Ascent of Three Fingered Jack on 2014-09-27

Climber: Samuel Hahn

Date:Saturday, September 27, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Three Fingered Jack
    Elevation:7841 ft / 2389 m

Ascent Trip Report

Mountaineer, alpinist, rock climber. None of these titles accurately describe me. All I really am is physically fitter than most of the American population, a decent scrambler, and someone who generally dislikes shying away from challenges in the mountains. So when James Barlow called from a forgettable town south of Tacoma asking me to find a suitable location to car-camp on the eve of our climb of Three Fingered Jack, I had enough sense to pull over on a rest stop along Highway 97 outside of Crescent, Oregon and use all of my resources (read: smart phone and road atlas) to find the closest dirtbag motel to Santiam Pass. It was the least I could do knowing that he'd be, in just a matter of hours, leading the hike and pitches to one of the most rotten summits of all the Cascade volcanoes. But before we even took our first steps on the approach hike, I had to find this damn camp site.

The road atlas listed a number of potential locales just along Highway 20, but closer inspections through internet searches quickly squashed hopes of spending the night at most of them; closures at the closest Forest Service campgrounds had started as early as mid-September. I was growing steadily frustrated but no less resolute at the limited availability of suitable camping, as I refused to let this climb fail before it even began. There had to be another way; perhaps I was approaching the problem at the wrong angle. True, we were both going to arrive at Santiam Pass late in the evening, so meeting on a dirt road in the dead of night would not likely work, but what about sleeping at the trailhead? It had a large enough parking lot away from the highway and even a vault toilet. And since there weren't restrictions on overnight parking, it was a veritable Holiday Inn by dirtbag standards. I cursed myself for not thinking of this possibility sooner, but did not remain discouraged for long. Our first obstacle had been eliminated and I was eager to call James to let him know the good news.

I arrived at the trailhead well after 8 PM and several hours before James' planned ETA, so I took my time making camp. I was sluggish after a heavy burrito from one of Bend's better Mexican restaurants and thus in no rush to pitch a tent despite the steadily dropping temperatures. Even so, I was all ready for a night under the stars nearly an hour before James and our third companion on this climb, a prolific peakbagger named Edward Earl, would arrive, so I reluctantly lay down to rest my eyes for a few minutes. Neither of them knew exactly what car I was driving, and I wanted to be awake when they showed up, so I was grateful when I heard the throaty hum of James' jalopy/yaris pull up next to my rental Kia. We kept our greetings and introductions brief since it was so late, limiting our conversation to little more than deciding our wake-up time for tomorrow morning. We agreed to a 7 AM start and in just a matter of moments, James and Edward slipped into their bivy sacks and I was back in my tent for 7 hours of sleep, or so I thought.

Unfortunately, dawn came neither quickly nor smoothly and I rose at 5:30 feeling groggy. My summer bag was stretched to its limits that night, as the temperature dropped to 40 degrees Farenheit and I woke several times in a tight fetal position, my body's vain subconscious attempt to keep warm. Still, no amount of fatigue could put a damper on my spirits; I would soon be climbing with an old friend and hopefully make a new one in the process, so I performed the perfunctory gear checks with inspired alacrity. Granted, this climb was nothing more than a rocky kickshaw for these experienced mountaineers (they had plans to climb Mount Washington the day after), but we were all eager to see whether 3FJ's rock lived up to its famously crumbly reputation. However, before any questions could be answered, there was 5 miles of approach hike to cover on the Pacific Crest Trail, which we began just after 7 AM.

In what has to be the norm for Oregon, the Pacific Crest Trail is wide and well-graded, a smooth earth mat the likes of which one would find in a home with dirt floors. At times, James, Edward, and I walked side-by-side as we made our way up a gentle slope in a coniferous forest rebounding from a recent forest fire. James, in his typical fashion, blazed ahead of Edward and me at the start of the hike and hardly showed signs of fatigue at any point during the day; one would have never guessed that he had just taken a two-week break from hiking while at sea for work. Clouds obscured any views beyond the immediate revitalized greenery, so the three of us passed the approach talking of peaks climbed and the challenge of overcoming boredom when collecting county highpoints, among other topics, and in a little under two hours we arrived at the obvious junction with the climber's trail, marked with a nearly waist-high cairn.

Much like the herd path to the summit of Mount Thielsen, the unmaintained route to the top of 3FJ is an obvious, unequivocal slash into red scree leading towards its south ridge. Route-finding is nearly non-existent at the onset, and although the trail grows faint as it reaches the rugged southern terminus of the ridge, one can navigate through logic alone. There are two choices at this point: a more exposed and fainter path towards the east made appealing only through its lack of brush, and a gentler track to the west with significantly more softwood obstructions. In our case, however, we were fortunate to have another group of climbers make the decision for us. A party of Obsidians, mountaineers from Eugene on an official club outing (as we would later learn), took the western option, and shortly after the exposure became less hazardous, we passed them.

The instances of Class 3 climbing were so plentiful that looking back it's difficult to distinguish one move from another. Really, the most memorable moments of the climb were the final push to the summit and the preceding traverse of a Class 4 section called The Crawl, a thin, exposed ledge crossing the length of the first major gendarme. James set a hand line at this point--there is at least one bolt in place--and we made quick work of this narrow scar, pushing onward to the major rock climbing of the day, just below the summit. Here, we took a break to replenish lost calories and fluids, all the while hoping the Martian red rocks jutting from the basaltic intrusion would hold in place for our penultimate haul to the summit.

Thankfully, little beyond a few small pebbles came loose from our grips, and James made quick work leading on this rotten wall, even without much protection. He set a quick anchor at the top, and Edward and I met him with similar alacrity. Smoot, in his guidebook on Cascade volcanoes, contends that this climb is a 5.2 on the Yosemite Decimal System, but I would place it at 5.0, heavily exposed but ultimately facile in its demands. The real discovery of religion came just afterward, in the free solo to a tiny perch of a summit. It started easy enough with us ditching our packs at the top of the rock climb to navigate over a jumbled boulder pile. Ledges were plentiful and we were staring at the true summit from the false summit in a matter of minutes, but there was still a brief traverse over a narrow boot path (wide enough for only the soles of one's feet at its least generous sections). And though Edward's admission that he'd never seen a summit with a thousand foot drop on two sides did little to assuage my burgeoning nervousness, James proceeded with confidence across the veritable tightrope and was soon encouraging me forward. I had yet to let exposure keep me from at least trying for a summit in all my young years, and today was not going to break that trend, especially among these accomplished mountaineers, so I rolled my shoulders back and took the first steps, being careful to check both handholds and footholds on the way to the true roof of Three Fingered Jack.

The final traverse felt uneventful, but James would later admit that he was scared for me as I lost my footing halfway across and hung on by my hands for the briefest moment. Chalk it up to adrenaline (or maybe that I subconsciously made peace with my maker), but I was never worried for my safety on this last push, and James and I were soon posing at the top for requisite summit photos. Edward summited shortly after I made my way back to the false summit, and after photographing him and James together, we made our way down to the top of the rock climb.

So often, the descent via a climbers' path is so efficient that one dips below the timberline before he or she can fully appreciate the sweeping alpine views in fading afternoon light; consequently, the return journey lacked the same suspense as the initial climb. Really, the most eventful part of the descent came from our lunch at the base of the rock climb where the three of us broke high-calorie crackers with the Obsidians as they waited their turn to reach the summit. We spoke of our climbs this past summer between mouthfuls of cheese and Clif Bar; they assured as that the rock on Three Fingered Jack is not nearly as disquietingly crumbly as that on North Sister, and we told them of an approach hike to the base of Mount Olympus that can make even the most hardened mountaineer weep from its tedium. And despite that the clouds were just breaking and we would have liked to spend more time talking of peaks bagged, James and Edward wanting enough time to adequately prepare for their next objective, and I needing to Portland for a red-eye home, headed down to the trailhead.

So after sometimes bounding, sometimes scree-skiing our way down the climbers' trail, we found ourselves at the junction with the PCT and the last leg of the day's journey. The forest had taken on a soft green glow in the afternoon light, almost as if the low second growth conifers were radiating new life from within their reaching needles, and made what would be a tedious 5 mile walk speed by. Cars from a now more crowded parking lot soon became visible as we took our final steps of the day's hike just shy of 3:30 PM, and we soon parted ways, but not after I gave my old hiking companion and new friend the last of my cooking fuel. Because as less-than-eager as I was to return to New Jersey, the last thing I wanted was to cause a national incident with butane in my checked luggage.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:3001 ft / 914 m
    Trailhead:4840 ft / 1475 m
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb
    Gear Used:
Rope, Ski Poles

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