The Pinball Wizard Hits the Slopes of Three Fingered Jack . . . Literally
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