled ride down an icy slope for one. Hmmm . . . I didn’t really see that coming.
Summer had arrived early in Bend, Oregon and I had the itch to go exploring in the backcountry. From a photography perspective, it is always tempting to get into the high alpine areas in early summer while there is still a lot of snow on the mountains, so I did a little scouting along the forest service roads outside of Sisters, Oregon and determined that I could drive most of the way into Jack Lake, which is the primary access point for Canyon Creek Meadows and Three Fingered Jack Mountain. The southeast-facing road leading up to Jack Lake is usually one of the first to melt off every year, and in early summer, hikers can usually drive up to the last big north-facing curve in the road– which is only a mile or two short of the trailhead. While going early in the year adds a few extra miles to the total hiking distance, it’s not a bad trade off for the added solitude that it provides. Plus, it’s always kind of fun knowing that you are one of the first to make it into the area for the year.
I parked the Jeep at the curve where snow was still drifting across the road, creating a steep ramp that sloped off the edge of the hill. I contemplated trying to 4-wheel it through the corner, but the sloping angle of snow and ice just looked a little too intimidating and I could easily picture the back of my truck loosing grip and sliding off the edge of the cliff and down into the valley below. It didn’t seem worth the risk just to save a few extra miles of hiking so I strapped on my snowshoes and started hiking toward Jack Lake. There’s a nice view of Three Fingered Jack from the lake, after which, the trail climbs gradually through a relatively dense forest of Fir trees and into the meadows near the base of the mountain. Although the trail was completely snow-covered, I have been fortunate to make this hike many times in the past and I have several waypoints saved in my GPS, which makes it very easy to find my way into the meadows.
I arrived in the lower meadow a few hours before sunset, but while I was hiking through the forest, thick clouds had moved in from the east and completely obstructed my view of the mountain. The clouds were hanging just a few hundred feet off of the valley floor, and as I started trying to formulate a backup photography plan that accounted for the possibility of morning clouds (i.e., no sunrise picture opportunities from the meadows), I remembered that the Pacific Crest Trail runs along the top of the ridge to my immediate right and that there were some really interesting views of Jack’s pinnacles from up on that ridge. I have a waypoint saved in my GPS of a “secret” climbers trail that traverses from the far end of the upper meadow to the ridge top, but this time of year, I knew that there was no way I would be able to make it up the steep climb and I was a little worried that I might trigger an avalanche if I attempted that route. Rather than taking the route from the upper meadow, I decided to try to find an easier way to the top by approaching the ridge from the lower meadow.
Within a few minutes of leaving the lower elevation meadow, I had climbed my way into the overhanging clouds. The temperature dropped precipitously inside the cloud bank, and I soon found myself covered with a fine, frozen mist. Fortunately, the heat that I generated while struggling to climb up the steep pitch with a 40-pound backpack more than offset the drop in external temperature. I picked and chose my way to the summit, hiking in and out of woods and rock slides until I finally made it to the top of the ridge. With virtually no visibility on top, I started hiking blindly west along the ridge top, sometimes following a knife-like cliff band that dropped several hundred feet on both sides. Given the steep exposure on each side of the cliff, I was frequently forced to take off my backpack and heave it up and over various ledges rather than attempting to awkwardly navigate the rocky scramble with it on my back. I finally arrived to an area that I recognized, and just before sunset, the clouds parted around Three Fingered Jack long enough for me to capture the following image.
Soaking wet and exhausted from the climb, I searched around the edge of the ridge until I found a small, fairly level snow-free area for me to set up my tent and then I crawled in and immediately crashed for the night. It seemed like I had just fallen asleep when my watch started beeping–alarming me that it was time to peak outside to check sunrise conditions. It was a bitterly cold morning, but fortunately, the prior night’s clouds were completely cleared out and the mountain was rising above me in all of its glory. I reluctantly crawled out of my toasty warm sleeping bag and into ice cold boots to start scouting the area for the best sunrise compositions. I was barely awake, so I collected up some coffee and my backpacking stove, Java Press, and camera gear and then stumbled toward the mountain until I found an attractive composition. I had just begun trying to warm my hands around a fresh cup of coffee when the first light of the day landed on the pinnacles of Three Fingered Jack.
It was the perfect morning for taking pictures. I hiked back and forth along the ridge line shooting the mountain from every conceivable angle until I felt as if I had done all I could with my current location. Then, I went back to camp, loaded up the rest of my gear and started mentally planning my return trip. I wasn’t too excited about trying to re-negotiate my way along the knife-thin ridge that I had followed the previous night, and after seeing the hard-packed snow on the slopes closer to the mountain, I was much less concerned about triggering an avalanche there, so I decided that I would make my way down the westerly route and into Canyon Creek Meadows for a few final photographs and then back out to the Jeep.
My plan worked fine for about 5 or 10 minutes until I lost focus, and accidentally stepped onto the back of my own snowshoe while descending the steep slope. That little misstep immediately sent me hurling head first down the hill. My water bottle shot out of the side pocket on my backpack and rocketed past my head and down the slope in front of me. As I watched it ricochet off of the trees a few hundred feet below, I fought to roll myself over to my side and dug in the edges of my snowshoes to stop my sliding. Both forearms were bleeding from scraping along the ice, but otherwise, I had escaped without any serious injury. Still, I was in no hurry to repeat that episode, so I left my water bottle to fend for itself and started traversing across the slope, using short careful steps. Traversing the steep, icy slope was much easier said than done, and less than half away across the open snow field, my left snowshoe lost purchase and I again found myself sliding uncontrollably. I shifted all of my weight uphill as I started to slide and between the force of losing my balance and the added weight of my backpack, the hiking pole in my right hand dug into the snow just enough to bend it at nearly a 90 degree angle.
Within seconds, I had slid into the tree line below, bouncing feet-first off the trees like a pinball. As I bounced off of the trees, my eyes quickly took turns between focusing on the next tree in my path and shielding themselves from the tip of my newly bent, L-shaped aluminum hiking pole, which kept flirting dangerously close to my retina with each impact. I pin-balled off of four or five smaller trees until gravity eventually deposited me into a deep snowy tree well. Bloody, but relieved that I had survived without breaking my leg or piercing an eyeball, I strapped my snowshoes onto the back of my pack and eased my way down the rest of the slope . . . this time, staying in the trees and using them for balance as I worked my way down reaching from one branch to the next. I followed my GPS coordinates to the bottom of the climbers trail and then limped out to the upper meadows.
As I stared at the mountain from its base, I could see the southern ridge on the opposite side where I had almost died on a previous hike (see previous blog entry) and then I re-played the events in my mind that occurred to me that morning. I just sort of smiled and shook my head in disbelief as I thought about myself pin-balling down the slope in the distance, and then I hiked out to the Jeep singing ““Always gets a replay, never see him fall, [the pinball wizard] sure plays a mean pinball.”
Posted by Troy McMullin