Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Three Fingered Jack (OR) - Southeast Bowl

Coming off of a tour at Mount Thielsen which was fraught with sketchy cornice travel, poor visibility and breakable crust, I was itchin’ for another backcountry tour with better conditions. Luckily for me, my buddy Rich (who I had met in avy class) was also looking for some adventure. As we were discussing options I received an email from Andrew, a guy I had corresponded with a few times about doing some touring together. In his email he suggested Three Fingered Jack, which I knew very little about, other than seeing it off in the distance while driving along Hwy 20 between Eugene and Bend. I decided I'd better do a little research before committing, starting with some internet queries and followed by a deeper analysis using topo and aerial maps. I became quite intrigued by what I found, and after running it by Rich I replied to Andrew to let him know that we were in.

With the forecast showing unseasonably warm temps, we decided that we would need to get an early start so that we could catch the corn window and get in a lap or two before it turned into slush and raised the wet avalanche danger. After some back and forth we agreed to meet in the Santiam Sno-Park lot by 7am, which meant that Rich and I would need to leave Eugene by 5:30am – ugh… The day of our trip I woke up on time, made a quick breakfast and met up with Rich at the edge of town. Being early morning, the traffic was light and we made it to the sno-park around 6:45am. Andrew, who was coming from Salem showed up about 20 minutes later and after quickly gearing up we were on our way.

Early start to the day

I had been nervous that the night time temps wouldn’t drop below 32°F and the snow wouldn’t have gone through a freeze cycle the night before; therefore I was pretty happy to be skinning along a pretty solid layer of crust, which was only now being touched by the rising sun. The first part of the approach was super easy going, as it led us through a burn area with wide openings between the graveyard of charred trees. This section also provided us with some pretty nice views back to the south, and eventually the tip of Three Fingered Jack (3FJ) to the north, which we used to help guide us in the general direction.

Some nice skin tracks to follow

Rich warming up in the morning sun

Getting our first glimpse of 3FJ

The long sight lines made navigation fairly easy

Right around the 2 ½ mile mark we reached the ridge overlooking the Summit Lake basin, which we’d planned to follow all the way to the summit of the south bowl. From the ridge we had a spectacular view of the craggy peak and the south bowl. After dealing with the corniced ridge at Mount Thielsen the week before, I was nervous that the ridge up to 3FJ would also be sketchy and slow going – unfortunately this ended up being the case and our progress up the mountain soon began to suffer. Not only was the ridge heavily corniced along its eastern edge, some of the cornices had recently broken free and slid down the hill, likely due to the recent warming trend. Along with having to safely navigate around the cornices, the snow had really started to soften up and I had to work hard not to dig in my tips on the steep up pitches. It was at this point that I started to think that we didn’t get an early enough start and we might miss the corn, even for our first descent.

Rich takes in the view from the ridge above the Summit Lake basin

Nice view of Black Butte

Getting into the cornices

Cornice debris, just below the ridge. 

Giving the edge a wide berth

Rich stops for a photo op on the way up

Andrew closes in on the south bowl

Before long we reached the base of the south bowl, where we decided to traverse up and across instead of continuing up the ridge along the cornice wall. The main concern with us traversing up the head wall was the cornice breaks, especially with evidence of recent activity, however, based on their smaller size, the reasonable slope angle and the fact that the snow hadn’t yet absorbed too much solar radiation, we felt it was safe enough to proceed. The skin up the face was certainly slow going, with the side slope requiring a few aggressive kick turns along the way. The south bowl itself actually looked like it would make for some fun turns, especially if you were tight on time and got in a few laps. As we reached the east side of the bowl, the degree of the slope lessened and we found a nice opening between cornices to navigate to the top of the ridge.

The south bowl

More cornice breaks

Making our way east across the bowl

Rich takes in the view of the summit, from the top of the south bowl.

Now at the top of the south bowl we had an amazing view of the summit peak and the southwest bowl, which also looked like it had some really fun line options. From this point we couldn’t see into the southeast bowl, which from my research was considered the best. With that we headed northeast along the ridge until it started to drop down along the saddle that connected us to the summit crags. From this point it became apparent that we had chosen wisely with this decision of our trip – there were multiple line/aspect options forming the southeast bowl. The south end of the bowl, where we were currently standing, actually had an amazing face that was quite tempting, but after some discussion we decided we needed to hit the money line, which dropped down from the saddle just below the crags. The real benefit of this line was that we would get in nearly 1,200’ of uninterrupted/treeless descent!

Making our way to the drop zone

Looking back toward the south end of SE bowl.
Some really good line options on that side as well.

Before dropping down the saddle we could see a boot path, so we figured someone must have made the same decision as us or was planning to summit. It wasn’t until we got down there that we discovered that they were tracks from a mountain goat. Looking up we actually spotted him standing on a small bench just down from the summit, looking out toward the east – pretty cool! Unfortunately, by the time I got my camera out and ready, he had left his perch.

It was now time to get down to business. Once we had transitioned over to descent mode we discussed our plan of attack. Since I wanted to take photos from both above and below I would go second, with Andrew going first and Rich third. For safety reasons we’d also be breaking up the descent in two parts, regrouping at a knoll about halfway down. Once I had my camera ready I gave Andrew the all clear. He dropped in, cutting in some beautiful lines on the way down. Once he reached the pit stop I strapped into my snowboard and painted some lines of my own, through a perfect layer of spring corn! As soon as I reached Andrew, I unstrapped from my board and grabbed my camera for some shots of Rich, who came down soon after with some nice lines and a big smile on his face – what a great first pitch!

Andrew drops in for the first lines of the day

Working his way down to the first pitch of the SE bowl

Rich drops in for his turn on the first pitch

For the second half of the descent, the route dropped down and around the knoll. Once again Andrew went first, followed shortly after by Rich. Once both were out of sight, I quickly strapped in and headed down myself, with the mellower slope offering up some really nice turns. At the bottom of the descent we regrouped, celebrated, and ate a quick snack before figuring out how the heck we were going to get back up to the ridge.

Andrew drops into the second pitch

The author partway down the second pitch
(photo by Rich Dana)

Based on the map it looked like the best way to get back up to the ridge and avoid boot packing was to traverse south until we reached the southeast ridge, which we’d use to make the ascent. Although we’d be side slope traversing with little elevation gain until we reached the ridge, we did have to do a few steep/short pitches, which weren't large enough to show up on the map. Of course the map also didn't indicate how corniced the SE ridge would be, which took us a little time and effort to find a safe passage up and onto.

Safely atop the SE ridge

Now at the SE ridge, we decided it would be best to stay off of it and instead continue traversing as it wrapped around to the base of the south bowl. It was on this section that we discovered how wet the snow had become from solar radiation, at least on this aspect. As our skis cut into the side of the hill, small wet sluffs would break off at our feet and slide slowly down the hill. At one point I actually witnessed a small loose/wet sluff break free on its own. Based on these new observations we decided against trying to get in another lap like we had planned.

More amazing views toward the south
(Broken Top, The Sisters and Mount Washington)

Reconnecting with the south bowl

With our new objective of getting back to the parking lot, we continued our traverse, finding shallower slope angles to reduce our avy exposure. Eventually we made it back to the southwest ridge and our ascent tracks. To avoid traveling back on the corniced section we had traveled up along, we dropped down the west side of the ridge, knowing that we would still be heading in the direction we needed to go. Since I am not the most skilled downhill skinner/skier, I struggled with the concept of four edges as we made our way down from the ridge. I intentionally kept my skins on to help keep my speed in check, although this did little to counter my lack of balance.

Following the breadcrumbs

Andrew takes in the view

Before long, the slope degree lessened and I was able to make much more efficient progress, especially with the wide and multiple line options that were a result of the charred forest. The sparse vegetation also allowed for really nice views of Mount Washington and Hoodoo, which we used to guide us in the general direction of the car. Once we hit the PCT, the ski and snowshoe tracks took over as our navigation tool, leading us back down to the Santiam Sno-Park, which for me couldn't come soon enough -- I was pretty spent at this point. Taking off your boots after a daylong tour is always wonderful and this time was no exception. After changing into our street clothes and throwing back a celebratory beer, Rich and I parted ways with Andrew as we each made our way back to our respective cities.

One of our final views of the tour

Three Fingered Jack definitely exceeded my expectations, with its quality terrain and amazing scenery. Blessed with beautiful alpine bowls on all aspects, there is plenty of terrain for multiple trips within a single season; heck, the views alone are worth a trip! Although the approach is nearly four miles, it travels through a burn area that makes it fairly painless, at least until you reach the corniced ridges. In hindsight and on future trips, I'd plan accordingly to avoid these sections of the ridge, even if it means adding a little bit of distance.

As for snow conditions, we were treated to a perfect layer of corn for the descent, at least up high. It did start to get a little slushy for the last few turns down low, but even then it still held an edge nicely. Unfortunately with the warm weather the corn window was very small and we weren't able to get in another lap, which is maybe a good thing since I was wiped by the time we got back to the car after just one. All in all it was a great tour and it was a great intro to spring skiing on one of the Cascades' many volcanic peaks and it certainly whet my appetite for what’s to come over the next few months.

The tracks from our tour:

Entire route

Route on Three Fingered Jack

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