Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Three Fingered Jack (OR) - Southwest Bowl

Three Fingered Jack (3FJ) is one of the few major volcanic peaks in the area that allows for a reasonable day tour during the winter/early-spring months, based on its modest approach of around 5 miles (one way). During our last tour to the southeast bowl we peered into the southwest bowl and were tempted by its steep clean face and long runout. Although we didn’t have the time to explore it on that day, I knew that I wanted to target that zone on a follow-up trip. That day would come just three weeks later, with a small crew of three – Iryna, Jill and me. Since Jill needed to get back to town by 5pm, we decided to get a very early start, meeting up in Springfield at 4:30am and carpooling from there. Unfortunately there was a bit of miscommunication about the exact meeting place, which would cause us to leave town about a half hour behind schedule. Luckily I was able to make up some time on the drive and we made it to Santiam Sno-Park at around 6:15am, when the sun was just rising above the horizon.

The author peers into the southwest bowl during a previous tour to the southeast bowl (trip report here)
(Photo by Ethan Stehley)

Learning from my previous experience, we decided on a route that avoided the southern ridge, which is heavily corniced and wind-sculpted and brought our progress to a crawl on my last two tours on 3FJ. Instead, we would parallel it down low on its western flank, entering through the bottom of the southwest bowl and bootpacking straight up its face. As with the other approach, the beginning of the tour sent us through a burn area that made for pretty easy skinning, with expansive sightlines that even gave us sporadic views of 3FJ in the distance. Eventually the skeleton forest gave way to live trees and our navigation slowed down slightly as a consequence.

Starting off the tour through the skeleton forest, with 3FJ in the background.

Getting closer

Looking back toward the south gives good views of Mount Washington and the Three Sisters

At around the 5-mile mark and three hours into our tour we entered the southwest bowl, which provided an amazing backdrop for the remainder of the ascent up its face. As part of the pre-trip planning, I had sketched out some possible lines / drop-in zones. Most of these, however, were taken out of contention due to the debris field that had been the result of previous ice fall and wet slides. Furthermore, the snow hadn’t warmed up very much and the summit crags looked like they would prevent it from doing so until later in the afternoon. The best looking line was actually in the far northern corner of the bowl, which was already getting sun blasted and had minimal debris to contend with. After a quick discussion and agreement, we set our sights on that as our target.

Entering the southwest bowl

Scouting out our line options

Since we were pretty sure the face of the bowl would still be pretty icy this early in the day, Iryna and I threw on our ski crampons, while Jill, who hadn’t brought any, traversed the bowl to find a good point from which to bootpack. Although the crampons certainly helped with traction while we traversed the bowl, we also ended up bootpacking from the same spot as Jill, since attempting to skin up the steep icy face would have been challenging even with the additional aid. Now carrying our skis on our packs, we kickstepped our way up the face, gaining another 300’ to the top of the ridge. The last hundred feet or so led us through a narrow band of stunted trees with a heavy coating of rime. From the ridge we headed up another 50’ or so to one of the lesser summits on 3FJ, which probably wouldn’t even be considered its pinky finger…

Hiking up the final pitch to one of 3FJ's lesser summits

Great views of Mount Jefferson from the lesser summit

Although the sun was shining, there was a strong breeze and the temps were fairly cold; enough so that I needed to pull out my down jacket and wind shell. It was also corniced and the only good spot to hangout was, well, not that good. After taking in the view and snapping off a few photos we headed back down to the base of the rimed forest and settled in, waiting for the sun to soften the snow into the sweet, sweet corn! We ended up waiting about a half hour, passing the time by telling stories and sharing some delicious treats that the gals had brought – I felt like a bit of a mooch but did promise I had some beers back at the car for a post tour celebration. Even though the snow didn’t soften as much as we would have liked, we were running against a time constraint and decided that we’d have to settle for what the current conditions offered us.

Waiting for the snow to soften

Since I wanted to get some shots of the others coming down, I hiked down a short distance to find somewhere that would provide a good backdrop. One at a time they dropped in, cutting in some nice turns as they descended. They both stopped about halfway down the main face and awaited my arrival, which happened with much less style then they had shown – hey, I’m still trying to figure out this whole dual plank thing…

Jill drops in for her first turns of the day

Enjoying the wide open bowl and views!

Iryna gives chase

Lots of descent to go

Doing my best to maintain form
(photo by Jill Stone)

For the second half of the run the gals decided to get in some party skiing, throwing in some sweet synchronized turns for good measure. As the main face gave way to the run-out, the slope angle lessened, which allowed me to tighten up my turns a bit and actually feel like I knew what I was doing. Of course, the cheers of encouragement didn’t hurt either. Although the bottom of the run turned a bit slushy it never got too soft, and even on the relatively flat section it was pretty easy to carve without digging in too deep.

Setting up for the next pitch

Party ski!

Keeping it synchronized

Closing in on the run-out zone

Now finished with the descent and not having enough time for another lap, we quickly looked at the map to determine the best way out. Instead of backtracking on our previous skin track, which would have required us to put our skins back on for at least the first bit, I suggested that we continue to skin down to the valley, which we could then follow in the general direction back to the sno-park. In hindsight, and to make a long story short, this ended up being a bad decision on my part, based on some unforeseen obstacles (hills, tight trees, etc.). Basically, the terrain wasn’t nearly as easy going as I had anticipated. In the end it took us almost a half hour longer to skin in than ski out, which unfortunately meant that Jill was not going to make it back to town like she had hoped to.

Enjoying the ski out, early on.

About halfway out

Parting shot of Three Fingered Jack

When we finally made it back to the car we were all pretty spent, which was not surprising after a 9+ hour tour. We did get to drink those cold well-earned beers, celebrating yet another rewarding tour, for which I was fortunate to have such a solid crew to help get me to the finish line!

I’m really glad I got to check this bowl off the list, which is one I’d been looking at for the last couple trips to Three Fingered Jack. I would say that the terrain is not as good as the southeast bowls and the approach is a bit more laborious. With that said, it’s certainly worth doing and adds to an already sweet backcountry ski destination. I would love to head back there during the heart of winter, with a foot or so of fresh snow and a little bit more time to get in a few laps, which may require some snow camping.

The tracks from our tour:

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